Last year – and if we’re being honest, the back half of 2021 as well – was, to paraphrase Paul Keating, ‘the crappy year we had to have’, and then this year was meant to be a return to normality. We were supposed to have used up all our bad injury luck in the past 18 months in order to have everyone fit and firing come the start of this season. We have a new gameplan, some promising young players, some veterans still young enough to make up for lost time… this year was supposed to be different. And in some ways, it is.
After an uneven performance in Round One which saw them go down to last season’s wooden spooners by five points, West Coast’s 2023 campaign was already being declared over. Garry Lyon used a segment of Fox Footy’s On the Couch program to single out some poor efforts and call the Eagles the ‘Rest Coast Eagles’ (get it, you replace the ‘W’ in West with ‘R’ and you get ‘Rest’), while most fans of the blue-and-gold looked ahead and viewed the next 22 games with an ever-more familiar sense of dread.
I am writing weeks after Round One, so you’re more than welcome to approach this with scepticism, but I thought that a lot of the negativity around the Eagles’ loss was a bit over the top. Admittedly, for about 45 minutes – from the start of the second quarter through to about the midway point of the third – there were a lot of similarities with the worst of the 2022 Eagles. But if that’s true, then the fight-back from 34 points down midway through the third to within a goal with a couple of minutes to go showed that this Eagles team was at least capable of reversing momentum. Indeed, if the match went for another five minutes, it’s not unreasonable to say that the Eagles could have come away with a victory.
There was, however, one area of the game where North Melbourne truly dominated West Coast – stoppages. North won the stoppage battle 31-14, with rising super-star Luke Davies-Uniacke almost single-handedly obliterating the Eagles midfield, winning seven stoppage clearances by himself (the most for any Eagle was two). Up against the Giants in round two, West Coast set about reversing this trend almost immediately. Tim Kelly, Luke Shuey and Dom Sheed were dominant from stoppages, combining for 12 of the Eagles 26, helping them turn a deficit of 14 in round one into a plus-eight advantage in round two.
Kelly’s performance was particularly impressive and probably ranked amongst the best two or three that he had delivered in Eagles colours to that point. He finished with 32 disposals, nine score involvements, five clearances, a goal and more than 500m gained, leading from the front in the wake of the criticism stemming from round one. He set the tone early, with a couple of breath-taking stoppage clearances that harkened back to the days of Chris Judd, imbuing the rest of the midfield with a level of confidence they haven’t displayed since mid-2020.
Oft-maligned forward Jake Waterman returned to the side and kicked four goals, while hard-working (and perennially underrated) half-forward Jamie Cripps chimed in with three in the Eagles’ 19-point victory, marking just the second time since round 19, 2021 that they had won at Optus Stadium (their only home win last season came against Essendon in round 15). An eight-goal to three second quarter showed that this team was capable of far better than anything they delivered last season and gave Eagles fans a hint of optimism for the immediate future.
And then, there was the derby.
Now, for those of you who are not from Western Australia, you probably have the wrong idea about the Western Derby. This could be my age bias speaking, but modern Western Derby’s seem to have really lost their sting since around 2008. They no longer have any of the ‘I despise them’ buzz that the pre- ‘08 versions have and do truly seem like just another game. In contrast to the Showdown, Western Derby’s rarely produce high-quality entertainment, and are more likely to be hum-drum affairs. Part of it might have to do with the fact that, aside from 2006 and 2015, the two WA sides are rarely good at the same time – Freo’s window of opportunity is just opening now, while West Coast’s has firmly shut – and part of it might have to do with the age bias mentioned above; I’m older (no longer a teenager) and the games don’t mean as much to me, and since my experience is universal, they don’t mean as much to everyone else! Seldom do Western Derby’s produce a true upset – the team with the best form coming into the game tends to take the chocolates – and though West Coast were coming off a victory and Freo had had an 0-2 start to the season, most punters not wanting to permanently part with their hard-earned were putting their money on the men in purple.
That Fremantle won the derby is, therefore, not too disappointing – they’re a better team than West Coast and should be winning. That they won by about seven goals is probably a fair representation of the difference between the two teams. But it was the way that the loss occurred – and more specifically the injury toll that largely caused the loss – that was so disheartening for Eagles fans.
