Ethan Read celebrates a goal with his Gold Coast teammates against GWS in round four, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

DAMIEN Hardwick's selection upheaval at the weekend exposed a difficult tightrope the Gold Coast coach is walking in 2024.

Making a whopping seven changes to face Greater Western Sydney on Sunday, including three debutants, was certainly a statement.

In just the fourth game of his six-year contract, Hardwick has pushed most of his chips in on high-end talent – in the same year he and the club expect to play finals.

Although three of the changes – co-captain Jarrod Witts and Bailey Humphrey returning from injury and small forward Malcolm Rosas jnr back from suspension – were predictable, it was a dramatic selection that tipped out hundreds of games of experience.

Brandon Ellis, a week after playing his 250th game, was out, Levi Casboult (198 games) and Alex Sexton (169) likewise, and even former skipper David Swallow (224) was shuffled to the sub's role in a virtual eighth change. Ben Long and Rory Atkins were also omitted.

In their place came Sam Clohesy, Ethan Read and Will Graham to debut and 20-year-old Mac Andrew to play his first game of the year.


All after No.3 draft pick Jed Walter played his first match in Suns colours in round two.

Despite suffering a 28-point loss at Mount Barker there was an instant reward for Hardwick's bold call.

His team challenged the Giants, who are premiership favourites, for three-and-a-half quarters before a late fade-out.

While 2019 draftees Noah Anderson, Matt Rowell and Sam Flanders were all instrumental in the strong showing, it was the fresher faces that caught the eye.

Andrew's 16 intercept possessions were a club record. Clohesy's 22 disposals and one goal earned him 16.8 AFL Player Rating points, which was the second-highest rated debut game in Suns history. 

Mac Andrew in action during Gold Coast's clash against Greater Western Sydney in round four, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Graham was also terrific. He finished with 17 disposals and five clearances and only Anderson, Rowell and Touk Miller attended more centre bounces, so much trust did Hardwick have in him.

Ethan Read kicked a goal and set up another.

Ultimately, they lost, and this is where things get tricky.

Hardwick and the club's leadership were not shy in putting their finals expectations on the table prior to the season. Exposing so many players aged 21 and under is usually synonymous with rebuilding teams, but that's not the case here.

Hardwick sees playing the highly talented youth as best for both now and the future.

Damien Hardwick addresses his players during Gold Coast's clash against Greater Western Sydney in round four, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

He is a coach with a distinctive system that requires players with distinctive skill sets. 

The best kickers play at half-back. That's why Sexton was tried there and why Jack Lukosius and Flanders have been shuffled back in recent weeks.

The half-forwards have to be high pressure, high intensity terriers. Tom Berry has made a home there.

Ellis told during the pre-season that although Hardwick's gameplan would take time to learn, no player would ever be in doubt about their role.

“Everything I do on the field is in my control," Ellis said.

"Whether I play week in and week out is up to me, it’s not relying on stats or anything else.

Brandon Ellis handballs during Gold Coast's clash against Adelaide in round one, 2024. Picture: Getty Images

"I know going out there every week that if I do this, this and this, I’ll play the week after and it'll help us to win games. But if I don't, it's because I haven't adhered to what my role is. Everything is so clear."

That's why although Hardwick has opted to throw his talent in at the deep end, it's far from the end for his older players.

Ellis was struggling, Sexton hadn't quite nailed his chance and Swallow has been below his best. Casboult was battling to impact.

But it's unlikely so many players aged 21 and under can thrive for an entire season without a dip in form or requiring a rest at some stage. The Suns will need their squad and Hardwick will need to keep them all engaged.

The coach is learning about his players and vice versa, but for the time being, it looks like the odds are stacked in the favour of youth, and performances like Sunday's will ensure that remains the case.