THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – WEST COAST EAGLES 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

There is a genuine sense of expectation around the West Coast Eagles heading into 2020. They believed they were around the mark in 2019, only to drop a game to Hawthorn late in the season, cost themselves the double chance, and fell to the Cats in week two of the finals.

It was an unceremonious dumping for a team many thought were poised to go all the way, or at least challenge the Tigers in September. Ultimately, they only had themselves to blame.

Andrew Gaff, Brad Sheppard and Nic Naitanui didn’t get the opportunity to make amends for missing out in 2018, and the hunger for the ultimate success would have to be burning at them more than ever.

Can the Eagles gather themselves and make a real tilt at the 2020 flag? Their recruiting seems to lend itself toward answering “yes!”

Let’s explore the 2020 West Coast Eagles with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE RECRUIT

Did you see David King going out on a limb and stating that Tim Kelly will be the recruit of the year this week?

Whoa… way to put yourself out there, David!

The thing is, it would be a disappointment if Tim Kelly WASN’T the recruit of the year this season, wouldn’t it? The bloke is coming off the kind of two-year stretch, from rookie to star, that seems to imply that he is ready to become one of the top handful of mids in the league, if he’s not already.

But is that the expectation internally at West Coast? Are they of the opinion that Kelly has another level to go to? And how does he fit in with a structure boasting some pretty decent players already?

At Geelong, Kelly worked in tandem with Patrick Dangerfield. In terms of high quality teammates, that’s about it. That is no slight on Joel Selwood – we saw this season that Selwood’s days of being a dominant midfield player were probably in the past, and the days of Gary Ablett controlling the centre square are long gone as well. Kelly was forced to run with Danger and carry a midfield containing Mitch Duncan and Cam Guthrie. He will have much better around him, as a collective, this season.

The biggest beneficiary of Kelly’s insertion into this West Coast team should be Andrew Gaff, who found himself in a role, particularly in the first half of 2019, where he was drawn too close to the contest and subsequently found himself without room to move too often. It was no surprise that Gaff didn’t make the AA team in 2019 despite having played more games and collected a higher rate of disposals than his 2018 AA year. Simply put, he was being played out of position.

Tim Kelly rectifies that.

With Kelly in the team, Gaff is released to play a possession or two off the action, where he can use that run and carry and have the time he did not have in 2019. Tim Kelly will win the footy – Andrew Gaff will use it the way we were used to seeing prior to last season.

So, what is the expectation on Kelly? How far can he go? Can he continue on the same trajectory of the past couple of years?

Look, I’d love to pump up the tyres here, but given he is joining a midfield with talent all around him, I could actually see his production dropping a little. Don’t panic – it’s not a bad thing.

The way Kelly fits into an existing midfield structure will be vital to the team in 2020. How he runs alongside the existing talent, and how quickly he is able to find his place in the team will dictate how effective he is. West Coast fans, would you be disappointed if you received the exact same version of Kelly that Geelong got in 2019? What about a ten percent watered-down version?

I think that’s what you may receive, and it’ll be that version of him that’ll allow those around him to feed as well.

There is no need for Tim Kelly to be the best midfielder in this particular team, but there is a need for him to be part of the best midfield in the competition. That’s the challenge at his feet heading into 2020 – to work with a quality set-up and help make them better.

It’s not as easy as it sounds, but then again, I suppose making the AFL and becoming a star at 23 probably wasn’t easy either, and he was able to do that as well as anyone I can remember.

 

THE DEFENSIVE PILLARS

Honestly, this entire section could apply to Shannon Hurn’s legs – they’re monstrous. And you know what? They started to show a little bit of wear and tear as the season dragged on – the Eagles’ former captain had a brilliant first half of the season and a very good second half – I reckon he’ll have to do it again if the Eagles are to contend.

There are pillars of strength everywhere in the West Coast defence, and each one brings something different to the table. Jeremy McGovern had his fourth-straight All-Australian season in 2019 as he overcame teams deliberately attempting to construct game plans to avoid his influence. His ability to read the play, zone off and disrupt was one of the factors everyone knew they had to avoid in order to succeed, but there is only so much you can do when the Eagles possess so much defensive fire power.

Brad Sheppard (who will never be called underrated again in this column) had a blinding year. Had he not been surrounded by the likes of Hurn and McGovern, we may very well be calling him All-Australian half back, Brad Sheppard. He finished equal tenth overall in our Mongrel of the Year voting, level with players like Brodie Grundy, Brad Crouch and Elliot Yeo. That’s how highly we rate him.

