Gather Round – Sydney v West Coast


With both teams coming off disappointing losses, this match shaped as one to reveal the character of both sides.

West Coast were left with questions to ask the mirror after taking a 76-point loss to the Bulldogs, while Sydney finished strong against the Tigers, but ultimately fell short in a match that many would have expected them to win.

Even with those results, and as part of Gather Round, the hype centred on both teams showing more than they had the week before, with Sydney looking for a percentage booster, and a chance to see the chosen one Harley Reid in action if you are an Eagles fan.

The Mt Barker ground was packed with almost 10,000 fans, with most sporting red and white (or at least that’s the way it looked on camera). The West Coast supporters who made the trip won’t be completely let down though. Even though they went down to a clinical Sydney squad, they managed to get within five goals of their opponent—a feat that North Melbourne and Essendon wish they could have matched in their games.

The Eagles showed quite a bit in the match though, with Duggan and Yeo putting in an extraordinary effort to keep their team within touch of the Swans.

Sydney, however, was just too much for the Eagles at this point in their development. Too well-drilled, too battle-hardened, too calm and ultimately, too good.

It might be a bit repetitive to say to Eagles fans, but the win was in the development of their younger players. It can be a bitter medicine as the losses stack up (believe me, as a North member, I understand), and it’s true that things will get worse before they get better—but looking at their young talent, it will get better.


Ins and outs

With Rampe out with hamstring soreness after last week’s match (and let’s not cast aspersions on that, in light of recent conjecture and comments about protecting players from drug testing) added to the likes of Mills, Parker and Reid missing from their best 22, Sydney were a little below their full strength, though they did welcome Adams and Cunningham back into their squad after knee and concussion issues respectively.

They could probably claim to be at about 95% of their full strength.

Pity would be in short supply from the other change rooms however, with West Coast once again going into a match without players that would walk into their gameday squad. Brockman dropped out of the side with a concussion from the previous week, which was especially disappointing after taking a magnificent hanger in the match.

He joins Oscar Allen, Rhett Bazzo, Matt Flynn, Liam Ryan and Elijah Hewitt on the sidelines for West Coast from their best 22.

But, from adversity comes opportunity, and in came small forward Loch Rawlinson for his debut (albeit as the sub) and tall defender Josh Rotham to try and cement a spot in the outfit.


The start

The game started with Heeney winning a free from Harley Reid, which was a little bit of a deflator, as it allowed Sydney to instantly move into attack with a breeze at their back.

West Coast have been fairly solid starters in their games this year, managing to contain opponents fairly well while their young legs last. It’s been the latter stages of the game that have seen them lose in blowouts, so this week’s effort was a welcome change.

Sydney could have probably been a little more ruthless early on, with forward logan McDonald opening the scoring for his side in an opportunistic kick from a scrambling West Coast defence that probably should have killed the ball from the marking contest, but that’s the advantage of getting it into the forward line quickly.

While Sydney peppered the goals, West Coast managed to cautious ball movement until a bit of a chaotic forward entry allowed them to hurdle the congestion and Harley Reid got a metre on Melican, turned him inside out to break the tackle and snapped on his left to give the Eagles their first, and likely send the sports reporters for The West Australian into a Randy Marsh-esque state of rapture that could have required some disinfectant for their keyboards.

Players flooded around him for his first goal for the team, and rightly so. There may not be a lot to celebrate for this team, but taking the moment to recognise this milestone is still worthwhile.

West Coast backed up the effort with some nice ball movement and some intense forward pressure that included Reid putting a decent tackle on Blakey, but Blakey escaping, only for the next contest to see Darling flatten Matt Roberts in a beautiful tackle to win a holding the ball decision.

Yes, that Jack Darling!

He passed off to Cripps in the pocket, but the angle didn’t bother him at all as he slotted West Coast’s second, and gave his team the lead.

The back-to-back goals came directly from pressure acts, and the incredibly accurate and not-at-all-made-up Champion Data Pressure Gauge (™) showed West Coast as applying 223 points of pressure, exceeding even the “elite” level of 220. I’m assuming that puts them somewhere in the pressure-level vicinity of those hydraulic press videos that pop up on youtube all the time that are suggested for me. I can’t tell you why, but those videos are strangely addictive after a while.

Sydney responded through Gulden, and made it back-to-back majors of their own when a stoppage allowed them to set up Taylor Adams for his first goal for the Swans since coming over from Collingwood. Incidentally, he seems to have slimmed down a bit. Can I say that? I’m just saying, he seems to have prioritised upping his speed over muscle mass. Don’t cancel me.

The two teams fought out the rest of the quarter, and personally, I thought that the eleven point deficit was a pretty good result for the Eagles, considering a fairly blustery wind that had helped Sydney move the ball long and fast during the term.


Midfield battle

Warney, Heeney, Rowbottom and Gulden versus Ginbey, Yeo, Kelly and Cripps was the most common structure for the match, and even though Sydney have an elite-level engine room, West Coast was able to match them for most of the game, and actually won the centre clearance tally 16-12, despite losing the hitouts more often than not.

The work around the ground hurt the Eagles though, as the class of the Swans could not be denied. They moved the ball rapidly to find an open playmaker, and made the Eagles choose between covering their opponent or cutting off the passing lane, then choosing the open option.

West Coast actually managed to wrest control from Sydney in the period each side of halftime after a strong second quarter from the Swans, but the exceptional work of Yeo and Kelly pushed their side into contention before Sydney responded with their usual relentless effort as the younger players on West Coast’s list started to weary.

