If you’ve not had the opportunity to catch up on the first two parts, they’re linked below

Part One – https://themongrelpunt.com/footy-history/2021/03/01/between-the-flags-the-fall-and-rise-of-an-afl-powerhouse-part-one/

Part Two – https://themongrelpunt.com/footy-history/2021/03/03/between-the-flags-the-fall-and-rise-of-an-afl-powerhouse-part-two/

And now, on with the show…

 

 

2015 – 2018: Happy Days are Here Again

 

A good test of a West Coast fan’s honesty is by asking them whether they believed the club would improve as much as they did in 2015. I can tell you, dear reader, that not even the most ardent, one-eyed supporter could have predicted it. They had missed finals the previous two seasons. They had bid adieu to their captain and their games record-holder (Glass and Cox). To make matters worse, their full-back, Eric MacKenzie, tore his ACL in the first pre-season match. His replacement, Mitch Brown, tore his ACL in the first match of the home and away season. The midfield relied too heavily on too few, and the forward-line, though star-studded, hadn’t appeared to completely gel yet. In short, though development had given supporters encouragement, there was nothing, absolutely nothing to suggest that this team was worthy of a grand final appearance.

Sometimes, though, things just kind of click. Yes, they lost MacKenzie and Brown, but Schofield had his best season yet, and McGovern proved why the club had shown such faith in him. Shannon Hurn, the newly appointed captain, would marshal the back half of the ground, his exceptional kicking becoming other-worldly. Sharrod Wellingham would finally start to repay the investment shelled out for him, demonstrating the clean skills and play-making ability that the club had recruited him for. Dom Sheed would help to provide some much-needed depth to the midfield, while the forward-line, led by Josh Kennedy, who would win the first of two Coleman Medals, would ensure the club got the best bang for its buck.

The Eagles fired on all cylinders to finish second at the end of the home and away season, ensuring they had the best run possible to the grand final. A week one domination of reigning premiers Hawthorn was followed by an inaccurate, yet ultimately comfortable win over North Melbourne in the Preliminary Final. The night before the victory over North, Hawthorn cemented their spot in their fourth consecutive grand final, defeating the Eagles’ hometown rivals, Fremantle by 27 points. The echoes of 1991 were unavoidable. An inexperienced West Coast team (with a better home and away record) were playing off in a grand final against an experienced, finals-hardened Hawthorn team. At the end of the game, the result would be much the same too.

However, before the game was played, the seemingly inevitable occurred. Two days before the Grand Final, Rita Panahi of The Herald Sun published an article detailing Daniel Chick’s post-career battle with addiction and depression, laying blame at the feet of West Coast and it’s drug culture between 2000-2007. That Panahi and The Herald Sun had been seemingly sitting on the story for months before deciding to publish it prior to the biggest game of the year was telling. That Panahi and The Herald Sun reportedly didn’t contact West Coast prior to publication was grounds for action (West Coast would later win a judgement against Panahi and The Herald Sun over the publication of the piece). That stories of West Coast’s earlier drug culture had re-appeared just as the club was building back to the top of the competition was unsurprising. Nevertheless, the publication of the story would have little impact on the outcome of the game.

There are many takes that people have had about the 2015 Grand Final, some hot and others lukewarm. There are those who claim that Darling’s dropped mark cost the Eagles a chance to get back into the game in the third quarter. These people are stupid and are the type of person who masquerades their opinions as fact, and when challenged to back these ‘facts’ up will say things like “facts don’t care about your opinion” or “#notallmen”. The truth of it is that West Coast were beaten by one of the best teams of the AFL-era, a team that dominated the game, bar a five-to-ten minute stretch in the third quarter, and even if Darling had taken the mark and kicked the goal, all that would have eventuated would have been an Eagles loss by five or six goals instead of eight.