One player that people often underrate is Lewis Jetta. His ability to make that kick on the 45-degree angle is elite, and if you allow him the space to size up the opposition, he will carve you up from half back. As a matter of fact, he would be in the top handful of players in the league I’d want with the ball in his hands coming off half back. He takes the risk, and the risks reap the rewards better than anyone else in the game currently.

And then there is Tom Barrass. There were some hiccups late in the season from Barrass, and 2020 will have to be a season where he re-establishes his lockdown ability at the full back position. He had foot surgery late in 2019, which may impede his preseason, but the Eagles are confident he’ll be right for Round One.

And if he isn’t right, the Eagles have a handy replacement, in Will Schofield.

The West Coast defensive unit is a weapon. They have the ability to shape games, and did so over the past two seasons. As we head into the 2020 season, we are once again gearing up for a series of tests for the defence that will see teams construct entire game plans to nullify them.

It’s easier said than done.

McGovern is a footballer’s footballer. Hurn is a leader by nature if no longer in name, Sheppard is a tireless worker still hungry for glory, and Jetta is the class off half back that can tear teams to shreds. Who else slots in back there? Josh Rotham showed plenty of signs in 2019 and could make the next step. Maybe he becomes the final piece to a premiership defensive puzzle? Jackson Nelson slotted in nicely in the back half of 2019 as well

 

OH DARLING

Putting it out there – no forward is more important to any team than Jack Darling is to the West Coast Eagles.

Some may laugh that off, and some may scoff at the notion, but when Jack Darling is on, he commands the best defender in a team also boasting a two-time Coleman Medallist. That’s how important he is.

Some may choose to remember Darling for the lowlights of his career – the fumble early in the 2015 Grand Final, or the fumble late in the 2018 Grand Final, but watching him transform from being a bloke with potential to a genuine, consistent star of the competition has been a joy.

His 59 goals in 2019 came on the heels of 48 in 2018, and he was rewarded with his first All-Australian blazer last year. It should have been the year before, as he was arguably the best player in the game through the first ten rounds of 2018 before a cruel ankle injury sat him out for an extended period. Over those first ten games of 2018, Darling demonstrated that he was now a force to be reckoned with in the league. He was clunking marks and putting defenders to the sword.

Through the first nine games of 2018, he averaged over three contested marks per game – the overall leader in 2019 averaged 2.7 (Matt Taberner in nine games). If Darling can recapture that kind of form, the Eagles will shoot to the top of premiership betting – they’re not that far off it as it is.

So, what has helped Darling emerge as this dominant forward in a role that should have been secondary to Josh Kennedy?

Kennedy’s body is not the same as it once was, and though he still has the ability to be extremely serviceable, it is Darling at 27 who is now in his prime. He has grown into a man, and is as strong as anyone in the game. Watch him in one-on-one contests early in the season – no one moves him off the spot unless he wants to move. The boy has become a man, and the man has become a beast.

Darling should well and truly cement himself as the number one forward option for the Eagles in 2020, and 60 goals is quite an obtainable goal for him to aim for. If he and Josh Kennedy combine for 110 between them (very conservative – they had 108 in 2019), the Eagles are well on their way to booking dates for September.

There was a changing of the forward guard in the AFL last season. Jack Riewoldt moved aside for Tom Lynch, Lance Franklin moved aside because… well, he was hurt, and Jack Darling staked his claim as the number one man inside 50 for the West Coast Eagles.

He is the main man in attacking 50, and he is at his peak right now.

 

OPPORTUNITY

We’ll cover a bit more about the Willie Rioli situation below, but for the time being, let’s look at what opportunities his absence may offer to other players.

Jarrod Cameron got a taste of senior footy in 2019 and averaged 1.57 goals in the process. Whilst a lot more raw than Rioli, the results are hard to argue with. Cameron added four tackles per game to his 7.57 touches per game, but will need to offer more to become the permanent replacement in the team for Rioli.

If he is anything like his brother, Charlie, we could be seeing the emergence of another excellent forward option for the Eagles, who have quite the history of highly skilled, and highly effective small forwards. Phillip Matera, Mark LeCras, Liam Ryan, Willie Rioli… Jarrod Cameron?

