We’re not all that far removed from Xmas, are we? About a month and a half ago I was chowing down on turkey and wondering what you’d get the West Coast Eagles if you could gift them anything around that time of the year.
Yeah I know, I’m weird like that.
Perhaps they’d like an elite running midfielder? Oh, they’ll get one of them back after a few games. His name is Andrew Gaff. You may remember him from such incidents as punching Andrew Brayshaw right in the mouth… or you might remember him for having career best numbers in 2018, topping 30 touches per game, with almost nine of them in the contest.
Or you may have chosen to gift the Eagles a solid, reliable defender. Well, they’ve got one of them returning as well. Brad Sheppard is as unsung as they come, and adding him to a defence already boasting the likes of Shannon Hurn and Jeremy McGovern is enough to bring a smile to even the most spoiled of supporters.
Or how about some long term planning for when Josh Kennedy hangs the boots up? Surely the Eagles can’t have it all, right? Well, there was a very good reason that they flat out refused to entertain the idea of trading Jarrod Brander to Geelong for Tim Kelly – because that’s the kid they’ve earmarked as his replacement.
So they seemingly have everything, right? What about an athletic freak in the ruck who moves like a tiger and hits like a charging bull? Oh, they have one of them on the way back as well. Damn it, West Coast… is there anything you don’t have?
So, what do you give a team that seemingly has everything? It’s a good question; almost as good as the next one. How do you find a weakness in a side that has top-tier talent spread across every line? How do you combat a side that has walked away with the 2018 premiership and is set to get stronger for Round One, and as the season progresses?
All you have is hope. Hope that there will be a chink in their armour at some stage. Hope that the duo of Kennedy and Darling will falter, that Redden, Shuey, Sheed, Yeo and Gaff won’t elevate their game another level, that opposition coaches will work out a way to nullify the defensive tactics of Mark Hutchings, and hope that when Nic Naitanui returns to the fray, he won’t be as prominent as he was in the first half of 2018.
It’s a lot to hope for.
The Eagles are a powerhouse. A beautifully constructed team, they got the improvement where it was required, and added a few x-factors along the way to add another dimension to their team. Rioli and Ryan were instrumental in making the Eagles more dangerous, and with a bigger tank, you’d expect both to further enhance their standing in the game this season.
The Eagles are set for a big year – well done Mongrel-damus. Let’s have a look just how big with our “ifs”, “buts” and other stuff.
… Josh Kennedy stays fit, he wins the Coleman
I’m pretty sure we saw nowhere near the best of Josh Kennedy in 2018, yet there he was kicking 41 goals at the highest average (3.1) in the game.
Let’s put that in a bit of perspective.
Kennedy’s 2018 saw him average the lowest amount of marks per game since his injury-plagued 2012 season, and the fourth lowest total of his career. It was a similar story with his disposals (11.07 in 2018). It was again his lowest total since 2012, and fourth worst ever.
2018 also saw his lowest goal average since 2014, which speaks volumes about how key forwards are now used, and how Kennedy, despite being sidelined for nine games, still managed to have a significant impact in a game devoid of genuine full forward talent.
Even at 85% (which I reckon was about JK’s fitness ceiling last season) he was still the most dangerous inside 50 player in the game. He’s such a strange cat - not the strongest, not the most agile, not the quickest, but he does everything so well, and reads the flight of the ball so well, that all it takes is a little body-work, and he is in position to mark cleanly. Only jack Riewoldt rivals him in this regard.
A fit and firing Kennedy is a lock for the Coleman. Only Lance Franklin can match his goal-scoring prowess, and there are major questions over Buddy’s fitness as we head into the 2019 season. If the Eagles get JK right, give him the space he needs to operate, and deliver the ball to him in a manner that even remotely favours him, 70+ goals are on the cards this season.
Kennedy will turn 32 as the season progresses. Though his availability in September is what the Eagles will be eyeing off, I’d love to see him put together a complete season after being dogged by injury in 2018.
I think he’ll be a major beneficiary of the rule change that allows players to once again use their hands in the back of an opponent to hold their ground. Not that he needs to push to win the contest – not at all – but having the ability to use another weapon to protect the space is right up his alley.