The game was effectively over at half-time, and as is so often the case, it was the team that kicked straight that was in the driver’s seat. Hawthorn led 9.3.57 to West Coast’s 3.8.26. Cyril Rioli was dominant, and for West Coast, as over the preceding seasons, their midfield was comfortably defeated. With this in mind, West Coast approached the 2015 trade and draft period’s looking to bolster their midfield brigade. They sent their first-round pick to Brisbane for inside mid, Jack Redden, and swapped their improved ruck/forward Callum Sinclair for Sydney’s wingman Lewis Jetta – two acquisitions that would take their time to have an impact on-field for the Eagles. With the retirement of inspirational tough man Beau Waters, whose troublesome elbow had kept him off the park since round 15 2013, defender Sam Butler was the last remaining player from the 2006 premiership.

Considering the Eagles’ sudden improvement in 2015, their 2016 and 2017 seasons can be viewed as disappointments. However, when looking a bit closer, what we do see (at least in relation to the 2016 season) is the AFL competition becoming more even. In 2016, the eventual premiers (the Western Bulldogs) finished seventh on the ladder at the end of the home and away season. This unlikely premiership win was viewed as impossible in the past, but when viewed in relation to their win-loss ratio it becomes less surprising. The Bulldogs won 15 games in 2016, a feat much more likely to put them in the top four than seventh in any other year. West Coast won 16 games, something that historically would have had them placed third. Indeed, only two wins separated first and seventh in 2016, highlighting how close the competition truly was.

West Coast had gotten a taste for how close the competition was just three weeks before the finals. After disappointing away losses to the Bulldogs and Collingwood, the Eagles entered a round 21 away match-up against the Giants, needing to win to re-establish their finals credentials. A match that had ebbed and flowed throughout seemed all but over at the final change – the Giants had kicked the last five goals to take a 23-point lead into the three-quarter time break. As the match entered time-on in the final term, the Eagles had only slightly closed the margin, still trailing by three goals. Majors in quick succession – one to Dom Sheed and two to Luke Shuey – tied the game up with less than five minutes to play. A goal from Rory Lobb (his fourth for the game) with a minute twenty left put the Giants back in front by six, before a behind from Josh Hill seconds later cut it to five points. After some frenetic, high-pressure football, a wayward Jamie Cripps kick bounced out of bounds next to the Eagles behind post with just eight seconds left. The Eagles needed something special in a very short space of time. Nic Nat delivered. Tapping the boundary throw-in to his own advantage, Naitanui gathered the ball off the ground, shrugged off a Dylan Shiel tackle and snapped a goal off his left foot.

While others may have had claim to better games that day (Luke Shuey had thirty-eight touches to go with two goals, Rory Lobb had a break-out game with four goals, and Toby Greene showed his class to finish with twenty-three touches, eleven marks and a goal) none were more impactful than Nic Nat. His sixteen touches, forty-five hitouts, six clearances and two goals only going part-way towards describing his importance. “But he only had two marks” you scream with a rage only a middle-aged man with too-narrow definitions of football can muster. So what, if your ruckman can do what Nic Nat does, you don’t care if he ever takes a mark. The truth is though, the Eagles would have loved a few more marks from their big man, if only because it would have meant he was out in the middle.

It’s tough to overstate the sadness and devastation West Coast fans felt a week later when Nic Nat went down with a torn ACL. The highs of the week before, where another chance at a premiership had seemed possible, were replaced with a fear that we may have seen a once-in-a-lifetime talent play his last game. Indeed, it was not just the fans who were impacted by Nic Nat’s injury – one could argue that West Coast’s trade strategy a month later was based around trying to fill the hole he had left. Despite his injury, West Coast would win their final two games to finish sixth, before being bundled out in the first week by a Bulldogs team set on fulfilling destiny.

For the first time since the Judd trade nearly ten years prior, West Coast approached trade week ready to deal. They offered the Giants Rory Lobb a lucrative contract to return home, but Lobb, insisting he didn’t want to play in the ruck, elected to stay with the Giants. Then something weird happened. Hawthorn were planning on transitioning their list from the triple premiership run of 2013-2015 to one that could compete again in a few years, meaning that the experienced players who had taken them to the top would need to be phased out and replaced with youth. Rather than send a player like Sam Mitchell to Box Hill, coach Alastair Clarkson instead suggested that he finish out his career at another club, before gaining some valuable experience as an assistant coach. Mitchell agreed with the idea, and elected to join West Coast in one of the more lop-sided trades in history – the Eagles sending picks 52, 70 and 88 to Hawthorn in return for picks 54, 72, and five-time Peter Crimmins medallist, four-time premiership player, three-time All-Australian, and 2012 Brownlow medallist Sam Mitchell.