The potential is there, and after his taste of the big time in 2019, and with his brother riding every bump, tackle and snapped goal like a kid in front of Saturday morning cartoons, you get the feeling that if there is a silver lining to the Rioli situation at all, it may be the elevation of Jarrod Cameron into a permanent small forward slot.

 

THE NEW LEADER

I’m not one to denounce the leadership of Shannon Hurn at all – he was wonderful as captain of the Eagles, and his influence was largely responsible for their stunning reversal of fortune over the last decade, but you get the feeling that the spiritual leader of the group is now the official captain.

I have banged on about my respect for Shuey and the way he applies himself late in games multiple times in these columns this off-season. His ability to put the team on his back in big moments, and carry them to victories provided many highlights over the course of the 2017-19 seasons. Shuey is a warrior – one who accepts whatever challenge the opposition throws at him, takes it on, beats it, and puts the team on his back in the process.

My favourite Shuey moment of 2019 saw him take the game over against Hawthorn in Round 15. 39 touches, 11 clearances, 11 inside 50s and nine tackles – Shuey was unstoppable, and I reckon it was the way his actions dictated the tempo, and what was required of his teammates that dragged his team over the line. If you can track down this game, have a watch of his last quarter – sit back and focus on what he does and how he goes about it. His game screams leadership, and when the Eagles were looking for a replacement for the leadership of Shannon Hurn, they sure as hell didn’t have far to look.

The captaincy is a wonderful cherry on top of a great career that still has plenty to offer for Shuey. Never an All-Australian, he has a medal that far outweighs a mock team of the year award. On the biggest day of the year, Shuey was at his best, and when people look back on his career, that is how they will remember him.

But look at me – writing as though all is said and done for Shuey. Tut tut, Mongrel…

Shuey is 29 years old. He is coming off a season where he collected career-high numbers in disposals, inside 50s and clearances. He has just enlisted one of the better players in the league for aid, and has the mantle of club captain to wear with pride as well. Another career-best season could see Shuey’s name enter the conversation as to who is the best Eagle of the modern (post 1990) era. Is that crazy?

How far would a couple of Norm Smith Medals go in convincing you?

 

THE LESSER LIGHTS

The Eagles must seem blessed to some teams.

Answer me this – where would you rate Jack Redden in the West Coast midfield pecking order? I’ll help you out – here are a few names and you tell me whether or not he is in front or behind them. Elliot Yeo. Tim Kelly. Luke Shuey. Dom Sheed. Andrew Gaff.

You can use your own system to rate them and let me know if you think I am wrong, but I have Jack Redden as the sixth best midfielder at the Eagles, and this is coming off a season where he collected the lazy 22.96 touches per game. Redden is like the Eagles’ midfield Mr Fix-It, and whilst in 2019 he dropped away in many statistical areas, he often found himself drifting across half back to provide some assistance to the Eagles’ defence or playing a negating role in the middle.

Redden is a player who will happily accept a job and stick to it – it served him well in the 2018 finals series when he was one of the best over September for the Eagles, and it will serve him well again as West Coast bring in Tim Kelly.

Really, that move should place Redden on thin ice, right? If someone is to be pushed out of the rotation, it’d be him, wouldn’t it?  I’m not so sure.

Redden will find a way – it’s what he does, and as the Eagles start their push toward September, I expect Redden to be right in the mix.

And the other bloke who gets little to no credit for his role on the team is Jamie Cripps. You’re gonna love this one – the Eagles were 9-1 in 2019 when Cripps kicked multiple goals. The only loss came against the Tigers in a see-sawing, brilliant game that was not decided until late in the fourth quarter.

When you talk about the West Coast forward set up, it is the names of Kennedy, Darling and Ryan that leap out at you. The power forwards and the highlight-reel small forward tend to take the vast majority of the media attention, but over the course of the last two years, Cripps has kicked 38 and 30 goals respectively. He doesn’t mind if the attention is lavished on the others if it means he can fly under the radar.

I suppose having a 9-1 record when you kick multiple goals kind of shines a light on something else as well, doesn’t it? The record of the Eagles when Cripps was held goalless last season was 2-6.

So, when talking about important players in the West Coast forward set up, the results speak for themselves. If you can shut down the unsung hero, you place huge pressure on those playing around them, and seemingly more often than not, they have trouble handling it.

Opposition coaches can send me an email for more helpful tips. Or Adam Simpson can send me cash to shut up.

 

THE BEST TWO-WAY PLAYER IN THE GAME

Geez, this is gonna be a long article – I could write about this bloke all day long.

