In 2016, West Coast were meant to be a legitimate premiership threat off the back of a grand final appearance the year before. Ultimately, it never happened.
The Eagles were holding a position in the eight after each of the 23 rounds last season, but spent the last 22 of those rounds outside the top four. Whenever they started mounting a charge, they would get found out against better sides, like in losses to the Bulldogs in Round 11 and the Crows in Round 12. Or they’d throw in an inexplicable loss, to Collingwood in Round 19.
By the time West Coast hit their best form, across Rounds 21-23 defeating GWS, Hawthorn and Adelaide, it was too late.
The Eagles also had the misfortune of playing the biggest beneficiary of the freshly introduced pre-finals bye, but looked ill-prepared for the donkey-licking they copped in the early stages of their elimination final against the Bulldogs.
Do West Coast have what it takes to entrench themselves in the top four in 2017, particularly given they are missing their match-winning ruckman?
|B||Will Schofield||Tom Barrass||Sharrod Wellingham|
|HB||Shannon Hurn||Jeremy McGovern||Brad Sheppard|
|C||Andrew Gaff||Sam Mitchell||Chris Masten|
|HF||Josh Hill||Jack Darling||Elliot Yeo|
|F||Jamie Cripps||Josh Kennedy||Mark LeCras|
|Foll||Scott Lycett||Luke Shuey||Matt Priddis|
|Int||Nathan Vardy||Liam Duggan||Dom Sheed||Sam Butler|
Emergencies: Lewis Jetta Jack Redden Mark Hutchings
The common consensus is that West Coast can’t win the premiership without Nic Naitanui.
But, it must be noted the Western Bulldogs won the flag last year without his services. Hawthorn’s threepeat across 2014-16 was also achieved without him. Geelong’s dynasty from 2007-2011 contained no traces of Nic Naitanui.
In fact, last time I checked, 100 per cent of VFL/AFL premierships have been won by teams that did not contain Nic Naitanui. Nic Naitanui himself has won zero premierships.
So, in conclusion, premierships not just can be won without Nic Naitanui, but, based on historical data, are mathematically certain to be won without him.
Of course, everyone would love to have Nic Nat in their side, but when a player goes down at the time he did, giving coach staff seven months to prepare for the season ahead without him, then no excuse can be made. It would be poor form from any Eagle player, staff or supporter to say “If only we had Naitanui”.
Scott Lycett is a good ruckman in his own right, but going down for half the season wasn’t in the plans. Jonathon Giles always acquits himself well when called up. Nathan Vardy was acquired from Geelong, but needs to prove he is up to AFL standard as either forward or ruck. He looked good in the JLT Series game against Melbourne last week.
If worse comes to worse, the animated corpse Drew Petrie can be exhumed from the rookie list, and can run amok with his wheelchair in the middle of the ground. It sounds like he will be in the Round 1 team.
There can be no doubt the addition of Sam Mitchell from Hawthorn will also offset the loss of Naitanui. Some might have a little query about whether Matt Priddis and Mitchell will now be fighting for the same ball in stoppage situations, but both are too smart for that, and play different games at any rate.
Priddis is the one more likely to get his hands dirty at the feet of ruckmen, and Mitchell is the one that can find a metre of space where there isn’t any. Priddis might be given the responsibility of roving to his own ruckman and to any neutral balls, while Mitchell can use the smartest mind in the game to shark the opposition.
Adding in the explosiveness of Luke Shuey, now a top 30 player in the game according to the Roar panel of experts yesterday, and the foundations of a top class midfield are set. As Ryan pointed out in his superb feature on the Eagles yesterday, Shuey can only be a beneficiary of Mitchell’s addition, and can become more destructive.
Andrew Gaff we know will deliver the goods running free on the wings, but we’ve got to be seeing him kick 20+ goals for the year, not just half a dozen or so.
The supporting midfield cast is lengthy, but mixed.
Chris Masten has become a bit of a nothing player. Eagles fans, and staff, are hoping for the likes of Dom Sheed and Liam Duggan to take his position. They would also love to see Lewis Jetta and Jack Redden produce what was advertised when they were brought into the club from Sydney and Brisbane respectively.
Sheed underwhelmed when he finally got back into the side last year, and must make a statement now in his fourth season. Elliot Yeo has a high opinion of himself, and we know he’s got all the tools, but it would be nice to see him put them to consistent use. Mark Hutchings is a solid back-up too.
All of these guys won’t necessarily play in the same team, but it gives the Eagles enviable depth.
The West Coast backline works seamlessly together, led by Jeremy McGovern plucking intercept and contested marks at will. Tom Barrass looks good learning the same caper, and Will Schofield is the experienced hand keeping it all together. Eric Mackenzie has also pressed claims in the JLT Series to retake his spot back there.
Up forward, Josh Kennedy always delivers, while Jack Darling has some demons to contend with after another frightful moment on the finals stage last year.
The ability of Mark LeCras, Jamie Cripps and Josh Hill to work together again will help compile winning scores.
The Eagles used the corridor the fourth most of any side in 2016, and they could do so even more this season with the addition of Mitchell. He will provide an outlet across half-back for clearing kicks from defensive fifty, and can pierce a ball into the centre with his short kicks on either foot. But he also has the uncanny knack of finding space though the middle, where he can link to devastating effect.
West Coast gets the chance to set up their season early with a friendly draw, where they could and probably should start favourite in five or six of their first seven games, taking on five non-finalists from last year in that time. Round 1 against North will be a percentage booster.
Do the Eagles get ahead of themselves in a two-team town? Basic human psychology says it’s an easy trap to fall into. Four of their losses last year came on the road the week after wins of 62 points or more at home. Winning by those margins generates a lot of friendly headline and pats on the back from adoring fans.
No doubt the West Coast players were already looking forward to the adulation they would receive for winning the elimination final last year. They were looking up at the packed stadium chanting their names, and didn’t see the Bulldog freight train coming the other way.
Hopefully the lesson will be learnt, and the fire within ignited.
The Eagles have the players. Adam Simpson has shown he’s got the style that can win matches, and beat good sides doing it. But are they mentally strong enough to be there at the pointy end? Let’s find out.
Predicted ladder spread: 4th-8th
Predicted finish: 5th
Best and fairest: Luke Shuey
Leading goalkicker: Josh Kennedy
All-Australian potential: Josh Kennedy, Jeremy McGovern, Luke Shuey
Rising Star candidates: None
5th – West Coast
6th – Melbourne
7th – Adelaide
8th – St Kilda
9th – Hawthorn
10th – Richmond
11th – Collingwood
12th – Gold Coast
13th – Port Adelaide
14th – Fremantle
15th – Essendon
16th – North Melbourne
17th – Carlton
18th – Brisbane