West Coast would also send pick 72 to Geelong for injury-prone Ruck/Forward Nathan Vardy, as they set about trying to bolster their ruck division. At the draft, they took Daniel Venables with pick 13 before cutting the Giants lunch and taking Willie Rioli at pick 52. They completed their attempt to make up for Naitanui’s absence by taking North Melbourne great Drew Petrie at pick 29 in the rookie draft, with the Kangaroos having earlier said that they wouldn’t be renewing his contract.

The 2017 season posed several interesting questions for West Coast – questions which, for the first time in his coaching tenure, would make Adam Simpson’s position appear vulnerable. After a 6-2 start, West Coast’s season slowly unravelled, losing games they would have normally won in prior season. As both close and blow-out losses started to mount, the pressure rose on Simpson to begin blooding young players. The midfield, with Priddis and Mitchell both on the wrong side of 30, combining to symbolise a West Coast team that was old, slow and lacking vitality. As the season neared an end, finals, which seemed a certainty after eight rounds, looked a more and more dim prospect. Despite finals over the preceding two seasons (and a grand final berth in 2015), West Australians distrust of Victorians (namely, the Eagles coach Adam Simpson) was coming to a boil.

The day before their final game for the 2017 home and away season, West Coast’s finals chances should have been snuffed out. But Melbourne, in typical Melbourne fashion, stumbled at the final hurdle, leaving the door slightly ajar. In the final AFL match at West Coast’s inaugural home ground, Subiaco Oval, their task was relatively simple – beat the top of the ladder Adelaide Crows by roughly four goals and remain alive for at least another match. Win by less than four goals, or lose, and their season would be over.

As the philosopher, Pacino once said, “football is a game of inches”. Well, ladies and gentlemen, on that given Sunday, West Coast fought for that inch, and by gum they won it, though it certainly wasn’t easy. By half-time in the final home and away game of the 2017 season, West Coast were leading Adelaide by 17 points, but were still out of the top eight by 0.6%. As the match sped towards its conclusion, an Eagles victory, through its inevitability, became a secondary issue. Following a Josh Kennedy miss, the Crows took the ball the length of the field, finishing with a Charlie Cameron goal. With less than six minutes remaining in the 2017 home and away season, the Eagles were out of the eight by just 0.1%. It was two maligned stars – Lewis Jetta and Jack Darling – whose late-game goals would eventually be written into West Coast folklore, ensuring September action for the Eagles in season 2017, sending out Subiaco Oval with a bang.

Much has been written about the important moments and players of the 2017 Elimination Final between Port Adelaide and West Coast. Eric MacKenzie’s split-second decision to take the ball out of bounds rather than rush it, ensuring the match would be drawn at the end of regular time. Luke Shuey’s last-second free kick and resulting goal. Charlie Dixon’s near domination of the game (23 touches, 7 marks and 3 goals, 6 behinds). But, as an almost a perfect encapsulation for the way he was viewed throughout the competition, what has been nearly forgotten is the game of Matt Priddis. A career that effectively spanned 2007-2017 (he played two of his 240 career games in 2006), Priddis was part of some of the worst midfields the Eagles have ever had. In fact, just saying that he was ‘part’ of them is not paying him enough respect – in many of the games, he was the midfield. Across the eleven seasons, from 2007-2017, he missed a total of just 18 games. As of the time of writing, he is still the all-time AFL leader in tackles, and is top-10 for handballs, clearances and contested possessions – not bad when you consider he has played more than one-hundred games less than most others on these lists. The Elimination Final would be no different to the rest of his career – he gathered 33 possessions – 17 of which were contested, had ten tackles, ten clearances and kicked a goal. Not bad numbers for a guy playing his second-last game. For a decade, if the ball was to be won for West Coast, chances were Matt Priddis was winning it.