The game started off really well. The first quarter promised an entertaining battle – five goals were kicked by both sides – with the match being played at a rollicking pace. Then, just 10 minutes into the second term, disaster struck for West Coast. The skipper, Luke Shuey, injured his hamstring and was immediately subbed out of the game. Just two minutes later, youngster Campbell Chesser was tackled awkwardly and hurt his knee. Though he would play out the remainder of the game (and run the furthest of anyone on the field) his injury ruled him out for at least the next six weeks. Only five more minutes of footy was played before the next shoe dropped – Jeremy McGovern had torn his hamstring off the bone and would miss the remainder of the game (and potentially the remainder of the season). To add insult to an ever-expanding injury list, the final minutes of the term found Alex Witherden courageously running back with the flight of the ball and coming off second best in a collision with Fremantle’s Jaegar O’Meara. Witherden’s resulting concussion saw him ruled out for the remainder of the game, as well as the following week.
For those of you playing at home, that’s four injuries – two soft-tissue, two collision-based – in the space of 20 minutes, leaving just two fit players on the bench for the second half. Clearly, the football gods looked at this situation, coupled with the Eagles’ 22-point deficit and thought, “we can do better than that”. By midway through the third quarter – a third quarter the Eagles were dominating with possession, if not on the scoreboard – an Alex Pearce tackle left Jamie Cripps with a broken ankle, and finally, with just over five minutes remaining in the term, Liam Ryan leapt high for a mark and returned to Earth with a torn hamstring. With a tick over 40 minutes of playing time remaining, West Coast trailed Freo by 22 points, had zero fit players on the bench, and must have been wondering who exactly had cast a hex upon the club.
Despite a brief flirtation with victory (a Jack Darling goal in the opening minutes of the final term cut the margin back to just two points), the injury toll would eventually prove too much, and the Eagles eventually succumbed to Fremantle by a margin of 41 points.
“On the bright side, West Coast have probably copped a season’s worth of injuries in the one game”, you say, optimistically. “Surely things can only get better, right?” Oh, you sweet, naïve dummy. The injuries were only just getting started. In the lead-up to their next game against Melbourne, the man expected to take the place of the injured McGovern – Harry Edwards – suffered a broken wrist from spoiling a ball at training, while at the captain’s run the day before the match, an errant elbow caught Dom Sheed in the throat and left him with a fractured larynx.
The game itself would go almost as scripted, with Melbourne victorious by 63 points, and Eagles supporters would wake up to the news that premiership captain Shannon Hurn would miss the following week (and an indeterminate number of weeks after that) with general soreness, while premiership defender Tom Cole would also miss several weeks after re-injuring his troublesome ankle.
But we’re not done just yet.
The last week and a half bought the injury predicament engulfing West Coast to a level bordering on ridiculous. Elliot Yeo sustained an adductor injury in the loss to 47-point loss to reigning premiers Geelong and is expected to miss the next month of football, Brady Hough and Noah Long have picked up niggles that will see them both miss at least a fortnight, while youngsters Hewett and Coby Burgiel sustained injuries in the WAFL that sees them sidelined for an indefinite period. All of these injuries, of course, are in addition to the general aches and pains that every AFL footballer plays with each week.
All told, West Coast had just 26 fit players to pick from this week and following the game – a 40-point loss to Port Adelaide – and a potential ankle injury to returning skipper Shuey, that could easily become just 24 or 25 next week.
And yet, despite all the doom and gloom about the injuries, I find myself feeling relatively impressed with the spirit on display. While the lack of availability bears similarities to last season, that’s where the similarities end. In each of the last three weeks, West Coast has been in a position where, if this were still 2022, the margin could and would have blown out up to and beyond 100 points. This year, they’re able to turn the momentum in their own favour and fight back, winning the second half battle against the Cats in round five and coming very close against Port in round six. These distinctions might seem silly, but they’re important when you’re a crap team.
Kelly has come into a rich vein of form; Oscar Allen has kicked multiple goals each week and is quicker than expected becoming the player all West Coast fans dream of him being. Waterman has had his best start to a season; Bailey Williams has battled manfully and is slowly growing into the role of lone ruckman. Jayden Hunt and Jamaine Jones have provided important run and speed on the outside and 18-year-old Reuben Ginbey looks like a genuine jet (though is surely due for a rest ASAP).
The spirit and resilience shown by the playing group over the last month has been impressive, but the bad news is that it’s a long season and all the spirit and resilience in the world matters little if you can’t win games.
Anyway, I hear this Harley Reid kid is pretty good.
You can buy Tim a coffee for the work he does by clicking the link below. I’m sure he’d greatly appreciate it.