I used to watch the wrestling when I was a kid – I still throw on some old stuff on youtube when I get the chance and relive some stuff I only read about in magazines that were three months behind the USA (times before the internet). I was always partial to the blokes who weren’t just all charisma, but those who were really able to work a great match as well. Guys like Ric Flair, Ricky Steamboat, Randy Savage… I used to love watching those guys because they did the fundamentals so well and paid attention to detail.

Then I loved basketball as well. Whilst everyone jumped all over Jordan, then Shaq and Kobe, then LeBron, I was always more a John Stockton, Tim Duncan kind of fan – again, they did the little things really, really well and the flashiness just wasn’t their thing (really wish Stockton got a ring).

And it is the same in footy at times – whilst I do love a screamer or a brilliant goal – who doesn’t, what I really love watching, particularly in the midfield, is when one bloke goes out there, works to find his own footy, and still manages to keep his opponent in his sights and limit his effectiveness.

I love taggers – they do a great job, but there is another level of accountability I love more – a star who gives a shit about the performance of his direct opponent. And no one gives more of a shit about his direct opponent than Elliot Yeo.

There is a degree of personal pride in the performance of Yeo on a weekly basis. It’s as though he takes his opponent winning a one-on-one battle against him as a personal affront. It looks like it actually pisses him off…

.. and I love that!

I love watching him at the next stoppage after his direct opponent gets a clearance. You can guaran-damn-tee he won’t get two in a row. Yeo won’t stand for it. I love when he takes off after his opponent; you can see the hunger to drag him down. It is palpable in each stride.

He is a team man who has been recognised by his club as the champion he is, and in 2019, others started to take notice as well. Garry Lyon proclaimed Yeo as the best player in the game at one point last season. Whilst I am not willing to go that far (yet), his two-way running and willingness to do the little things in a game to get his team over the line make him one of my favourite players to watch.

Mark your calendars – Round Six. It’s Friday Night Footy, and the Eagles host the Tigers. I remember what happened last time the Tigers ventured to play the Eagles in Western Australia. Come on Adam Simpson – send Yeo to Dusty and throw the challenge down at his feet. You know he’ll pick it up.

 

A FIT NIC NAT

If West Coast supporters could detail their best footy-related wet dreams, I reckon a fit Nic Naitanui would be a common theme in plenty of them.

Now go clean yourselves up… you’re all disgusting.

Seriously though, Nic Naitanui up and running at full fitness would afford the Eagles something they have been forced to live without for three straight years now – a dominant ruck.

What we have seen from Nic Nat has been in fits and starts. He still has the ability to move the whole pack forward with sheer strength and will. He still has the ability to leap over blokes the same size as him, and as he demonstrated several times, he still has the ability to punish anyone who thinks they can outrun him at ground level.

The man is a freak, but he is at a stage where things need to go completely right for him to be as effective as people know he can be.

We’ll get to that a little more below.

 

BACK IN THE TAGGING GAME? (HUTCHINGS)

Like it or not, the crown slipped off the head of Mark Hutchings in 2019.

Matt de Boer now holds the title of best tagger in the game after a brilliant season, but you’d be a fool to write of Mark Hutchings grabbing it back in 2020.

Hutchings was instrumental in the Eagles’ 2018 flag. He clearly had the number of Steele Sidebottom, and held him to his two lowest disposal tallies of the season in the two games he lined up on him. One of them was the Grand Final. In a game where one disposal, or one effective piece of play could have changed the outcome, Hutchings’ ability to completely take the Collingwood star out of the game has been undersold. He deserves more recognition for his efforts

In our West Coast Season in Review ebook (still on sale – cheap plug!) I was amazed at how many times Hutchings’ name came up in the West Coast games I covered. It seemed as though every game I wrote about the Eagles, I was lauding his accountability and complete refusal to allow his opponent any breathing room.

After taking the foot off the gas in 2019, perhaps it is time to unleash this unrelenting beast again in 2020?

It was interesting to see how Simpson deployed Hutchings in 2019. Restricted by injury last season, perhaps there was doubt he could run with the elite mids for the whole game? That said, I don’t think he added too much to the side overall unless he has a run-with role.

Can we see Hutchings have a career-renaissance in 2020? Or will players like Elliot Yeo or Jack Redden, working more defensively with the addition of Tim Kelly, render the role of the tagger somewhat obsolete on this team?

