As the West Coast Eagles prepare for a season of redemption, all the news coming out of Mineral Resources Park had been positive.
Jeremy McGovern was in career-best shape, they said. Elliot Yeo was up and about, moving well and looking to have put Osteitis Pubis behind him, and Oscar Allen was ready to resume where he left off in 2021, after missing the entirety of the 2022 season.
The club was not only getting time into their 2022 draft picks, but were also looking forward to getting their 2021 top pick, Campbell Chesser out on the park after injury derailed his rookie campaign.
Things were going a little too well, weren’t they? It’s as though Eagles fans were waiting for the bomb to drop.
With what was described as a “scream in pain” (which is fortunate they gave us such vivid detail, as we didn’t want to mistake it for a scream in pleasure), Jack Darling had his ankle caught awkwardly in a tackle from Jeremy McGovern during match simulation, and just like that, the Eagles’ preseason of redemption took a huge blow.
What does it mean to the club to have their main avenue to goal sidelined just over a month out from the start of the season? And if the diagnosis is not great, how do they fill that hole?
Well, luckily, that’s what your old pal, The Mongrel is here to look at.
Firstly, we have to have a look at what Darling has the capacity to provide the Eagles in 2023. A fully healthy version still has the potential to be in the top handful of forwards in the game. Despite many opting to focus on his butterfingers at times, Darling remains a strong contested-marking player. With a full preseason behind him, and the responsibility of holding down the number one forward spot in the wake of Josh Kennedy’s retirement, Darling could have been something like the powerhouse player we last really saw at the start of the 2018 season.
Remember that player? I am sure you do. He was unstoppable.
At Round 10 of that season, Darling was arguably the best player in the competition, averaging 2.8 goals per game and three contested marks. For context, the 2022 Coleman Medallist, Charlie Curnow, averaged 2.91 goals per game, and the leader in contested marks, Tom Lynch, averaged 3.26 per game. Darling’s numbers would have been good enough to slot him into second place in both categories.
And what brought him back to the field in 2018?
You guessed it… the old ankle injury. It kept him sidelined for six weeks.
I remember seeing that ankle roll – the words “screamed in pain” leap to mind when thinking about it, as well. Though the Eagles were a vastly different team in 2018, the impact on the side was significant, with the Eagles dropping three straight games after their bye. Love him or not, Darling gives the Eagles a weapon either as the get-out-of-jail target around half-forward, or as a strong marking presence inside 50.
His loss, whatever the duration, hurts.
So, let’s cover the worst-case scenario – that’s always fun, right? And it is the one people worry about.
Syndesmosis… which I always misspell and have to look up. aaaand, yep… cocked it up again. You wouldn’t know unless I told ya, but I am honest like that.
Assuming Darling has done damage to that frustrating little joint, he could spend a couple of months getting it right. Meaning the Eagles will be without him for the start of the season, and possibly the first month.
How does that play out?
Immediately, the focus shifts to Oscar Allen, who was looking as though he was going to be permitted to ease into the number two forward slot behind Darling. He becomes THE focal point, with a heap of pressure on him to perform, immediately.
You know what they say about pressure, right? It creates diamonds.
Most of us here at The Mongrel Punt have been big Oscar Allen fans… except maybe Alex Docherty, who has always believed that Aaron Naughton is the superior player. This season, whether Darling is healthy or not, is the year Oscar must start delivering. The potential has been there – we all saw it back in 2020/21. His time is now – it has to be if Darling is unable to take his place in the side to start the year.
Allen sowed very encouraging signs in the match sim, kicking four first-half goals and marked strongly. Seeing him out there and moving freely would have Eagles fans breathing a sigh of relief.
But other than him, who fills the void as the number two option?
There is an argument to be made that Jake Waterman has been a good second or third option that has never really had an extended run to own that role. At 24 years of age and entering season six in the system, Waterman should be absolutely cherry ripe to seize this opportunity and make a name for himself as a viable option up forward.
What’s that, you say – he has already done that?
Nah, not really.
When I look at players that have been able to put their stamp on a position in the forward line, I look for standout performances that announce “I’m here and I am not going anywhere, so get used to it.” Whilst Waterman has had moments where he has put his hand up, his hand has either gone down over the next quarter or so, or been held down by an opponent that refuses to allow that particular game to be the one that Waterman breaks out.
His best return remains three goals in a game, but when you consider he has never been viewed as anything but the fourth-best option (behind Kennedy, Darling, and Allen), that’s not so bad. However, it is also not the type of number that makes you jump on Twitter to praise him as the answer to the questions about the Eagles’ forward line, is it?
Like Allen, sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity and a healthy share of responsibility to elevate their game. Waterman will get that in 2023, with or without Darling to play off.
Whilst the hope is that Darling’s ankle injury results in a week off the track and a bit of swimming to rehab before he can start getting back into it, pondering whether a duo of Allen and Waterman can hold down the key positions is enough to worry me.
With one bloke coming back from extended injury and another being asked to step up his game several notches, the absence of Darling exposes a serious lack of key position depth for the Eagles – one that is going to be tough to overcome with the current contingent of options.
Perhaps Bailey Williams can continue to grow into the ruck/forward role? Do Jamie Cripps and Liam Ryan combine for a big start to the year to offset the possible absence of Darling?
They’re not scenarios that fill me with hope, but they’re also not beyond the realms of possibility, either.
As the team looks to bounce back after a deplorable 2022 season, the doomsayers are already putting a line through them.
They did that in 2018, as well. Just sayin’.
Nobody expects a West Coast team to contend in 2023. What is expected is that the younger brigade lean on the elder statesmen early on until they find their feet. At 24 and 23 respectively, Waterman and Allen are no longer AFL babies. They need t be ready to shoulder the large responsibilities of being key AFL forwards.
If they’re able to do that until Darling is right to go, and do just that even if Darling is fit and right to go for Round One, the Eagles’ rebuild on the fly may just start to pay dividends way before people expect it to.
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