As of Wednesday, the West Coast Eagles are in search of a new coach for 2024, with Michael Prior announcing his resignation after three seasons at the helm.
In that time, Prior had accumulated a win-loss record of 5 wins and 23 losses – including their stunning victory against Essendon at Windy Hill on Sunday.
Prior has had runs on the board for shooting his mouth at moments when he didn’t need to.
Of course, his most recent comments about the Eagles being drawn to play the reigning premiers Melbourne, to which they lost by 70 points.
“That’s a team that won the grand final last year against a team that finished last,” he said in that post-game press conference.
“With 18 teams in the comp and only 10 games, how we play that team is beyond me… that’s what you get when you get fixturing like that.”
Keep in mind, to this point, the Eagles had not played against a side that finished in the top eight the previous season. They do play the Western Bulldogs and Adelaide to close out the year. But sides around them have faced stiffer competition and tougher draws.
In season six last year, Prior copped a lot of heat for his comments surrounding the Eagles’ decision not to have a pride guernsey designed for pride round, when every other team at the time had one.
“I think we’ve done the pride stuff to death, to be honest… I want to talk about the footy, not the jumper.”
He was made to apologise for those comments. Frustrated people had latched onto the club’s decision not to wear a design. But comments like that do no favours in this industry.
Before Prior was appointed coach, the Eagles had chewed through two coaches in as many seasons. Luke Dwyer was their inaugural coach in 2020, only guiding the Eagles to one win before the COVID-19 pandemic cut their season short.
Daniel Pratt took over and only won two games before he stepped down from the role. Given Prior’s early struggles with this list, offloading him after season six or seven wouldn’t have done the playing list any favours. But it’s clear that after this latest development, the Eagles desperately need a coach that offers stability and can promise growth to take them onwards and upwards.
What is also a concern in terms of stability is their playing list.
There’s a good influx of young talent that has the potential to be in the first Eagles’ dynasty in the AFLW.
They’ve got a young ruck in Lauren Wakfer, who should shoulder the mantle of being the number one ruck beyond this year. Sarah Lakay has shown she’s a capable player in that position the past year, too, but questions remain about whether they can both play in the same team.
They’ve got a future superstar with Ella Roberts, who has flourished whenever she gets thrust into the midfield this year. She’s been forced to play more as a target up forward, but she looks much more damaging in the midfield.
On top of that, they’ve got excellent young midfielders in Bella Lewis and Courtney Rowley, paired up with a great captain in Emma Swanson and a player in Aisling McCarthy who is physically at the peak of her powers.
You’ve got another player capable of being a superstar in Charlie Thomas, playing in the backline. She’s had to stand up in many games since making her debut, and in just her third season, she’s showing that she’ll have what it takes to be a defensive lynchpin in the coming years.
Up forward, there’s Amy Franklin, who, despite being a disappointment so far in her young career, is still highly touted among the AFLW circles. I’m unsure about her fitness, but if she can find a niche other than a stay-at-home key forward, she can potentially be an elite key forward.
I don’t think many people outside of Western Australia still know how young Sophie McDonald is. At 23 years of age, she has taken on the competition’s best forwards nearly every week and has been vital in trying to hold it down.
Her 26 defensive one-on-one contests are second in the competition, and she has only lost six times. Of the top five key defenders in one-on-ones, only Amelie Borg (29 contests for three losses) and Jasmine Ferguson (24 for three) have a better loss percentage than McDonald.
What the Eagles cannot afford to do is lose any more of these players interstate.
After season six, they lost Mikayla Bowen to Geelong, who has since thrived on a wing and has played in finals.
They also lost the Kelly sisters, Niamh to Adelaide, playing career-best football in a top-four side, and Grace, fast establishing herself in St Kilda’s backline.
Three players may not seem like much to the naked eye, but given what has transpired this year in the lead-up to Prior’s departure. I sense this decision to step down came with a severe amount of player unrest.
Imagine being a draftee from Western Australia and looking at the prospect of playing at a club that has only won just five games in the past three seasons. Wouldn’t you be looking at playing elsewhere too?
It could’ve been much worse had the Eagles recommitted to him for one more year to attempt to get the best out of the players.
The next challenge lies with who the Eagles will name as the next head coach. Currently, Rohan McHugh will be the caretaker coach for the last two games for the Eagles this season, and you give them every chance to beat the Western Bulldogs at home this Saturday.
How they beat the Dogs could determine whether the Eagles stick internally or if they go outside the box and employ someone else.
For the sake of the Eagles’ development, look outside the club and see what is out there.
You can look at a few candidates outside the backyard in the state competition. One that should be strongly considered is Steve Markham, a two-time Rogers Cup coach – for those outside of WA, the lead development competition for young female footballers in WA – and a two-time WAFLW premiership coach with Peel Thunder.
For those like me who want to see the narrative of female coaches continue to make their mark in the AFLW, the Eagles could look as far as recent premiership coach Steph Walding, who guided the East Fremantle Sharks to a WAFLW premiership and open the door for a potential Shark prospect in Georgie Cleaver to come in and be another presence in at the key forward position.
Or does this open the door to bringing former Fremantle coach Trent Cooper in as the coach? For theatrical sake, that would make a good Derby and perhaps add a little more sizzle and cut through.
Knowing how disappointing his tenure as Fremantle coach ended, he certainly got the best out of his players when he arrived. They made finals in 2019, were unbeaten in 2020 and finished fifth in a 14-team competition in 2021 and season six.
More names will be tossed up as we head towards the end of the season, but the Eagles cannot afford to languish at the bottom of the AFLW ladder for much longer.
They’ve got the talent. They’ve got the players in that side that have got the experience. They also have a lot of young players who are raw and need an excellent program to help them develop.
In the history of West Coast’s AFLW club, there has never been a more critical time for them than this coming off-season. The winds of change are coming.
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