I have no question that Hutchings has great value. When his clamps go on, you can guarantee there is one opposition player that will have to earn every single touch he gets for the game. But is it worth sacrificing one of the key midfield roles for someone who averaged under 12 touches per game last season?

I think there is, and it’s up to Hutchings to prove it.

 

THE CHANGING OF THE GUARD?

I touched on Josh Kennedy in the Jack Darling section but I reckon the emerging situation with Oscar Allen deserves a little more attention.

The Eagles have been in the advantageous position of being able to nurse Allen through his AFL infancy. It is a situation teams like the Western Bulldogs were unable to do with Aaron Naughton, for instance as they did not possess a tandem of big forwards to carry the load.

Under the guidance of Kennedy and Darling, and with them commanding copious amounts of defensive attention, Allen has been given the dream run for an emerging forward to play as the third tall in a team stacked with top-tier forward talent.

After a debut season where he barely dipped a toe in the AFL waters, Allen played 21 games in 2019 and kicked just under a goal per game, bobbing up for multiple goals on four occasions.

I suppose the question is – how long does he remain third banana in this bunch?

Whilst Kennedy was able to play 22 games in 2019, he looked a little too proppy at times for my liking. As a man whose legs have well and truly deserted him, I know the look of a bloke who is struggling to get around the park a little, and I saw a bit of that in Kennedy in 2019. Look, it may have been that he was carrying an injury, or was pulling up sore, but that stuff, at age 32, doesn’t just miraculously get better.

Last year saw Kennedy average a healthy 2.23 goals per game – there would be players who would kill to average that kind of number, but it was a significant drop off from the Kennedy we’ve known, and that West Coast supporters have loved. That 2.23 goals per game came at the end of a five year run that saw JK average over three goals per game. The writing is on the wall here.

I don’t expect, or wish it on Josh Kennedy at all, but there may be points this season where the Darling-Allen combination is just as effective as the Kennedy-Darling duo. Once that starts happening, you know what comes next.

Kennedy is a star of the West Coast Eagles. 600-goal forwards do not grow on trees, but with Oscar Allen probably 12 months away from exploding, and Kennedy an unrestricted free agent after this season, I would not be surprised to see West Coast putting a bit more time into the young fella and preparing him for both the future, and the now.

 

THE STYLE TO BEAT THE TIGERS

It’s no secret – this is the Grand Final I want to see this season.

Screw it; let’s get rid of the finals series and have West Coast play Richmond in the best of five series for the flag – I’d be glued to the TV.

The contrast in these two teams is remarkable. It is the skill and precision or the Eagles against the manic pressure of the Tigers. Both are extremely effective game styles that suit the personnel down to the ground, and as we wait to see how it all plays out in 2020, there will be points where both of these sides look like the team to beat.

Do the Tigers have the style that can bring the Eagles undone? Yes, but that goes the other way as well. Richmond rely on teams taking them on with forward handball and short kicks – they almost dare you to do it. It takes a precise and efficient team to cut through that wave of maniacal Richmond pressure…

… but the Eagles are up for it. As a matter of fact, if things go their way, I believe they have the ability to carve the Tigers up.

We saw a glimpse of it late last year when the teams clashed in, arguably, the game of the season. The Eagles got the jump and looked like a million bucks. The Tigers reeled them in, and then the rain came down, permanently switching momentum to the side of the yellow and black.

These teams are the last two sides to hold the cup aloft. We deserve a clash between the best two teams of the last three years. I’d love to see it on the last day in September.

And I’ll love it in Round Six as a preview as well.

 

THE BAD

 

IT PUTS THE FOOT ON THE THROAT

I’m a little bit weird, and one of my favourite movie scenes of all time is from Silence of the Lambs, when your friend and mine, Jame Gumb has the woman trapped down the hole in his basement/dungeon and he is speaking to her.

“It rubs the lotion on its skin or else it gets the hose again”.

She is screaming, as you would when you know you’re basically at the mercy of a psycho.

“It puts the lotion in the basket…”

I love it. I used to quote it all the time to people – in the shops, in my sex dungeon… everywhere!

Anyway, the point of this was that Jame Gumb refused to see his victims as people. He treated them like objects so he wouldn’t feel any sympathy towards them, and whilst it didn’t quite work out for him (that damn pesky Clarice Starling and her buddy Hannibal Lecter screwing things up for him) there is no reason West Coast cannot treat their opponents like objects and show them absolutely no mercy in 2020.

