As the usual expert suspects begin to craft their excuses for not having the West Coast Eagles as their tip for the 2019 flag, there is an x-factor wearing blue and gold that may force them to reconsider their opinions.

Willie Rioli burst into the national consciousness in 2018, with a series of electrifying performances in his debut season, and a highlight reel that any small forward would be proud of. That he averaged fewer than 12 touches per game is something that would surprise many, but at almost 1.2 goals per game, his impact when he did touch the ball was undeniable.

But that was then. This is 2019, and pre-season form indicates that Rioli’s 2018 was just a tease for what’s to come.

Overweight and out of shape in the years prior to being drafted, which could explain his lowly #52 draft selection, Rioli worked himself into relative match fitness over the last couple of years. With another full pre-season under his belt, he is looking much fitter for the 2019 campaign. This alone should be enough to strike fear into the hearts of defenders, league-wide.

The mini-derby against Fremantle should be setting off alarm bells for the rest of the competition. In a virtuoso performance, Rioli collected 19 disposals, seven marks, five tackles and booted four goals.

Pretty good stats for a young fella in any game, but here’s a bit of context that might make it stand out a little more. Rioli’s AFL career-high for disposals is 16. His best for marks is six. His best effort in front of goals is three. This was a Rioli exhibition, in the same way his famous relatives used to tear teams apart.

In one fell swoop, and with the ball seemingly on a string at times, Willie Rioli has raised the bar for himself, and in doing so has made the West Coast Eagles all the more dangerous. Running on top of the ground, and with greater recovery after contested situations, Rioli was able to make the second and third efforts to stay involved in repeat contests, and make the ground to get to the next one. He has developed genuine AFL-level fitness… something he was able to get by without in 2018.

His cousin, Danielle Ponter, who plays for the Adelaide Crows in AFLW had no hesitation answering when asked which of the famous Rioli-Long clan was the best she’s seen.

It wasn’t Michael Long. It wasn’t Maurice Rioli. It wasn’t even Cyril.

Her answer was Willie Rioli.

It’s only an opinion, but it made me sit up and take notice – it’s not as though we’re talking about a family with members that are just a little bit okay at footy, is it? I mean, you could’ve forgiven her for being diplomatic and not wanting to upset others in the family with her answer. It would’ve been quite easy to have gone down the “oh, it’s too difficult to choose – they’re all so great” line, but she didn’t. Her answer was emphatic – Willie was the best. Just how good could this bloke be?

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I watched the JLT series intently, with a particular focus on Rioli. His ability to pick the spinning, bouncing ball up cleanly at ground level is as good as it gets. Once the ball hits his hands, it stays there – it’s like he has the ball as a prop in some sort of Aussie Rules magic trick. He steps through traffic like he’s made of flexible plastic, contorting one way, then another to avoid contact… all with the ball in hand, and eyes darting around for options.

He has a knack for making the difficult look nonchalant, and his ability to read the ball off a pack is as good as anyone in the league. The only player I’ve seen do what Rioli did against Fremantle often enough for it to stand out is Travis Varcoe over the past couple of seasons – he hits the ball hard off hands, takes it cleanly, doesn’t break stride and does something with it.

You can’t teach that stuff. You can either do it, or you can’t.

Some may think that JLT form is fool’s gold, and should be treated as such. After all, didn’t Jack Watts slot six goals in his first outing with Port Adelaide in last season’s JLT series? Then he went back to being the Jack Watts we knew and was dropped to the SANFL as a result. But would it be a mistake to wave off Rioli’s pre-season form as party tricks in a game that doesn’t matter?

I think it would be. A huge mistake, in fact.

What Rioli’s pre-season form is, is a warning shot across the nose of rival AFL clubs. In less than a week, he will start firing for real, with real targets in sight.

There is more to Rioli than just the freakish skills and sublime balance. There is alap a tiny bit of aggression – something that is almost coached out of players these days. I love that it still exists in Rioli. He doesn’t mind using his body to make room for himself, or a teammate. In both him and Liam Ryan, the Eagles have a tandem that can stalk their prey in the forward 50, and have opposition defenders looking over their shoulder when they’re around.

At times in late 2018, seeing Rioli running off half back became a little more common. His presence, and ability to use the ball well set the Eagles off and running on many occasions, and with an increased tank, could we see Willie play more minutes around the centre and half back in 2019? And what do you lose if you go down that path? You gave blokes like Ryan, Cripps and perhaps Petruccelle up forward to cover.

I could definitely see Rioli using that ability to read the play as a weapon as the Eagles exit their defence, and with his skill, leading to him would be a joy for the wide-ranging Jack Darling. The possibilities for Rioli in 2019 are endless.

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So, what can we realistically expect from Rioli in 2019? Where should his numbers be to indicate that he has made the step I believe he has in the off-season?

A leap from 11.33 touches per game to somewhere in the vicinity of 15-17 touches per game is completely achievable, especially if he gets the chance to motor away from half back or out in the wide open spaces of the wing at times. But it’ll be the scoreboard impact that will force people to acknowledge his improvement. If he is spending time across half forward, and has the green light to drift down to the feet of the Darling-Kennedy combination, we could see Willie top two goals per game, and as a forward, that starts putting your name in All-Australian contention.

We are blessed at the moment with good, young forwards entering the competition. Both Willie Rioli and Jack Higgins at Richmond have the ability to become the new breed that populate several All-Australian teams over the next 5-6 years. They may end up battling for the same spot on occasions, which would be a joy to watch from afar. Throw in Orazio Fantasia, Luke Breust, Robbie Gray and Jade Gresham, and you have a host of small to mid-sized forwards that could all be strongly considered for an AA berth when on-song.

The Rioli skill and innate ability to read the play are familial gifts that will seemingly not be wasted on Willie. They are family traits that whilst not unique to the Rioli family, are certainly prevalent in them. Like most things, it is hard work that turns those gifts bestowed into gifts for the entire team. Rioli learned that in 2018 as he worked into shape and became integral to the Eagles.

He is no baby in AFL terms. As other second year players are still teens, Rioli is now 22 years old. His body is that of a mature player, as opposed to a kid trying to stack on muscle. He is ready now, after years of not being ready.

It’s like the penny dropped for him last year and he realised that he belongs at the highest level in the game. And this year he cements that place.

The experts may have opted to look elsewhere for their success stories in 2019, but if Willie Rioli has anything to say about it, their eyes may just be turning west as the season evolves, and all eyes may be on the West Coast Eagles once again.


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