Have I left the best til last? Hmmmm, maybe not, but the West Coast Eagles have certainly got a lot of intrigue about them as we edge closer to the 2022 season.
An ageing list of stars, a couple of seasons of underperforming, and preseason dramas have made West Coast one of the teams sure to draw fire in the coming weeks. Do they have one last run in them? Are they ready to spiral? Or will they end up somewhere in-between?
Over the last month and a bit, I have been slowly compiling questions relating to each team to include in our season previews. There were so many questions in need of answers. When I finally sat down and started the previews, it quickly became apparent these articles were going to be huge. There were simply too many things in need of addressing.
So, the way this is going to work is that the first five questions are available for free for each team, to whet your appetite and the next 10-15 are for our members.
So, it’s a ploy to get people to join the site?
Ummmm, yeah, kind of, but it is also about providing value for those who support what we do here and enjoy the content – those who are already onboard. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
I am aiming to compile the most comprehensive team previews out there, so if you like sinking your teeth into articles with a bit of meat on the bone, that’s what you’re getting here. No flippantly thrown together article with a stupid prediction at the end – I’ll leave that to those with restrictions on word counts and pressure to make space for gambling ads. We’re diving deep.
So, without further ado, here are The Big Questions regarding the Eagles in 2022.
WHAT DOES THE BRAD SHEPPARD RETIREMENT MEAN TO THIS CLUB?
I’ll start with a bad analogy.
Have you ever put together furniture that comes in a flat pack? Ikea… Fantastic Furniture… Super A-Mart… you lay out all the pieces and hopefully, they slot together well. Look, there might be a piece of dowel left over, or a screw that magically appeared somehow, but your table or bed is put together well enough that you’re happy.
And then you see this little bottle of glue. It was supposed to be squirted in there somewhere. You paw over the instructions and see it was supposed to be there to support some of the joints, but you have the big guns there – the screws, the nuts, the bolts… it’ll be okay.
Until it isn’t.
In a West Coast Eagles defence that has been star-studded over the years, Jeremy McGovern, Shannon Hurn, and Tom Barrass have been the nuts, bolts, and screws. They’re the ones that have been featured as the big defenders, taking on the biggest jobs, and rightly so.
But Brad Sheppard was the glue. He was the part of that defence that ensured things stayed solid and offered that little bit of extra stability. When the bed got a bit of a workout (bum chika wow wow) or the table had things piled onto it, it was that added steadiness that Sheppard offered that held it all together.
As we enter 2022, the Eagles are looking for someone else to be the glue of this team. As they assemble what they hope is an excellent defensive six, my hope is that they don’t get too bogged down in working out where the nuts, screws, and bolts go to the point they forget about the glue.
Things tend to fall apart eventually without it.
West Coast will miss Brad Sheppard more than they know. The league simply doesn’t have too many glue-guys – when you find one, you want to stick with them.
WHERE DOES OSCAR ALLEN FIT IN 2022?
He’s a key forward and it is time to stop screwing around with that.
Yes, Adam Simpson had his hands tied with a rash of injuries in 2021, forcing him to deploy his young star in the making across half-back. Yes, the Eagles still had the big duo of Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy to hold the fort inside 50, and yes, you can give Simpson a pass mark on that if you like, but the development of Allen should just about override any injury that occurs in the back half in 2022.
They’ve shifted him around to plug holes long enough – time for him to own a role, and if that means someone else has to be displaced for that to happen, then so be it.
Following the 2019 season, two of our esteemed writers were hotly debating the merits of Oscar Allen v Aaron Naughton. West Coast shunting Allen all over the park has put that debate on hold (Alex Docherty would say it is over!), but if handled properly, and given the space to work, Allen could make up for lost ground quickly. He has wonderful hands (in terms of marking… I’ve never had a massage from him) and is as athletic as any bigger man in the game right now. Taking a career-high 1.76 contested marks per game in 2021, if Allen can replicate that feat in the forward half, he will start to provide a consistent avenue to goal for the Eagles.
With the immediate future of Jack Darling cloudy at the time of writing, the importance of Oscar Allen to this Eagles team has been elevated. Already earmarked as their future forward target, they may require him to start being just that right now. Josh Kennedy has this year left in him and that’s it. If Darling is unable to play for longer than a couple of months, we are set to see whether Allen is ready to sink or swim at the deep end.
We’ve seen what he is capable of and there is a belief that he could be the next big thing in blue and gold. Time for him to prove it, and time for West Coast to give him to the opportunity to do it.
CAN BAILEY WILLIAMS FILL THE RUCK VOID?
Well, looking at the West Coast list, the club is placing a lot of faith in the 21-year-old to do the job.
West Coast have three players topping 200 centimetres on the list at the moment. Nic Naitanui, who players about 70-75% of game time Callum Jamieson who is 21 and has never played a senior game, and Harry Edwards, who is already working in defence.
