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Golden to hold 'em

Date

The Suns will pose a challenge for the Bombers.

Gold Coast's Dion Prestia.

Gold Coast's Dion Prestia. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo

The last time Gold Coast played Essendon in Melbourne, football fans received one of their earliest demonstrations that the AFL's insistence its expansion clubs would require patience was no idle claim.

The Suns had just won their first AFL match over Port Adelaide, but were brought back to earth with more than a thud, Essendon starting with a 15-goals-to-nothing opening term for an eventual 139-point smashing.

But when the same teams clash at the same venue on Saturday, the background will look different indeed.

The rising Suns.

The rising Suns.

Surely, there can be no doubt that Gold Coast is the surprise packet of 2013, standing 5-6, a legitimate finals chance, and its comeback win over North Melbourne last Saturday night, while stirring, wasn't even viewed as a complete shock.

The fact we're even contemplating Gold Coast as a potential finalist this deep into the season is remarkable enough given the disdain for its chances pre-season, and indeed the popular belief that even fledgling rival Greater Western Sydney might be further advanced.

Not so surprising to the Gold Coast brains trust, however, after a pre-season even analysts from other clubs conceded was impressive.

At a pre-season media function in Melbourne, coach Guy McKenna outlined the extent of the emphasis their pre-season had placed upon endurance and a better defensive game. The focus has paid off in spades.

Gold Coast has made big strides in most statistical categories, but none so impressively as in its defensive game and in its harder approach.

The Suns last year ranked a distant last on contested ball differentials (the amounts by which they were beaten in that area by opponents).

At the moment, they're sitting fourth in the competition, winning an average 7.3 more contested possessions a game than their opposition.

Last year, it sat last for tackles too, landing an average of nearly nine fewer than opponents.

In 2013, the ranking is seventh, and in the black.

When it comes to how it deals with opposition attacks, the results have been just as stunning.

Gold Coast last season allowed opponents a score 54.4 per cent of times its defensive 50 was penetrated, the second-worst record in the AFL.

Now the Suns are ranked third, behind Sydney and Adelaide, with that percentage having been reduced to 45.7.

And on an individual level, it hasn't all been about Gary Ablett. However outstanding the little master has been, he's had a ton more help in all areas.

Those defensive numbers have been helped in no small fashion by the stunning development of key defender Rory Thompson, who ranks No. 1 at the club for spoils, intercept marks and intercept possessions.

Trent McKenzie is another who's had plenty to do with it. Now settled across half-back, he's averaging a career-high 21 disposals and 13 uncontested possessions per game.

He leads the Gold Coast for effective long kicks, marks and rebound 50s.

And in midfield, much of Ablett's help is coming from Dion Prestia, particularly over the last month. In the last five games, he ranks second behind Ablett for disposals, contested and uncontested possessions, handball-receives and inside-50s. He's won more clearances than Ablett over that time.

It's all constituted a remarkable rise, and for rival AFL clubs, a pointer to what might be coming just a couple more years down the track.

As for Saturday night, Gold Coast might not even take the points against the Bombers, but you can at least have pretty sizeable odds on the Suns conceding a 15-goal first quarter again.

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