The reality is that we may have seen the athletic best of Josh Kennedy, but as he’s matured, we’ve seen a smarter JK emerge. If he can stay healthy in 2019, we may see those smarts on display in ways we haven’t to this point. And we might see another medal around his neck as a result.
… Tom Barrass isn’t rated as an elite defender by season’s end, something’s wrong.
This bloke is a victim of those he plays with. And no, not in a way where he is harassed by them, or beaten up in the change rooms… although I don’t really know what happens behind closed doors.
Tom Barrass lines up alongside Jeremy McGovern and club captain, Shannon Hurn. As such, he’ll automatically be relegated to at least third in the pecking order in terms of recognition. But that may change in 2019.
Barrass takes the big jobs, goes mano-e-mano against the best forwards in the game, and more than holds his own. Though Mason Cox exploded in the third quarter of the Grand Final, Barrass gave him an absolute hiding in the first half.
Just as a he did a couple of weeks earlier when the Pies came to town for the Qualifying Final.
Barrass’ contested marking, and ability to out-body an opponent are completely underrated by the AFL media. If he were on a Melbourne-based team, he would be labelled as one of the next big things in defence. We’re labelling him that anyway. We’re like doctors without borders, except in a footy sense.
Turning 23 before the season, and entering year five with the Eagles, Barrass is poised to become one of the pillars of the team for the next 7-8 seasons. Surrounded by A-Grade talent, Barrass was given a certain freedom to go for his marks when he returned to the team in Round 19. From that point onwards, he averaged 2.13 contested grabs per game.
For context, only Jeremy McGovern (2.79 to lead the competition), and Jack Darling (2.57) averaged more. And to add further context, only ten players in total averaged 2+ contested marks per game for the year. Once he was let off the leash, Barrass showed what he was capable of.
It’s almost embarrassing that the Eagles have three of the best contested marks in the game crammed into one bloody team. Some would say it’s not fair. I’d say it’s time to start making provision in your game plan to combat it.
Tom Barrass made a significant statement in the latter part of 2018. This season is his time to back it up, and cement his place as one of the elite defenders in the game.
… Mark Hutchings shuts down Steele Sidebottom again, does he become the number one tagger in the game?
Circle this on your calendars, Eagles fans – it’s the game where either Steele Sidebottom seeks a watered-down version of redemption (there is no redemption other than to win a Grand Final the following year) or Mark Hutchings shows the world that he has the measure of Collingwood’s number one mid.
In the 2018 season, Steele Sidebottom had three games where he gathered less than 20 disposals. He had 18 against Sydney as George Hewett put the clamps on him, 18 against the Eagles in Round 17 when he ran smack bang into a brick wall named Hutchings, and then he had a measly 14 disposals in the Grand Final, when the wall known as Hutchings not only stopped him, but collapsed on top of him, rendering him useless.
When you do it once, it can be considered luck. When you do it twice, people start to take notice, but if Mark Hutchings can shut down a player that tore other teams to shreds on a third occasion, we are talking Shane Warne-Mike Gatting kind of levels of ownership.
Hutchings is a Mongrel favourite. When compiling our West Coast 2018 season e-book (available in the link below… hint hint) I was legitimately surprised how often I made a point of singling out his performances. More than any other, I found myself taken by Hutchings’ ability not only to shut down his opponent, but to sneak forward and make him pay with the opportunistic goal. As the season wore on, I became more and more impressed with his diligence.
As we enter the 2019 season, Hutchings stands on the precipice of tagging greatness. It’s a role that is nowhere near as celebrated as it should be, and in the current AFL climate, it seems to be making a comeback. Jack Steele at St Kilda, Hewett at the Swans, Bailey Banfield at Freo, and of course Ben Jacobs at the Kangaroos are amongst the names vying for that top spot.
In one game, in Round Three, Mark Hutchings can jump out of the pack, and a three-peat of tagging excellence would leave little doubt as to who the best defensive mid in the league is. It’s one game I won’t be missing.
Our first e-book! A compilation of our West Coast articles for the year.
This epub works with e-readers. We tested it on HB’s Kobo Arc and everything worked surprisingly well. Not fab with phones but it’ll do.
… Jeremy McGovern makes it four AA selections in a row, we start talking about his legacy
Looking at the list of players atop the intercept mark column, you could be forgiven for wondering whether anyone would like to trail Jeremy McGovern to the ball and, you know… try to bloody spoil him as he beats his own opponent seemingly at will?
