Who will reign supreme in the west?
Can Freo make it to the grand final again in 2014? (Photo: Sean Garnsworthy/AFL Media)
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The Fremantle Dockers started their pre-season with one simple goal in mind – make the grand final again in 2014 and atone for their failure in 2013.
Failure might be too harsh a word considering they did play Hawthorn, who have been one of the strongest clubs over the past five or six years in the competition.
The Hawks were driven by the lack of success since their grand final triumph over a rampant Geelong side in 2008. The Dockers’ nerves were evident on footy’s biggest stage this year, and now that they have had the initial experience they want it again.
They want to be premiers and Ross Lyon wants the monkey off his back after taking St Kilda close to the holy grail in consecutive years in 2009-10. Lyon has presided over three losses and a draw in his four grand finals as a coach to date.
Lyon wants to silence the doubters who claim that his game plan can get you to the grand final, it just can’t stand up to the pressure in that particular game.
It is the ultimate insult.
The West Coast Eagles’ pre-season will be a different occasion for the first time since 2002, when John Worsfold took the reins of a club he lead magnificently on the field in the 1990s.
Adam Simpson and his new-look coaching panel will spend the pre-season teaching the group a style of footy that they believe will take the Eagles to the last day in September.
It was a clever appointment by the Eagles to make Simpson the coach. His apprenticeship was done at the Hawks between 2010-2013, and being able to bring some of the best practice training and knowledge acquired at that club can only be a good thing for the Eagles moving forward.
The Eagles had a massive fall from grace in 2013. After reaching the preliminary final in 2011 (losing to Geelong) and the semi-final in 2012 (losing to Collingwood), many believed that the Eagles were a genuine threat to claim a fourth flag.
Injuries, a lack of form and a nine losses at their Patersons Stadium home saw them finish 13th. The Eagles are a proud club backed by a passionate fanbase who demand excellence, so a rise up the ladder will be expected in 2014.
Atonement from different perspectives will drive the West Australian clubs through another brutal summer in the Perth heat. For anyone who has spent any time in Perth between December and February, you will know that brutal is probably not a harsh enough word.
Here’s what the clubs will be working on over the summer.
Fremantle will build on last year knowing and believing that they are good enough to beat any team in the competition.
Their midfield is the one of the best in the competition and with Aaron Sandilands (when fit) they get first use of the footy more often than not.
With Fyfe, Mundy, Barlow and Crowley in the engine room and Stephen Hill out on the wing, this group of talent is ably backed up by the support cast with the Ross Lyon mantra of team-first football – know your role and do it as well as possible within the structure that has been set by the coaching panel.
Mzungu, de Boer, Duffield, Pearce (both Clancee and Danyle), Ibbotson, Ballantyne and Walters can all play a role through the middle when need and exemplify this type of attitude.
It will be interesting to see how Colin Sylvia is added to the mix and operates in a successful team with much, much higher standards than he has been used to at Melbourne his entire career.
Sylvia has talent but it has yet to be fully realised and Lyon might be the man to do it.
The Dockers also have a very solid defence, led by Luke McPharlin. He is the general down back and is never afraid to set the standard and drag the others long with him.
He gets terrific support from Johnson in particular, as well as Duffield and Ibbotson. They are a stingy team and I expect more of the same in 2014.
Where the Dockers will need to improve in order to go a step further in 2014 is the forward line. It has been lead by Matthew Pavlich for much of the past few years as his time in the midfield has decreased.
As reliable as Pavlich was, his body is showing the strain of 14 years in the AFL, only playing 12 games in the 2013 season.
He is still the go-to man in the forward line and it will be up the support cast to make sure that Pav can retire as a loyal one-club premiership player at Fremantle. Ballantyne and Walters on their day can be dynamic and Chris Mayne leaves it all on the field, as well as being a superb set shot for goal.
The rotation of Zac Clarke and Sandilands between the ruck, forward and bench will be crucial for Fremantle next year. Adding a third tall stretches many teams’ defences and gives the crumbing players a great chance to get in and under to win some footy in the forward 50.
Scott Gumbleton has also been added to the squad to play a role up forward.
Gumbleton has a well documented history of injury while on the Essendon list, completing only 35 games since being drafted with the second pick in the 2006 draft. If he can stay fit, who knows how good he can be?
Fremantle, along with Hawthorn and Sydney, are a top three team in 2014. They have everything in place and also one further key ingredient – a grand final loss in 2013 to spur and motivate them.
It is also worth mentioning that they are building a great rivalry with Geelong in recent seasons, particularly because of their ability to beat the Cats. They beat the Cats at the MCG in 2012 in the elimination final and then again this year at Simonds Stadium in the qualifying final.
The past five meetings see Fremantle with a 3-2 head-to-head advantage.
West Coast Eagles
A new coach and new coaching panel along with a different game plan can sometimes be just the tonic required to lift a side that gets too comfortable with its surrounds.
It could be argued that after so long listening to Worsfold’s voice and game plan that the Eagles simply failed respond in season 2013.
What the Eagles have in their favour is that the team is still packed with talent and with injury and form permitting are a certain Top 8 side, possibly in the top four if all games at Patersons result in wins.
The forward line is the key for the Eagles.
They have a great one-two combination between Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling (the envy of many clubs) who provide big strong bodies that take marks, kick goals and chase down the opposition for tackles.
Having small forwards with the class of Mark Le Cras and Josh Hill is a massive plus, while having Dean Cox resting forward on occasion will create the third tall and headaches all round for the opposition.
I firmly believe that the Eagles should resist the notion of Le Cras playing through the midfield too much – his value and skills up forward are vital and it is where he can cause the most damage.
The midfield is a hardworking, ball winning group of players who have the benefit of having the league’s best ruck combination of Cox and Nic Naitanui.
Nic Nat is spectacular and once he gets into the Cox mould of winning a heavy number of possessions to go with his natural flair he could become a once-in-a-generation player.
The crew at Cox and Naitanui’s feet of Selwood, Priddis, Shuey, Masten and Wellingham need to capitalise on the big men by getting the ball forward as often as possible.
The knock on the midfield is that it is too one-paced, with no genuine speed apart from maybe Wellingham.
Andrew Gaff will need to rediscover his mojo in 2014 and learn how to deal with taggers, while Elliot Yeo also needs to show why West Coast traded their No.6 pick for No.11 to get him across from the Brisbane Lions.
The Eagles defence will once again be led by Darren Glass, in what may be his last season. Eric McKenzie, Will Schofield and Ashley Smith have been solid in recent seasons but will need to lift from their collective 2013 form.
Shannon Hurn’s right boot, either from the kick in or running off half-back, is a massive advantage because it generally adds an extra 30 metres to any play that he is involved in.
Whether the Eagles have enough quality small defenders is a question that will be answered as the season wears on.
West Coast should be back in the finals in 2014 but this is heavily dependent on how quickly they implement the Adam Simpson game plan. They also need to make Patersons Stadium a fortress again.
The Dockers and Eagles are both in good positions for season 2014. Finals should be a definite for both teams, although I think Fremantle has the advantage from a coaching perspective as they will be in their third season under Ross Lyon.
The two sides meet in the Derby in rounds 7 and 15 and I think it will go one each next year.
Fremantle currently have 41,840 members signed up, while West Coast have 41,943 members.
Both have announced their planned moves to new state-of-the-art training facilities in the near future, which comes on the back of playing out of the new Burswood Stadium from the 2018 season.
The future is certainly burning bright out west.