The Eagles would be bundled out the following week, beaten by a Giants team that hadn’t had to go 15 rounds seven days earlier. The end of the 2017 campaign saw the club bid farewell to the aforementioned Priddis, as well as Sam Mitchell, Drew Petrie, lone remaining 2006 premiership player Sam Butler, Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill. Off-field, they lost Justin Longmuir, who take up the Senior Assistant role at Collingwood, while welcoming in former Adelaide skipper Nathan Van Berlo, and the recently retired Mitchell as assistant coaches.

West Coast delivered a pretty stunning shock at the 2017 trade period, electing to trade out of the first round of the purported 2018 ‘super-draft’ (along with pick 50 in 2017) for Gold Coast’s three second-round 2017 picks, and a second-round 2018 pick. Though there would appear to be method in their madness, with two of the 2017 second-round picks being used to select Oscar Allen (pick 21) and Liam Ryan (pick 26).

At the 2017 John Worsfold Medal awards night, Adam Simpson appraised West Coast’s 2017 season as a ‘rollercoaster’, saying “there were some highs and lows. But in the end we weren’t good enough”, before going on to emphasise the effort given in the round 23 game against Adelaide as reaching a level he hadn’t seen from the group before. In a season where he had, at least for a few fleeting moments, faced his coaching mortality, Simpson ended his speech by saying that the final home and away game “felt exciting to the point where I can’t wait for next year”, before finishing up with a nice bit of foreshadowing, “I can’t help but think there’s something special happening here.”

As the 2018 season approached, there were many who wrote off West Coast, with one commentator infamously declaring that the club would finish last. The logic being that, since the Eagles had bid adieu to many great players the previous year, there would be too much responsibility left on the shoulders of too few players. What this logic failed to foresee was the impact of Nic Naitanui’s return, lifting the Eagles midfield from middle of the table to one of the best in the comp; the late-career bloom of Shannon Hurn, who would make the first All-Australian team of his career; the continued excellence of Jeremy McGovern, combining with Tom Barrass to control the air behind centre; the move of Elliott Yeo to the midfield, allowing him to ascend to his final form as one of the best two-may mids in the comp; the forward-line being revitalised with the additions of Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli becoming two of the most dangerous small-forwards in the comp; Nathan Vardy and Scott Lycett stepping up to play career-best footy after Nic Naitanui ruptured his ACL for a second time; the improvement of Jack Redden and Lewis Jetta to become integral players; and the general improvement of the rest of the team, combining to finish the home and away season second on the ladder. Oh yeah, and Jack Darling putting together a first half of the season that saw him being compared to Wayne Carey in his prime.

To be fair, I’m not sure many people saw all of this coming.

All premiership teams have a game that they can point to and say, “that’s when we knew we were a chance.” For West Coast, that game came, not in a mid-season show of strength against reigning premiers Richmond, nor in an all-out show of class against Collingwood. No, the game that made West Coast believe they were capable of something special was a Round 21 encounter with Port Adelaide. The week prior, the Eagles had comfortably taken care of business against home-town rivals, the Fremantle Dockers, winning the second derby by 58 points. The result, however, was almost superfluous compared to an event that occurred in the last quarter – Andrew Gaff, for reasons passing understanding, king-hit Dockers young-gun Andrew Brayshaw. This event, coupled with an event earlier in the season when Eagles Integrity officer, Peter Staples, lashed out at a cameraman wanting to get video of Nic Naitanui hobbling off a plane after rupturing his ACL for the second time, saw the media once again asking questions of West Coast’s culture. During their weekly Monday-night interview on Channel 7, Perth Lord Mayor Basil Zempilas put this to Eagles coach Adam Simpson, asking whether there was an arrogance at issue at West Coast, saying “there [is] a perception at the club that players can do what they want to do.” Simpson avoided answering the question, but the larger point had been made – though they were now over ten years on from the dark days of the drug culture crisis, West Coast would never truly rid itself of the perception of cultural issues.