Of the four top amounts in history of intercept marks in a season, Gov owns three, with only Easton Wood’s excellent 2015 season breaking up what would be a complete and utter dominance of the category.
So here we are, about to enter the 2019 season, and McGovern shows no signs of slowing down. It was him zoning off Jordan de Goey in the pivotal contest of the 2018 Grand Final to take the intercept mark. It was his decision, and ability to do what he set out to do that got the Eagles rolling forward toward a flag-winning moment. And he did it with broken ribs and internal bleeding.
In that moment, his legacy became apparent – he is the glue that binds the West Coast defence together. He is not an “official” leader in name, but he is one via his actions. I would follow Jeremy McGovern into battle, and he’d march into battle irrespective of the odds.
At the half way point of the 2018 AFL season, Gov was one the very few who was a consensus lock for an All-Australian berth. In a highly competitive defensive six, his name was written in permanent ink very early, such was his dominance. In our rolling All-Mongrel team, he was in there after our first effort (Round 5), he was there every two weeks after it; Round 7, Round 9, Round 11, and… you get the picture. As other positions chopped and changed with fluctuating form and injuries, McGovern completely owned the Centre Half Back position right from the outset.
So, let’s say he has another McGovern-like year (if anyone is going to have a McGovern-like year, my guess is that it’d be McGovern). Let’s say he has intercept marks totalling in the seventies again (his record is 77). Let’s say he averages his 15 touches per game and controls that back half again, and as a result is standing up there as someone undeserving is handed the All-Australian captaincy… oops, did I just write that? Ah well…
Let’s say he gets that fourth straight AA spot. Where does the McGovern conversation start heading?
Paul Roos claimed seven AA berths as a defender, and is widely acknowledged as one of the best ever. Alex Rance currently sits with five consecutive selections, Matthew Scarlett had six selections overall, and Stephen Silvagni had five. A fourth consecutive selection starts to put Gov’s name in the conversation with those guys. I’m pretty sure he’d out-mark any of them.
In terms of Eagles, Glen Jakovich had only two AA years, but is fondly remembered for his ability to take on, and beat Wayne Carey in one-on-one contests. Darren Glass amassed four AA berths, and was named captain in 2012. If McGovern matches Glass, you’d be foolish to bet against him going past him in 2020. He is currently on track to be remembered as the best of the Eagles defenders.
Have we seen the best of McGovern? Does he have yet another level?
Reports from the west suggest he has returned to the track looking slimmer and fitter, which has to send a ripple of fear through opposition coaches. If there has been one knock on Gov over the years, it has been his conditioning. With that under control, we may be seeing the maturation of a player who will eventually go down as one who is not only one of the greatest defenders in West Coast history, but in football history in general.
… Jamie Cripps keeps flying under the radar, teams need to get better surveillance techniques.
I mentioned Rioli and Ryan in the intro, and deliberately left this bloke out of the conversation. In his eighth season in the game, it’s not as though Jamie Cripps is some unknown quantity at the highest level. He is about to enter his seventh season as an Eagle, and has just posted career-best numbers in a premiership season.
I have to admit, I didn’t see him having the kind of influence he did in 2018, and I am happy to be wrong (let’s be honest – if I wasn’t happy to be wrong, I’d spend a lot of time feeling pretty bad). Though he had not dropped under 1.20 goals per game since 2013, there is something about Cripps that allows him to slip under the radar.
He’s not spectacular. He’s not flashy and eye-catching. He’s not a going to have kids clamouring to wear his number on their back, but let’s have a look how important he was to West Coast in 2018.
He played every game, averaged over a goal and a half per contest for the first time in his career, and had career-high numbers in both contested and uncontested possessions. He picked a great year to have a great year.
So much is often made of the Richmond pressure forwards. As much as I love what Dan Butler, Jason Castagna, Jack Higgins and co. bring to the Tigers, they’ve got nothing on Cripps. As a matter of fact, Cripps’ 2018 leaves them for dead.
You wouldn’t know it by the amount of press he receives, or doesn’t receive, but Cripps was one of the best medium forwards in the game last season, and at times when the Eagles struggled, they leaned on him. He had three or more goals on six occasions, and finished with 38 for the season. In a stacked forward half, he more than held his own, and if he can come out and replicate that year again, the Eagles will continue to rain blows on opponents from all angles.
