2020 was a tough season to endure for the West Coast Eagles.
Shooting themselves in the foot early in the season, the Eagles trekked to the Gold Coast to meander through the first hub. They emerged with a less-than-convincing record, with wins over the lowly Crows and Swans bolstering what was a very poor period of football
The Eagles would then head home and spread their wings. So good were they during their homestand that people began talking about the likelihood of a return to glory for the team. The premiership was back on the agenda, and with the potential of the decider being played in Perth at that stage, West Coast started to play like a team with the utmost confidence in their abilities.
Victories over Fremantle, Collingwood, Geelong, Carlton, Hawthorn and GWS saw the Eagles enjoy an eight-game win streak before they fell to the eventual premiers. Of course, this loss happened once they were back on the road.
The Eagles’ season ended with a finals loss that many thought was a win waiting to happen, falling to the Pies on home soil. Their season ended in a manner it probably deserved. Yes, injuries hurt the team late in the season, with Elliot Yeo unable to make it back and both Luke Shuey and Jack Redden limping into the finals. However, they were disappointing against Collingwood after being less than impressive for all but their win-streak in 2020.
It was another season down the drain. Another missed opportunity. And opportunities eventually stop presenting.
Looking forward, does 2021 represent the last chance for the current incarnation of the West Coast Eagles to secure a second premiership and fulfill the potential they’ve shown for the last three seasons?
Whilst I am sure that any team would take one premiership at any point in the last five years, this West Coast side has arguably had the best list to choose from during this period. With stars on every line, you cannot help but feel they’ve underachieved with just one flag to show for it. In many ways, Richmond has achieved the outcome that West Coast should have. If we’re looking at lists top to bottom, West Coast has had more than enough to match it with Richmond.
Yet, they have not.
In their defence, they haven’t really had the chance in a finals showdown. On the other hand, it has been Richmond there waiting – the Eagles have just failed to make the appointment.
The upcoming season will see the 28+ brigade of the Eagles expand to include names such as Naitanui, Hurn, McGovern, Shuey, Redden, Sheppard, Kennedy, Darling, Cripps and Gaff before the start of the season, with Elliot Yeo knocking on the door by season’s end.
The ten players at 28+ are locks for the best-22 of the 2021 West Coast team right now. And they are ten players that either will not be there, or will be in decline within the next couple of years. Some may not want to admit it and others will rail against the premise, but of all teams in the league, this West Coast team needs a premiership the most. If not, they will have wasted the last three years of an incredible list.
The issue, as happens at many successful clubs, is that in order to give this unit a chance to secure the flag, the Eagles have not been able to bolster the department of youth to the point where they’ll remain a contender beyond 2022. They have sold a portion of the future to secure a run at the flag in the present.
Whilst we all rate players like Liam Ryan, Liam Duggan and Oscar Allen, the young players around them have either failed to excel to the level that will see them as capable of being game-changing players in the league, have been injured, or are sitting out awaiting verdicts from a painfully slow drugs in sport organisation.
By the time 2022 rolls around, West Coast may be facing the daunting prospect of facing the AFL season without the services of at least Shannon Hurn and Josh Kennedy. Whilst the emergence of Oscar Allen as a solid third forward over the last couple of years should see him slot in as a nice one-two punch with Jack Darling, and the recruitment of Alex Witherden looks to be the move that will ease the pain of losing Hurn, it is the long term plan that has me worried.
Who replaces Luke Shuey? Where is the replacement for Nic Nat? Who is the heir apparent to the dominant McGovern?
The lack of talent to slot in and take the place of these guns is troubling, but easily forgiven with a premiership to keep West Coast supporters warm at night. The glow of 2018, however spectacular at the time, is just starting to dim a little in the rear vision mirror.
I have often found that it is usually organic improvement from an unlikely source that pushes a team to the next level. Whilst big-name recruits are great, it is the players in the middle bracket in terms of importance, that go from being good to very good that causes a team to lift as a whole. With the Eagles’ list starting to age, let’s have a look at those already there, aged 24 and under, that could slot in and replace the current generation of stars
OSCAR ALLEN. Likely replacing Josh Kennedy.