Individually, I have to give Gulden the nod as best on ground. He didn’t get as much of the ball as Yeo or Heeney, but every single possession hurt the Eagles, especially when it came to gaining territory where he led all-comers with 719 metres gained. He’s absolutely in All-Australian form, and I could probably say the same about Isaac Heeney.

But, when they were allowed a moment to set their structure, West Coast did exceptionally well. Yeo was very damaging with the ball, and ferocious when chasing to tackle. His 28 touches were complimented by eight tackles and six clearances, showing a well-rounded effort from the veteran.

Still, I have to give it to the Swans here. They dominated the stoppage clearances 32-16, and set up plenty of goals through their ability to execute set plays and control the taps.

Speaking of…


The Ruck battle

Brody Grundy took on Bailey Williams for most of the match, with McLean and Jack Williams taking backup duties.

Bailey was pretty strong at the centre bounces, where he had space around the ball to try and control where it would land, but Grundy was too crafty around the ground to be held by the younger ruckman.

While Grundy has had something of a fall from grace during his time at Melbourne, his ability to play as a rucking midfielder still puts him in the top handful of big men in the competition. He beat Williams in every meaningful stat except for centre clearances (where Williams won 4-3) and marks, which was 2-0 to the young lad. Everything else that mattered was Grundy. Possessions, metres gained, hitouts to advantage, total clearances… it was a dominant performance.

The secondary ruckmen attended less than 20 contests each, so it’s not really an indicative result, but McLean managed to make the most of his chances with eight hitouts and two to his mids, so I’ll give him the nod too.


The difference

It’s no secret that this match had two teams at different stages of their development, with Sydney having too much depth of experience, cohesion, and ability to perform under pressure than West Coast.

If I had to pinpoint one factor though, it’d be Sydney’s ability to maintain the pressure for the full four quarters, while West Coast eventually tired and struggled to keep up the intensity.

However, it wasn’t a blowout, as we’ve seen in some other matches for the Eagles. Whether that was Sydney keeping their powder dry to avoid injuries or a genuine result of West Coast’s improvement is still unknown, but it’s a little comfort.


Harley Reid

I haven’t really written much about the most written-about kid in the AFL, but if you’re hungry for more column inches about the number 1 pick, well who am I to disappoint?

His goal was an early highlight, but if you really want to see why this lad has the reputation he does, watch the replay and skip to about the 12-minute mark of the second quarter.

With Gulden hanging off him on the attacking side of the bounce, he managed to rove the Grundy tap, win a free, wheel around to play on and kick a long bomb to Maric standing in the square one-on-one with Roberts. Maric pulls down the contested mark and converts to once again give the Eagles the lead.

Some may say that it’s the sort of play we see every week, and we do… from veterans like Pendlebury, Bontempelli or Dangerfield. It’s not that Reid did it, but that he had the instincts to move the ball quickly, spot up a forward and pass to his advantage in a way that made it look like he was shelling peas. If that’s all he can do, then he’s worth the money, and more. Forward 50 entries have been West Coast’s most needed area of improvement for four years now, so anything that can help with that will pay off very handsomely.


The questions raised

I’ve been pretty positive about the Eagles efforts in this game, and the future is certainly bright for the team, but two big questions are circling around the club at the moment.

Well, actually three, with “When will Harley Reid extend his contract?” being a daily headline, but it’s an unnecessary one. He’ll do so when he’s legally able to and ready to. He won’t go anywhere because West Coast needs him, and no one can match the cash they can offer.

So, the big questions are: Will West Coast petition the AFL for an assistance package, and will Adam Simpson see out the season?

I think those two questions answer each other—if West Coast can authentically ask the AFL for assistance with players on their list who have won a premiership, Simpson will likely be on his way. I’m not knocking his ability as a coach, but as we’ve seen, few coaches survive a full rebuild. If we see West Coast as a bottom two side this year, I don’t think we see Simpson there in round 20+. If that happens, the question of whether West Coast deserve assistance, and in what form that takes will fill the airwaves more than even the Harley Reid talk.

That’s no sure thing though. With a few players back from injury and a bit of luck, West Coast could take a few teams by surprise as their younger players develop into the season. If the Eagles manage to get a few wins on the board and move up above the likes of North, Hawthorn, and perhaps one of the Crows, Essendon or Richmond, it could be enough to see the talk of assistance vanish while Simpson makes long-term plans.

The next five or six weeks will tell us everything we need to know about how this will unfold.


Up next

West Coast host Richmond in a match that may not be an easy one, but they’ll be thinking that an upset isn’t off the cards. Richmond has looked excellent at times, and horrible at others, though West Coast has done the same, but with more of the latter and too little of the former.

I want to find a reason to tip West Coast, I really do, but even in Perth, I think West Coast won’t quite have the manpower to overrun the tigers. There are ways that the Eagles can sneak out a win, but the odds won’t be in their favour.

Tigers by 17.

Sydney have a bye before taking on the Suns at the SCG. This is a match that I think can really define the seasons for both teams. The Suns are hell-bent on making finals for the first time, and they have the cattle to do it. If guys like Rowell, Lukosius and Anderson don’t float your boat, watching Jed Walter emerge is worth the price of admission on its own. I reckon that bloke hit puberty in the womb. He’s only just starting, but once he gets a season or two worth of games into him, he’ll be a star.

Sydney isn’t short on star power either though, and as much as I love the look of the GC midfield, it’s hard to take anyone over the likes of Gulden, Heeney and Warner at the minute. They hurt you in the middle and hurt you while resting forward, which is a nightmare for opponents.

I’m leaning towards Sydney here, because even though GC won’t expect to be challenged too hard by Hawthorn, Sydney will be fresh after their bye. Plus, dropping a game where they come in as favourites is kind of a Suns trademark.

Sydney by 9.


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