It’s appearing more likely that Cripps will miss a week or two to begin the season after having surgery on a troublesome toe, but once he returns, his addition will once again bolster the twin towers of Darling and Kennedy.
Much has been made of the absence of Mark LeCras in 2019, and we’ll get to that, but having Jamie Cripps patrolling your forward half makes the loss a little more manageable. You think at some point this season, opposition coaches will stop listening to the Melbourne media, and start paying attention to the damage Jamie Cripps is doing every single week? It’d be in their best interests.
… Elliot Yeo doesn’t get the respect he deserves from the media, Eagles fans should go nucking futs about it.
Now, while I am bagging out the media, there’s a back-to-back Best and Fairest winner over in Western Australia who gets less air time here than most AFLW stars do in the east.
Seriously, what does Elliot Yeo have to do to be recognised as a star in the AFL media? Were they not watching when he tore Dustin Martin a new one when the Eagles decimated the Tigers in Round 10 last year? Were they not paying attention when he ripped Collingwood to shreds in the Qualifying Final last year? Did they not appreciate the defensive aspects of his game that saw him record 9+ tackles on six different occasions in 2018?
Ladies and gentlemen, Elliot Yeo is a star of the game. The fact he plays in a team that has other stars does not diminish how brightly he shines. Simply put, you don’t win repeat best and fairest awards in a team full of stars unless you earn them, and Elliot Yeo earns his plaudits the hard way.
Whilst glamour midfielders play wide of their direct opponent, and may run into them at the occasional stoppage, Yeo not only wins his own ball, but he makes his direct opponent earn every kick he gets.
I touched on his game against Richmond above. The stats are impressive – 29 touches, six tackles, seven inside 50s and nine clearances, but at crucial moments, it was his physical presence that stopped the Tigers dead in their tracks. Martin went to break out of the centre. He tucked the ball under his arm in vintage “Dusty” fashion, but Yeo was not going to allow him to escape. He hunted the Brownlow medallist, put the big ones in, dragged him down, earned the holding the ball free kick and changed the momentum.
At that stage, Yeo was already loved by Eagles supporters, but I have to admit, it was the moment I felt a bit of affection for him as well. Everyone loves great players. Everyone loves those who appear on a highlight package. But there are some players who are more than what you see on highlight reels.
Elliot Yeo is the complete football package, and it’s about time he is recognised as such.
… the acquisition of Tom Hickey isn’t enough to cover for the loss of Lycett, will the Eagles be tempted to rush Nic Nat back?
Here’s a little something that’ll warm the cockles of West Coast hearts. Tom Hickey was the third-highest rated ruckman in terms of clearances in 2018. Yep, he averaged more than Gawn, Goldstein and several other big names. His 4.5 clearances per game were behind only Brodie Grundy (5.3) and Stefan Martin (4.9).
Told ya it’d warm the cockles of your heart. With ruck rules now allowing the big men to take the ball directly from stoppages without fear of being immediately pinged for holding the ball, I’d expect Hickey to be right up there again this season.
But his 8.3 hit outs to advantage see him back with the peloton as Gawn and Grundy surge ahead. Whilst he will get a few quick kicks away, himself, will he be able to provide enough service for the Shueys, Yeos and Gaffs of the world?
Nic Naitanui is a force of nature, and his return is something that the Eagles will eagerly await. He has the unique ability to be a factor in a game where he seemingly isn’t impacting the stat-sheet. Whether he is running down a startled opposition midfielder (his tackle on Brandan Parfitt in Round Three last season was brutally beautiful, and somewhat forgotten amid the furore over his decimation of Karl Amon later in the year)), or just moving the ball forward without taking possession, Naitanui’s influence cannot be denied.
So much of how long Naitanui is content to sit on the sidelines revolves around the Hickey-Vardy combination working similarly to the Lycett-Vardy combination of 2018. If Hickey can come in and match what Lycett was doing, the heat is well and truly off.
But if Hickey can’t replicate Lycett’s influence, what then? The pressure then mounts, not only from the external media pining for a competitive ruck division, but internally, as the dominant ruckman at the club works back from injury.