We covered this briefly above, but Allen has a great pair of hands and has thrived in the third tall forward role, also able to bob up and pinch-hit in the ruck. Currently drawing the third-best defender, but the heat will be turned up once JK rides off into the sunset.
Luckily, from what we’ve experienced, Allen has the capacity to rise to the occasion and if there is a sure thing amongst this group, he’d be it.
LIAM DUGGAN. Likely replacing Luke Shuey.
Duggan has cut his teeth playing half-back and may be required to do so for another year or so before an opportunity opens up for him. The West Coast midfield, when healthy, is formidable, but nothing lasts forever and Duggan will be well-placed to slot into a midfield role once Shuey moves on.
I’ve liked what I’ve seen when Duggan has shifted into the middle over the last 12 months and you can see him, Tim Kelly and Dom Sheed as the backbone of the emerging midfield as of 2022-23.
ALEX WITHERDEN. Likely replacing Shannon Hurn.
It’s bloody hard to replace someone who has been so solid for so long. A premiership captain and two-time All-Australian, Hurn has embodied the businesslike nature of the West Coast defence, but Witherden can embody the new breed.
Able to intercept and good by foot, you’d love to see him equipped with Hurn’s leg-cannon, but the former Lion can continue to develop. At just 23, he has plenty of footy in front of him.
LIAM RYAN. Likely replacing… no one. He has this spot for the next 6-7 years.
You don’t need me to sing his praises.
Already a fixture in the West Coast forward line, the 2020 All-Australian forward is an absolute weapon, with teh aerial skills to match his opportunism and playmaking abilities. He replaces no one simply because he is already entrenched in his role and will remain one of the most important pieces of the West Coast puzzle for years to come.
TOM COLE. Likely replacing Brad Sheppard.
Like Sheppard, Cole has flown under the radar through his first 56 games, but continues to improve and has developed into a handy lockdown defender.
Whilst Sheppard has a few years left yet, Cole’s development will give the Eagles flexibility in defence until he is ready to step into a larger role in Sheppard’s absence.
JARROD CAMERON. Likely to replace Jamie Cripps
Different players, but Cameron, if he is anything like his big brother, should force his way into this side at some point. He is probably not going to nudge Liam Ryan out of his role, and I expect Zac Langdon to make this team based on his forward pressure.
That leaves Jamie Cripps.
Cripps is incredibly handy when he is up and running, and if he returns to 2018/19 form he becomes indispensable, but looking forward, Cameron seems to have a genuine x-factor about him. He is still raw and really slight, however, if he can get on the end of some ground balls inside 50, we could see him displace Cripps as a forward option.
JAKE WATERMAN. Likely replacing Jamie Cripps
I’m not picking on Cripps, I swear – the Eagles could either go mid-size or small to eventually replace him.
A hybrid forward, some believe he could easily be the man to slot in for Josh Kennedy, but I prefer him more as a floating half-forward. Good overhead and explosive on the deck, Waterman has had moments where you watch him play and nod your head in approval.
At 22 years of age, Waterman plays as the fourth or fifth option in the West Coast forward line – like the garbage man, collecting the scraps that others leave behind, but the ability is there and all that seems to be missing is the real opportunity now.
JARROD BRANDER. Likely replacing either Oscar Allen as third forward, or Jeremy McGovern as a defender.
I’m not sure he has found his position yet. The Eagles have tried him in a few roles, but after just 11 games, Brander remains a man without a designated role.
I watched him play on the wing a bit in 2020 and he didn’t look settled.
How Brander plays in 2020, and where he plays for that matter, will determine a bit about this West Coast team going forward. Can he slide on in to be the third forward once Josh Kennedy hangs the boots up? Or will he find a home in defence with an eye to playing the key intercept role and heir apparent to Jeremy McGovern?
