It’s the last Saturday and September and the West Coast Eagles are there for the first time since the 2015 MCG capitulation.
In 2015, West Coast legend Matt Priddis and AFL legend-cum-West Coast retiree Sam Mitchell were both out there but on opposing sides. The 2015 decider will be the first – and last – of Priddis’ esteemed career for the Eagles, missing out on the 2006 one-point premiership victory as a youngster. As Priddis stepped onto the hallowed turf of the MCG, for the hottest Grand Final on record (in temperature at least), the Brownlow Medalist of the year prior was enjoying an All Australian season. He had also had a club champion award and the best part of 200 games in the bank, yet he would not add a CV centerpiece of a premiership that day, or any other.
Sam Mitchell also ran out on the MCG that fateful last Saturday in September. For him, the feeling was more familiar. It would be his fifth and final time doing it. Mitchell told his three children that Grand Final morning that they will be able to come onto the MCG after the game. His wife, Lyndall interrupted “If you win…”
“When we win,” responded Mitchell. And perhaps that was the difference that day.
Last Saturday, three years after their 46-point Grand Final loss, the Eagles returned and both Matt and Mitch were there, however probably not in the way they envisioned they would be way back in 2015. The camera found Matty Priddis in the grandstand watching on. Of all the non-Victorian additions to the AFL, no side has been more successful in the national competition than West Coast, winning a premiership (or two in an era of 90s dominance) every football generation.
Poor old Matt Priddis played his best football in-between generations, debuting a year too late and retiring a year too early. No West Coast Eagle has played more than 170 games without a flag, except Priddis, who played 240. He did not have to retire a year before the Eagles reigned as premiers again. Priddis had a contract for 2018. He pulled up stumps, and give a youngster a go - that was the reasoning… but we will talk about that a little later.
Sam Mitchell was not in a gold and blue jumper when the ball was bounced on Saturday but he was in a gold and blue club polo alongside coach Adam Simpson in the coaching box as the game got underway. He was also there, fist-pumping and hugging in the coach’s box as the game so thrillingly concluded. Like Priddis three years earlier, this will be Mitchell’s last grand final for West Coast, unless some crazy turn of fate brings him back to Western Australian as a coach sometime in the future.
Mitchell will return to his old stomping ground at Hawthorn next season as an assistant coach to Alastair Clarkson; a man with whom he has held the premiership cup aloft, and the very same man who orchestrated his Hawthorn departure some 24 months previous.
While, there was considerable angst (eased of late, as all things do in a premiership haze) between West Coast and Mitchell due to the latter walking out on two more years of his lucrative assistant coaching contract, West Coast’s recruitment of Mitchell is by far its greatest ever trade.
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A lot has been spoken and written about the famous “Judd Trade” in the past seven days with Western Australian based commentator, and Eagles supporter Basil Zemplias declaring West Coast the winners of the trade in the aftermath of the Grand Final win, as it gave the club the now premiership winning duo of Josh Kennedy and Chris Masten. However, without Sam Mitchell arriving at West Coast, many at the club people they would not have won that Grand Final. Mitchell’s on-field performance in his last playing year was not spectacular, but certainly respectable with an 8th place club champion result - more than warranting a Pick 88 cost. However, it was his feats inside the coaching box that gained him such high praise, and why he has been earmarked by Hawthorn as their next senior coach.
As midfield coach, Mitchell’s ability to tactically break down both Melbourne and Collingwood’s midfield set ups, counteracting the influence of star ruckman Max Gawn and Brodie Grundy in successive weeks has been rated internally as genius; remarkable praise for a first-year assistant coach. No wonder West Coast is so devastated to lose him, but a premiership as consolation is not too bad, I guess.
Many pundits tipped West Coast to slide from 6th place in 2017 over the pre-season. Most infamously, Robert Walls delivered a headline for the archives. This supposed slide was forecast largely on the back of their two most decorated midfielders Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell hanging up the boots and leaving what many believed to be a significant void in the West Coast Eagles midfield whiteboard. Yet, Matt Priddis’ selfless ethos of not wanting to take the position of a young player won them the Grand Final. As legendary as both Matt Priddis’ and Sam Mitchell’s AFL careers have been, the brutal truth is that the Eagles would not have won the flag with them on the team sheet.
At 32 and 34 respectively when their retirement speeches were given, they were not getting any younger or quicker. They both knew that. However, they both could have taken the option of playing on. Priddis had a contract, while Mitchell had a contract to either play or coach but both put the club ahead of themselves. The rest is history.
Priddis and Mitchell were not in the midfield in 2018, but Jack Redden played every game; something he has never done in West Coast colours, and was their best player in September. Elliot Yeo moved from occasional half-back flanker to a permanent role in the guts. If he was not their best player all year then he has to be close to it. Luke Shuey also elevated his game to a higher level and now has a Norm Smith Medal to show for it.
If Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell were there on Grand Final day, Mark Hutchings may well not have been. He tagged Steele Sidebottom out of the game, and if that did not happen, Collingwood would be premiers. Dom Sheed has been very much on the fringe all year, Priddis and Mitchell may well have tipped him over the edge and into the WAFL. Instead he kicks the winning goal and the flag belongs to the Eagles.
Just as it belongs to Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell.
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