Reports suggest that Nic Nat is ahead of schedule, which is great news, particularly considering his elongated recovery from his first knee injury. Let’s hope his return is at his own pace, and not rushed due to a hole Hickey can’t fill.
… one, or both of the Darling/Kennedy combo goes down, are the Eagles mortal?
Jack Darling held the fort for the Eagles in the first ten rounds of the 2018 season. With Josh Kennedy struggling to get on, and stay on the park, Darling became the player he threatened to be years ago, and he did so emphatically.
Looking at Darling’s performances in the first nine games of the season, it’s easy to see why he was rated as the best forward in the game. He averaged 3.11 goals, 8.22 marks and 15.88 disposals. More impressive was his 3.33 contested marks per game – far and away the most dominant marking player in the game at that point of the season.
His masterpiece was a wrecking-ball performance against the highly-regarded Richmond defence, in which he put Alex Rance and a host of Tiger defenders to the sword with six goals and as many contested marks. It was a statement game for Darling; matched up against the best, he rose to the occasion.
But an awkward fall two weeks later brought him back to earth, suddenly and with enormous impact on both the player and the team. For the first time in 2018, the Eagles looked vulnerable.
Though Josh Kennedy was now back in the team and hitting his stride, he was soon to sit out several games as well, and the Eagles suddenly found themselves struggling to score. They capitulated to Sydney, Essendon and Adelaide in consecutive weeks, and the team that was all-conquering started to look more than a little shaky.
We know how the story ends – both Kennedy and Darling were significant factors in the 2018 finals campaign, and as Darling unleashed some early-season form in the third quarter of the Grand Final, people were reminded just how important this combination is to the ongoing success of West Coast.
When looking at the team as a whole, it is hard to find weaknesses, but the loss of this tandem is one that has a record of not going all that well. Individually, they’re very good, but playing together, they’re great. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts in regard to the Kennedy-Darling combination.
If one goes down, the Eagles will still be okay. They’ll battle on and survive. If both go down, things could get messy. As good as the Eagles are, covering that kind of forward talent is too much to ask.
Does Shannon Hurn have a point to prove this season? I mean, he’s a premiership captain – that is usually enough to sate the hunger for recognition a player may have, but as the only club captain in the All-Australian team, to be looked over in favour of Buddy and Dangerfield for a leadership position was a bit of a slap in the face, for mine. Would he take it as such?
Or would he brush it off and captain his side to a flag in a massive FU to the people who thought Franklin, who isn’t even in his own team’s leadership group, was a better leader? Internally, it may be the kind of driver that gives him the impetus to have an even better year than 2018. I know it’d annoy me, even just slightly. The knowledge that despite what All-Australian selectors thought, he was the one standing on the dais, clutching the premiership cup - a triumphant leader, whilst Franklin “led” his team to a first week exit must be gratifying.
Still, when the opportunity to lead from the front presents itself in 2019, Hurn might have a bit of “this is why I am the premiership captain” about him as he takes the reins. I’d love that moment to happen against Sydney.
Who makes way for the return of Andrew Gaff? There is an argument that should Gaff knocked clocked Brayshaw, that Dom Sheed doesn’t force his way back into the team. And if that doesn’t happen, the entire complexion of the 2018 finals series changes. Maybe Gaff’s presence means the Eagles win more comfortably? Maybe not, but with an elite player returning to the side, something has to give. Is it Sheed?
I’d hope not. Whilst his final moments of the biggest game of the year will be the lasting memory of his 2018, his entire finals series was spectacular. He averaged 28.66 touches per game over the three Eagles finals, and has earned his place by playing his best footy on the biggest stage.
Then who falls out? Chris Masten? It’s got to be someone. Is the side reshuffled with different roles, allowing both gaff and Sheed to run the wings? It will be interesting to see where the cards fall. And let’s face it – as long as Mark Hutchings maintains his place, I’m a happy camper.
The absence of Mark LeCras has been discussed a little, and I had distinct memories of him being absolutely fantastic early in the season. I went back and checked; lo and behold, after eight rounds, he was in strong contention for an AA spot. At 2.2 goals per game in that period, only Luke Breust has better numbers as a small forward.