That leaves Williams with an enormous amount of work to do when Nic Nat goes for his rests… and turning 32 with banged up knees, he will continue to require plenty of rests in 2022.
So, what can we expect from Williams? And are the expectations of the Eagles a little unfair on him at this stage of his career?
Williams has nine games to his name, with six coming in the 2021 season. Whilst serviceable, I doubt he would be many teams’ first choice as a backup ruck, but that is where he finds himself with the Eagles. Last year, he averaged under six touches per game and managed 8.3 hit outs. He is not going to come into the game and dominate the ruck position, and the West Coast midfield will have to make some pretty significant adjustments when Naitanui is resting.
If they don’t, they could possibly lose the game while Williams is in the ruck.
I read a book a couple of years back – very good fantasy read called The Lies Of Locke Lamora. The protagonist is not a great fighter, but his buddy is. At one point he is mixing it up with someone clearly better than him and is seconds away from being pummeled. All he has to do is hold on until his friend emerges to help him. He just has to hang on. He doesn’t have to win. He doesn’t have to land the knockout blow. He just has to restrict this clearly superior fighter until the cavalry arrives.
Nic Naitanui is the cavalry.
Bailey Williams is Locke Lamora.
When he is thrown into the ruck, forget winning the hit-outs or setting up some brilliant surge forward. Get Nic Nat his rest and just, for the love of god, hang on until help arrives.
WHAT DOES WILLIE RIOLI’S RETURN MEAN?
Well, for me it means that West Coast games take on a degree of fun, again.
Amid the controversy and suspension, people may have forgotten just how much fun it is to watch Willie Rioli play footy. He is gifted – that’s the best way I can describe it. He has been afforded the type of skills in the wet or dry, that any other player in the league would trade for in a heartbeat. He gathers the ball as though he has it on a string, sells candy, slots goals and if you take your eyes off him for a moment, he will either dip that shoulder right into you and knock the wind out of you, or take off like a shot and be gone before you know it.
I may be showing my age here, but he reminds me of the way Phil Krakouer used to play footy. Whilst I am sure Phil worked his backside off (at the time – he’s been in a great paddock, since), things just seemed so easy for him. His ball control was incredible and his agility off the charts – I see so much of him in Willie Rioli. It’s like turning the clock back.
Rioli’s one-two punch with Liam Ryan was one of the best things about watching West Coast games before the suspension. Both supremely talented, they offered a supporting role for the big forwards that was incredibly hard to combat. Do they just pick up where they left off a couple of years ago?
Whilst may have lamented West Coast’s fall from the lofty heights of 2018, the loss of the talent that Rioli provided this team cannot be replicated. It was like seeing the NBA players in Space Jam having their talent removed. West Coast had what made them that little bit harder to combat sent to the sidelines. And they suffered for it.
The road back for Willie Rioli has not been easy. He has had to endure many hiccups – several created by his own poor decisions – but on the verge of taking the field again for the Eagles, if nothing else comes of his return, we will at least be treated to one of the most natural-looking an gifted players in the game able to strut his stuff on the big stage again.
And not a moment too soon.
CAN ALEX WITHERDEN START TO FULFIL HIS POTENTIAL?
You’d want to hope so – he is the logical replacement for Shannon Hurn and the former captain has been dragging those tree trunks he calls legs around for 34 years. One of his calf muscles might explode one day… and the world will never be the same!
Witherden’s biggest asset is his disposal – a classy ball-user, he was being groomed as the rebounder for the Lions until… something went awry. I am not quite sure what it was, but he went from one of the brightest young defenders in the game to someone who couldn’t make the Lions’ team. I still narrow my eyes, Philip J Fry-style when I think about it. Something went wrong there – I want to know what it was.
Alas, he was moved to the Eagles and on paper, the trade was a big win for West Coast. Witherden was set to rock on in, learn from the master and take his place in the team. Only, it didn’t pan out that way, with Witherden suiting up for just nine games in 2021.
I like to give blokes 12 months at a new club to familiarise themselves with things. Ravelling all the way across the country, it is fair to assume that Witherden may have been out of sorts, but it makes this season the important one.
His 5.2 intercepts per game in 2021 were a career-high, so he was doing something right, but to truly make this move to the Eagles a winner, Witherden has to make one of the greatest players the club has seen redundant. He needs to play 20+ games and make Shannon Hurn feel as though the defence is in good hands as he wanders off into retirement.
Six or seven intercepts per game and seven rebound 50 disposals are the goals in 2022, whilst maintaining his excellent disposal efficiency.
And that’s it for non-members. The next 12 questions are for those members who support us. I want these to be the biggest season previews you’ll read and am determined to give value for money. Some sites will give you lip service about your team – I will be diving deep. The Mongrel does the work… always. Want to join us?