Suns adapting to challenging COVID-19 lockdown times

BORDER closures and lockdowns preventing community sport is something that has become familiar across the country, in particular the eastern seaboard of Australia the past 18 months. But unlike in the majority of situations where everyone within a specific team is impacted, the Gold Coast Suns Academy have been uniquely impacted, given their region stretches both sides of the Queensland-New South Wales border.

A perfect example of that is talented Northern Rivers High-Performance prospect Imogen Evans, who has not been able to play in the recent AFL Women’s Under 17s carnival for the Suns, and instead had to watch on despite being just across the New South Wales border. Her mother Cassandra Evans said it limited Imogen’s ability to remain involved in-person with her teammates.

“Due to the border closure between QLD and NSW, Imogen hasn’t been able to go to any training sessions or play any of the AFLW U17 Championship games which has been really disappointing for her and few other Northern Rivers academy players,” Evans said.

“The Female Pathways Academy Head Coach has been in contact with Imogen a couple of times to check in and see if she needs anything and there were a couple of academy Hub training sessions organised for the northern rivers kids. “On the whole I think the Academy are doing their best at a difficult time, and because the border situation keeps changing it is very hard to make a plan around training sessions as no-one knows how long the border will be closed.”

Suns’ Female Talent Academy head coach Sam Iles said it had definitely been “difficult” and whilst the Gold Coast region of the Suns’ squad had been relatively unscathed from a lockdown perspective (bar one in July), it had a severe impact across those players in senior competitions who had hoped to progress into the junior Championships.

“Junior footy was impacted (by the July lockdown), but the senior comps it had finished. So Imo had played her last game in the middle of June for Cooly (Coolangatta-Tweed),” Iles said. “Then obviously the unknown with our Queensland Under 19s program, we were meant to get a second game in July which obviously never happened. “She hasn’t played footy for nearly four months. “But some of the other girls played junior footy, then played in late August/early September before they were fully shut down.”

Iles said the Academy was keen to keep all the girls involved in whatever way they could, with the junior players able to play through August, before returning for the Under 17s carnival. Unfortunately for those on the wrong side of the border, there was little that anyone could do about getting them back into Queensland to represent the Academy. It made life difficult for the Academy coaches to try and judge what players would be able to do going forward.

“We tried to be as transparent as we could with the communication with the girls and their parents around what the program might look like,” Iles said. “Then with our North Queensland (NQ) girls as well being up in NQ, we were really reduced in terms of having numbers. “I think we only had 14 or 15 girls down here actually training, so we were impacted. “The girls over the border were impacted, and then the NQ girls.”

Iles said the older players in New South Wales were able to get a few training sessions in with the Under 15 Northern Rivers squad whilst a border bubble was in place, but then the onus became more on the individual player once that bubble closer. Iles said when possible Evans was able to complete one-on-one sessions with a development coach.

“One of our AFLW development coaches Matty Bedford has been doing a bit of work with her again, with what the government restrictions are, just with skills and running just to keep her topped up in case there was an opportunity for those girls to resume. Then also, as I said before Imo hasn’t played footy since mid-June, so to get her up and going I suppose in preparation for our 19s preseason which will kick off mid-November.”

Cassandra Evans said whilst she was pleased with what the Suns Academy had done, she was worried that the lack of football – in particular match days and representative action – would hold some players back heading into their AFL Women’s Draft eligible year. She added that the family may consider moving to another state in order to give Imogen the best possible chance at playing regular football without the uncertainty of lockdowns and border closures.

“It is unfortunately a real disadvantage for regional kids in this age group as they don’t get the same game experience and/or exposure and the onus on training and skills has landed largely on parents and the kids,” Evans said. “We have a great network of senior AFL players around us that have done some adhoc skills sessions with Imogen, plus we are also paying for additional skills and fitness training a couple of times a week.

“However with the absence of other team mates in the same position most of Imogen’s training has been one on one rather than a team environment and there has been no opportunity for any games which she is finding difficult. “With next year being her draft year and if the borders don’t change we are hoping that something can be arranged for the regional players to be able to train and play heading into the 2021 season which may include having to relocate to an applicable state.”

Whilst unable to have them out on the field, Iles said that a more recent decision to keep the players involved was a Zoom call ahead of the Gold Coast Suns’ second match against Brisbane Lions.

“We actually Zoomed the four girls that were over the border in for our team meeting prior to that second game against the Lions,” Iles said. “With everything that’s happened over the last few years, a lot of things have gone online as far as meetings go. “I think the girls took a lot out of that and I know the girls we had playing took a lot of that just seeing those girls, interacting with those girls on game day as well.”

Whilst undoubtedly it has been tough for the players missing out, many of those who did play in the recent Under 17 Championships, still had interruptions over the past couple of months, making life more challenging for the Academy coaching staff.

It has been difficult, but at the same time, we just had to be proactive but had to have a few plans in place in case anything comes up,” Iles said. “With our zone we go all the way up to Logan Motorway, and there had been some cases in and around Logan, and just south of Brissy. “That is in the Suns zone. “Sometimes we haven’t had kids down here for training because they’ve been locked down in areas up in Brisbane. “So again we just manipulate our training programs, and again just constant communication with the kids and their parents. “When they’re here, there’s safety and they have to abide by what the government restrictions are, and also with it being an AFLW club, we’ve been limited with at times with who we can have in and around our facility as well.”

A couple of Northern Territory players – J’Noemi Anderson and Annabel Kievit – also filled in for the Suns Academy in the first game of the Queensland AFLW Under 17 Championships as replacements for those Northern Rivers girls who missed out. Iles said the coaching staff not only had to physically replace players, but also keep the positivity high amongst a group that at times were missing their friends and teammates.

“Training, there’s been difficulties with numbers, but you just adapt and make sure the girls are upbeat, and the enthusiasm and the energy are there,” Iles said. “Obviously they take a hit when some of their friends aren’t there playing and training with them, but we just have to try and put that aside, and develop the girls who are able to train, but then keep the communication and development up with the girls who can’t actually be here.”

From here, Iles said the goal was to be able to work out the preseason with Evans and the other Northern Rivers players, as to how best to attack the preseason heading into 2022. Whilst there is still unknowns about the future of training between states, Iles is hopeful the players will be allowed back sooner rather than later, and if not, there would be plans in place.

“The plan is to sit down with Imo and the other NSW girls throughout October and go through a development plan, and again whether that is being in person or via Zoom, just leading into their preseason, a few of them going into their draft year is pretty important,” Iles said. “But to set a development program for those girls in place later October, with preseason looking like it will start mid-November, and again if the girls still can’t get over the border, we’ll set some programs in those regions in place for running until they can come up.”

Picture credit: Russell Freeman / AFL Photos

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