In their penultimate game of 2017, the West Coast Eagles shocked the football world with a last gasp win over the highly-fancied Port Adelaide Power.
In a hostile environment, Sam Mitchell, Matt Priddis and Drew Petrie were three of the best players on the ground. Whilst it was Luke Shuey that slotted the goal after the siren to sink the Port Adelaide season, and send the Eagles into the next week’s semi-final against Greater Western Sydney, much of the credit went to the three veterans.
After the defeat to the Giants the week later, those three veterans were gone, and with them went over 900 games of experience at the highest level. Many wondered where the Eagles would get better, and who would replace those calm heads in their side? You don’t just replace that sort of experience with anyone, and as such, many wrote the Eagles off heading into 2018.
How wrong they were.
Robert Walls, thought by many to be irrelevant in modern football ten years ago, tipped the Eagles to finish stone, motherless last. He has since backtracked, but he was at the pointy end of the predictions of the Eagles demise. He was wrong, as were many others who thought the Eagles would plummet down the ladder.
People are often amiss with their predictions, and football pundits more than most – I have been incorrect many times over the course of my life, and several times in the last week or so as a matter of fact. However, those who predicted the fall of the West Coast Eagles were premature at best. They were looking at what was gone, dismissing what else was already there, and forgetting about what was to come back.
Going back to the celebrated win against the Power, those three retirees were not the only three stars to shine.
The match-winner, Luke Shuey, had 32 touches and kicked two goals. Andrew Gaff ran and ran and didn’t stop, collecting 34 disposals, and Jeremy McGovern pulled down 15 marks across half back in a virtuoso performance. Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling combined for six goals between them, and club captain, Shannon Hurn was resolute in the backline, with 19 touches. Those six are good enough to walk into any team in the country and claim a starting spot, but talent alone is never the only factor that propels teams from the lower half of the top eight to being genuine contenders. It takes heart.
And that heart was on full display in that same game. It came in the form of Eric Mackenzie.
With less than a minute remaining, and scores locked together, the Power’s Darcy Byrne-Jones went for broke. His penetrating kick from 60 metres out slipped through the outstretched hands of Eric Mackenzie, and rolled towards the goal face. Mackenzie kept his feet and tracked the ball back towards the line, with Charlie Dixon bearing down on him fast. Any score would win the game for the Power. With Dixon hot on his heels, Mackenzie seemingly had nowhere to go. It looked inevitable that the ball would be rushed through for a score, and the Power would take the lead by the slightest margin.
Mackenzie gathered the ball and, under extreme pressure from Dixon, slammed into the behind post, somehow managing to avoid spilling the ball over the line into the scoring area. Instead he dragged the ball towards him whilst on the turf, touching it to the behind post that had just halted his momentum so suddenly.
A boundary throw in resulted, the time ran out and the game went into overtime. It was a courageous act under any circumstance, but with the West Coast Eagles’ season on the line, it was so much more; a moment that should be etched into the club’s folklore.
Mackenzie has not played a game in 2018, sidelined currently by a toe injury, but the spirit of his selfless act permeates through the current group. The loss of Mitchell, Priddis and Petrie has been more than mitigated by not only what they’ve added, but who has made the next step in 2018.
So where are the Eagles making a difference in 2018?
He has passed all the tests and surpassed all expectations. Full disclosure – I was one who thought the weight of expectation on Naitanui, coming back after a prolonged absence following a knee reconstruction, was too much. I expected him to be eased back in, which did happen, but what I did not expect was for him to be so influential when he hit the ground.
His ruck work has been sublime, and when he takes the ball out of the ruck, he is like a one-man wave of momentum, barrelling forward and taking the contest with him. His second and third efforts have been so impressive that midfielders are being beaten to the ground ball and being taken down in tackles when they do get there first.
And yes, I just mentioned the tackles. He has come under fire for the nature of his tackles, and he has copped a one week suspension for his driving tackle on Karl Amon, but NicNat’s tackling has added a factor to the game that has been removed recently – fear.
There are two instances this season where players look like deers in the headlights, and they both involve Naitanui. The first was mentioned above, but the second was the tackle on Geelong’s Brandon Parfitt. To have Naitanui bearing down on you must send a shiver up the spine of opposition players. Like Cyril Rioli, but twice as big, the Naitanui tackle comes out of nowhere with the kind of force that is rarely seen. It’s an aspect that has benefitted the Eagles’ mids as the desire to get rid of the ball must be a little more urgent when the big man is in the vicinity.
And it doesn’t stop there for the Eagles’ ruck stocks. Scott Lycett has been terrific as the second ruckman. As the footy world watched the clash between Naitanui and Sandilands, the best ruckman on the ground ended up being Lycett.
There was a time through 2011-12 when the name Jack Darling was on the lips of all football supporters. He emerged as a potential star in his first two seasons after being taken with pick 26 in the 2010 draft, but has taken his sweet time to break out.
But he’s been worth the wait. A genuine contender for the Coleman medal, his performance against the vaunted Richmond defence, kicking six goals, taking 15 marks, and putting both Alex Rance and David Astbury to the sword was as big a statement as we’ve seen this year. He leads the competition in contested marks and gives the Eagles a genuine “get out of jail” target when he leads up to the wing.
Darling’s emergence from the shadow of Josh Kennedy has been a highlight not just for the team, but for the competition.
THE DEFENSIVE PILLARS
If you looked at the All-Australian team right now, three West Coast defenders that would be in the conversation.