The Eagles had two big wins in 2019 – they demolished a wayward Freo in the Derby by 15 goals, but the Dockers kicked 2.19, helping them greatly. The other one was against the Bulldogs – a 61 point win, but even then, the Eagles were 70+ points up with a few minutes to go and the Dogs kicked the last couple.

In 2020, there should be no occasion where the Eagles take their foot off the gas. They are good enough to bury teams, but rarely did it in 2019. They kicked two goals or less in the last quarter TEN TIMES last season. Simply put, that is nowhere near good enough.

Some of those performances were in wins, and others in losses, but with this team, and this kind of firepower, the Eagles need to do better.

No coasting in 2020.

And as if they needed any impetus, the Eagles missed a position in the top four last season on percentage.

“It puts the foot on the throat…”

Thanks Jame.

 

NIC NAT-UNCERTAIN-UI

Wow, that is possibly the worst title I have ever created. I’m both proud and ashamed simultaneously. Also excited, but that’s a story for another time.

Is there any question that Nic Naitanui is one of the biggest forces in the game when he is fit? Is there any question that he can swing the momentum of a game will a mix of athletic ability and willpower?

The answer to both is no, but there is a third question that needs to be answered, and this one isn’t as straight forward.

As the number one ruck at the Eagles, and with a backup combination of Tom Hickey and Nathan Vardy, can West Coast trust the body of Nic Nat to stand up to the rigours of an AFL season and be ready to go come finals time?

If we’re looking at the last four years as our indicators, the answer, sadly, is no.

So, what to do with Nic Nat? Time on the field is important but preserving him to be ready in September is paramount as well. The Eagles are in a situation where they are forced juggle what is required to be ready for the pointy end of the season, form-wise, with being physically ready and not about to break down.

Is there anyone who thinks the Eagles don’t make top four in 2019 with Nic Nat playing 20 games instead of five? Is there anyone who thinks West Coast may be in a similar position again if they don’t get the big man right this time around.

Guys, it came as a bit of a shock to me that Naitanui turns 30 this season. He still strikes me as a young buck, but with an entire season lost in 2017, and almost the whole season in 2019, we may have to start coming to terms with the fact that we have seen the best Nic Nat has to offer.

The upside is that ruckmen don’t get any smaller, and there is a spot in the side for someone like Naitanui who, injured or not, is a better option than either of the two behind him.

In 2020, one of the greatest advantages West Coast possesses could also turn out to be one of their downfalls. They need Naitanui on the park and they need him firing at the right time of the season. How they go about this is probably something that keeps Adam Simpson up at night.

Do they go for it and hope he is able to get through the season? Or do they start to nurse him early on, and hope that his body holds up later for a sustained run at the flag.

If you were running the Eagles, what would you do?

 

 

THE UGLY

 

THE WILLIE RIOLI SAGA (ROBBING US OF THE BEST 1-2 SMALL FORWARD PUNCH IN THE GAME)

Look, I could bang on about the Gatorade incident and what a stupid thing to do it was. I could write about how this affects a young man entering the prime of his footballing life, and what it means to his psyche.

Or I could be a pragmatist, and look at the way it impacts the West Coast team, and how that, in turn, hurts the fans. Yep, that’s what I’ll do.

A West Coast Eagles team without Willie Rioli is like a walking into a gourmet burger joint and being offered the vegan option. There’s something about it that’s just not right! You know immediately that something important is missing, and in this case, I don’t think there is anything that can be done about it.

To understand what the Eagles have lost in Rioli, you have to look at what he was able to provide in tandem with Liam Ryan. As a one-two small forward punch, was there any combination better in the game? Was there anyone capable of conjuring more highlights and plays out of nothing than those two combined? They were terror on four legs, with the intangible skills that often saw them in the right place, at the right time, and the ball falling to them whilst others around them guessed where it was going, and guessed wrong.

So highly did I rate Rioli, that prior to the 2019 season, I thought he could have given All-Australian a shake. Of course, a leg injury in the pre-season, and the subsequent time out of the game actively worked against that occurring. And now it looks as though we won’t be seeing him for quite a while.

It was great news that he returned to the club and started training last week. His Eagles family opened their arms and welcomed him back warmly, but there can be no question as to how much he has let them, and himself down.

Some hold out a faint hope that the penalty to Rioli will be lenient. I can’t see it happening, and I think those people might be trying to talk things into existence. Willie won’t be in a West Coast guernsey this coming season, and the game is worse off for it.

 

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