As a matter of fact, in our Rolling All-Mongrel team, we had him starting in the forward pocket after Round Seven. So, who replaces such a valuable commodity? There seems to be no shortage of talent putting their hand up, with Jake Waterman and Daniel Venables making strong claims in 2018. Willie Rioli and Liam Ryan also established themselves as high quality goal sneaks. Jamie Cripps solidified his own status in the team, and there are others knocking on the door as well.
As pointed out to me by Mongrel reader, Nicholas Cole, Brendon Ah Chee slotted into the side for eight games last season and would’ve been a contender for their best-22 based on those performances had he not gone down injured. In his first season with the Eagles, Ah Chee had a solid run through the middle of the season before returning just before the finals. Could he be the one to swoop in and usurp the forward line vacancy left by LeCras? One thing’s for sure – he’s going to have plenty of competition for the spot.
Organic improvement. As with any team, it’s the players who make the leap and perform at a level we didn’t expect that make a huge difference. We saw it in the 2018 Eagles with Jack Redden, Dom Sheed, Willie Rioli and Liam Ryan all doing more than what was floated for them in the pre-season. Make no mistake, the improvement of those players was a key component of the Eagles’ success.
So, where does it come from this season?
The scary thing is that the Eagles have young talent that hasn’t had the opportunity to truly shine as yet. With just one game to his name, Jarrod Brander is the heir apparent in the Eagles forward line, but they have this ridiculous luxury of taking their time with him, allowing him to develop before unleashing him. Teams like Gold Coast and Brisbane have their hand forced in regard to young players. They simply have to play them in order to help their team, and to keep the kids keen to stay. This is not the case at West Coast – they play them when they’re ready, and not before.
We saw plenty of Daniel Venables in 2018, and he now has a premiership medallion to show for it, but other second-year players will be looking for opportunity to break into the side as well. Jack Petruccelle has three games to his name in 2018, Jake Waterman racked up 16 games, and Brayden Ainsworth also broke into the 2018 team. They’ll be looking for opportunity in 2019.
Is it one of those blokes who jumps out, or does one of Ah Chee, Brander or Oscar Allen make the step into a regular senior role?
Hats off to the West Coast list manager, Brady Rawlings – he has done a masterful job of balancing this team with great veterans and hungry youngsters.
Liam Ryan hasn’t exactly had the off-season to write home about, has he? I’m hoping that the news about him having issues and then leaving a training camp early are just hiccups and not symptomatic of anything more serious. He is an exceptional talent and was pivotal in the West Coast tilt at the flag. I’d like to see more of him in 2019 as he is everything you want in a small forward.
Here’s a bit of a left-field suggestion – Willie Rioli to a half back flank at times in 2019. Any danger of this happening? I saw him drift back at times in the 2018 season and he looked completely at home there. He is such a natural footballer – you know, so many guys are athletes first and footballers second. Not the case with Willie – he is a footballer, first and foremost, and reads the play so brilliantly that he could be a huge asset getting out in space and delivering forward. Of course, he’s an asset wherever he plays – he’s a Rioli.
So, the draw – you know you’re in for a tough run when your only double up against a low-ranked team is your Derby clash. In those games, ladder position does not usually matter, and with the events of 2018, they’ll be set to be more fiery than usual. The Eagles also score the Pies, Crows, hawks and Demons twice. I think they’ll handle the hawks relatively easily, but the others will be tough fixtures.
So, where do we see the Eagles finishing 2019? You’d be foolish to think anything but top four is an option. Only significant injury can derail their 2019 season, with so many players across so many lines looking like match winners.
Their short-kicking game is the best we’ve seen since the Hawks used it to propel them to three straight flags. Could the Eagles match them? Getting ahead of myself, I know, but if you don’t aim high, you never get there.
Do I think they can win the flag again? Hell yes, but September is a funny time of the year, and it only takes one bad week for things to go awry – ask Richmond of 2018. The Eagles are poised to make another serious run at the premiership. Their spine is the best in the game, and their complementary players are all of a consistently high level. Contributors such as Tom Cole, who I’ve neglected to mention in this article til now, Liam Duggan, Lewis Jetta… they’re all of high quality.
Anything less than back-to-back premierships is beneath them this season.
Oh, and Shannon Hurn should be the All-Australian captain in 2019 if all is right with the world. Yeah, still annoyed about that.
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