He is a first-round pick from 2017. It’s time to start delivering.
JACK PETRUCCELLE. Likely replacing… no one, the way he’s been playing
The knives were out for Jaidyn Stephenson in the East in 2020 and they should have been out for Petruccelle in the West as well. (Were they?)
Went tumbling backward in terms of development, with teams working out what he liked to do and working diligently to prevent it from happening. Needs to be more than just a one-trick pony to remain part of this West Coast team. If he doesn’t, he won’t be replacing anyone.
JOSH ROTHAM. Likely replacing Jeremy McGovern
A massive ask, but I have definitely liked what I have seen from Rotham. He is committed to the task and at just 22 years old, has plenty of time to develop. Of course, no one expects him to, or anyone, to control the air the way Gov does, but given the way the four-time All-Australian’s body tends to gravitate more toward… errrr, non-complete fitness rather than elite fitness, if we’re banking on him being around longer than two-to-three years, I think we’re being a little too optimistic.
There is a bit of muscle to put on, but a contest-killing defender could be just as handy as a marking machine over the journey.
Who am I kidding? It’ll be a downgrade, but just about anyone will be a downgrade from the bloke they have there right now.
BAILEY WILLIAMS. Likely replacing Nic Naitanui
There is a lot of hope attached to Williams, and for good reason.
We need an expert in this kind of thing, and so I am channeling the spirit of Boromir from Lord of the Rings…
“One does not simply… replace Nic Naitanui.”
Thanks Boromir… watch out for the really big orc. He’s a decent shot with an arrow.
I think the Eagles, at some point over the next year or so, will have to recruit a very good young ruck. Williams might be okay, but does he have what it takes to be the eventual number one big man? At the moment, Nathan Vardy has first dibs on the role but I don’t know anyone that has complete faith in him to hold down the role. Besides, he is 29 years old as well, with a litany of injuries in his past.
I see Williams as a prospect, but little else, sadly.
JACKSON NELSON. Likely replacing Brad Sheppard
I know I have Tom Cole replacing Sheppard above – no need to let me know.
The thing is, these are possibilities; that’s all. And it is possible that either Cole in an upgraded role, or the dogged Nelson has been earmarked as the person to slot into the Sheppard role once father time starts a-knocking.
Nelson is a go-er and though he may lack a little in the skills department, his attack on the contest and willingness to throw himself in harm’s way will see him grow as a player over the next couple of years.
BRAYDEN AINSWORTH. Likely replacing Mark Hutchings
Has been handy in a defensive midfield role when given the opportunity and with Mark Hutchings at 29 years old and missing plenty of time over the past couple of seasons, may need to be fast-tracked into being the number one stopper on this team.
I am a believer that teams should have at least one reliable run-with player and at 22, Ainsworth could be that man for the Eagles.
The Eagles have their work cut out. Their best is still really, really good and I believe they are one of the few teams that can actually match it against the Tigers when they’re up and running. They have a highly-skilled, star-laden team with the experience to win the flag.
But they have to do it this season. Once one domino starts falling, the others will start to topple. Kennedy and Hurn, then Shuey, McGovern, Redden and Naitanui will start to decline and those left behind will have to find a way to compensate.
Can the Eagles make one last stand in 2021? Can they give the flag one last shake before this era passes us by?
Or will they start to replace those at the top of the West Coast tree with fruit that is simply not ripe enough?
2021 has a lot riding on it for many teams. Richmond are looking at the prospect of the three-peat and establishing themselves as the greatest team of the modern era. Geelong have gone all-in with the recruitment of seasoned players to get them over the hump. And the West Coast Eagles are backing their list in for one last shot at glory.
In a season that could go awry at any moment, West Coast needs to make every post a winner. For this team, there may not be a next year.
I’ve left Daniel Venables out of the equation on purpose here. Same with Willie. They may still be options at some point, but right now I am concentrating on blokes who will be out there early this season.
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