Jeremy McGovern demonstrated in the first quarter against Richmond that he owns the Perth skies. Many spoke about the clash of the defences, with McGovern anchoring the Eagles’ defence, and Alex Rance doing the same for the Richmond defence. After the first quarter, McGovern had provided the answers for them.
Brad Sheppard is a favourite amongst Eagles’ supporters this season. He has made key defensive plays all season and is rarely beaten. Whilst his name is not a staple in the best players lists in the newspapers or on television, but when the best and fairest votes are cast this year, I’d expect him to better his tenth place finish from last year.
And then there’s Shannon Hurn. I listened with amusement when some questioned his reappointment as club captain for the 2018 season. He has been fantastic this season, more than repaying the faith of the Eagles’ endorsement of him. His performance in the Derby, compiling 31 disposals and 11 marks on his way to the Ross Glendinning medal.
As much as the runners, the forwards and the big ruckmen get the attention, the West Coast defenders have been the glue holding that team together.
The reigning Best and Fairest at the club has improved his game yet again, averaging over 24 touches per game, but the most impressive part of Yeo’s game has been his willingness to take on the big responsibility.
He had the unenviable task of subduing Nat Fyfe in the Derby, and he did a great job after quarter time. His second huge role saw him go to Dustin Martin, and Yeo produced a classic game despite an early injury that saw him have to leave the ground. He returned with his knee strapped and was a major contributor in the Eagles’ win.
Many players have signature moments in a season, and Yeo’s defensive efforts on Martin could be just that. They’re not the kind of efforts you usually find on a highlight video, but that speaks to who Yeo is as a player. He does the hard stuff just as often, if not more so than the spectacular.
THE RUNNING MAN
Whilst others may speculate about his future, Andrew Gaff has gone about his business, to outstanding results. Here’s his last three weeks. 35 touches to lead all players in a win against Port Adelaide, 32 touches in a win against the Giants, and 24 touches in a win against the reigning premiers.
Though his numbers remain consistent with his past couple of years, Gaff has been getting more attention from the opposition, which has resulted in career-best numbers for contested possessions.
The Eagles have not lost on the road this season. Yes, yes, I know they’ve “only” beaten the Western Bulldogs and Carlton in Melbourne, and the injury-plagued Greater Western Sydney at Spotless Stadium, but a win on the road is a win on the road.
Their nearest competition, Richmond, are 0-2 in games outside Melbourne, and were given a huge scare by North Melbourne when they had to drive fifteen minute to the Docklands Stadium. Never discount wins on the road – they’re gold.
THE RENNAISANCE OF MARK LECRAS
He was close to giving it away at the end of last year, and many questioned the decision to bring him back. Question no more.
Right now he is behind only Luke Breust in terms of productivity for small/medium forwards. His 15 touches, two goals and three tackles per game have seen his name mentioned in All-Australian discussion.
LeCras’ footy nous is one aspect that can change a game, and I would expect to see him bob up late in a game at some point this year, and have a big influence on the outcome.
EMERGENCE OF JACK REDDEN
Redden's emergence in the West Coast midfield is largely due to the absence of Priddis, Mitchell, and more recently Shuey. After a slow start to his West Coast tenure, he has slotted in as part of their midfield machine, clocking up five clearances per game to go along with four tackles.
His 5.4 score involvements per game see him developing as an integral link in the Eagles' chain as they push forward to their big forwards.
There is one more aspect of the Eagles that is not being spoken about much at the moment – the room for improvement. Josh Kennedy is still rounding into form. He has shown some ominous signs, and looks threatening. Naitanui is still having his workload managed, forward livewire Liam Ryan is still a few weeks away from returning, Daniel Venables was showing signs, Jake Waterman is one of the more impressive rookies in the caper, and the continued improvement of Dom Sheed from role player to potential best on ground on any given day has propelled the Eagles to the top of the table.
And then there's the imminent return of Luke Shuey – arguably the club’s number one midfielder, who will soon overcome his hamstring issues. the Eagles are now batting very deep, with a younger brigade rivalling the best in the game.
As the Eagles heads to Melbourne to face Hawthorn this Sunday, they find themselves in a situation none outside the club itself thought they’d be in. They sit atop the AFL ladder, a game clear of the recently vanquished Tigers. They’re averaging the equal highest amount of goals per game (15.2), are the most efficient team in the league once the ball enters their forward 50. With their precision short kicking game, they turn the ball over the lowest in the league as well. They’re doing everything right, and still have room to improve.
Coach, Adam Simpson has gone from being a man who was having his coaching acumen questioned on a fortnightly basis, to being hailed a genius in some circles. It is the nature of the fickle media to jump on and off a coach's bandwagon depending on how bumpy the ride is. As the Eagles continue to roll over the competition, expect more to jump on. As recently as this morning, Damien Barrett jumped on board, declaring as part of his 'Sliding Doors' column, that he'd bought seat 1A on the bandwagon. Sorry mate... you're up the back with most others in the media.
The Eagles are the real deal thus far in 2018. They are doing everything required of them, and then some, only beaten by a full forward in full flight by the name of Lance Franklin. They have ticked every box since, including the most difficult of all; the premiers.
Many thought the game against Richmond would be a test for both teams.
Could the Tigers travel?
It doesn’t seem so.
Could the Eagles match it with the reigning premiers?
They certainly could.
Are the Eagles a legitimate premiership contender?
Yes… yes they are.