It was in this climate that West Coast flew to Adelaide to take on the Power, a team they had beaten handily earlier in the season, and had broken the hearts of nearly twelve months prior. Out of the gates, West Coast seemed off their game, with Port kicking the first four goals. West Coast would steady, kicking three of the next four to round out the first half, but the margin at halftime still stood at three goals. In the shadow of a controversy the likes of which the club hadn’t seen for over a decade, most people at the club would have understood if the players continued playing in the confused and tired manner that they had for the first two quarters. A loss would have inevitably snuffed out any chance at a premiership in 2018, but what were the chances of that after Naitanui had torn an ACL again, and their best midfielder, Andrew Gaff, was suspended for the rest of the season?

It’s fair to say that none of the players were of this view. In a match that went down to the wire, or just beyond it actually, a late hack forward from ruck-man Scott Lycett found the outstretched hands of Jeremy McGovern about 40 metres out from goal. As time ran out, West Coast were still behind by two points, meaning a straight kick from McGovern would win the Eagles the game and keep their top-two hopes well and truly alive. In scenes that must have had Power supporters believing they were suffering from deja-vu, McGovern’s kick sailed through and West Coast won.

There would be other events in the season, like experienced defender Brad Sheppard tearing his hamstring, that threatened to dampen their premiership hopes. But West Coast continued to believe. Believe in themselves, in the system they had built and the culture they had instilled. At long last they had learned an important lesson; good teams win despite their culture; great teams win because of their culture. Put another way, good teams can win premierships even though several players are spending more time on extra-curricular activities than those on-field, while great teams win because everyone on the list is aiming to get better every day.

There has been plenty written about the 2018 grand final. Many writers have waxed lyrical on the ‘immaculate chain’ of possessions that saw Dom Sheed kick the most clutch goal in grand final history, giving the Eagles the lead for the final time. Others still have written about how fitting it was for these two opponents, West Coast and Collingwood (arguably the two biggest football clubs in the AFL, if not the two biggest sporting clubs in the country) to meet in the grand final; two opponents who have such a storied finals history. In their eight meetings in the post-season, two have been drawn at the end of regular time, and only one match has been decided by more than four goals. Others still have written about the great players from that day – Luke Shuey, Jeremy McGovern, Will Schofield and many more – ensuring their legacies live on. The simple truth of it is that the game works perfectly as a microcosm for West Coast in the years preceding it. The Eagles began well, getting the first clearance and shot at goal, before being absolutely trounced over the next twenty minutes, falling five goals behind. Then started the long climb back to the top, requiring the group to dig deeper than they ever have, and on the biggest stage of all, via the steady left boot of Dom Sheed, reach immortality. The Eagles’ five-point triumph could be seen as the end of this stage of West Coast’s journey, but the brutal nature of sport decrees that endings are never written to be final, and are in fact, only chapters in a never-to-be-completed volume. The passage of time allows us to see these chapters, recognise their trends, and tell their stories.

It had taken West Coast over a decade to truly move on from their lowest point. Of course, it wasn’t a straight line – there were many peaks and troughs on their way back to the top.

And in the end, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? It’s the beauty of sport. Players can go from good to great seemingly overnight, and if enough on your team do, you’re always in with a chance. History isn’t graphed in straight lines. It’s messy and confusing (and perhaps over-written). But when viewing it, we need to remove the goggles of manifest destiny, and appreciate it for what it is. Over the course of 12 years, the Eagles managed to deal with the biggest crisis the club has ever seen, say goodbye to countless champions, deal with the mistakes of the past, have a false dawn followed by a short slump, nearly win it all, frustrate their fans, frustrate their fans some more, frustrate their fans quite a few times actually, before remarkably, astonishingly, incredibly, winning one of the greatest grand finals of all time.

A new chapter began with West Coast trying to defend their crown in 2019. While they were ultimately unsuccessful (and again in 2020 when attempting to re-capture it), the ensuing seasons have proven how fine a margin for error there is in the AFL. But for heartbreaking losses to Collingwood in 2019 and the Bulldogs in 2020, we could speaking about the Eagles as a two (or even three)-time premiership team. But that’s not the way things go sometimes. It’s what makes winning one so special. Truth be known, they just weren’t good enough when it mattered most.

The Eagles caught lightning in 2018, and have fumbled it at the crucial time the past two seasons. What does 2021 have in store? No one can say for certain. But if this season bares any resemblance to the last two, West Coast will be in with a chance. The question will be, can they take it?

 

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