Last year’s bolter faces a massive challenge in 2016 to prove that their success wasn’t due to a cushy draw and a unique game-plan that is sure to be studied and countered.
The list profile, home ground advantage and list strengthening combines to make a return to the grand final a realistic proposition for the West Coast Eagles.
West Coast Eagles – 2nd
B: Shannon Hurn, Eric Mackenzie, Xavier Ellis
HB: Brad Sheppard, Will Schofield, Sharrod Wellingham
C: Andrew Gaff, Matt Priddis, Lewis Jetta
HF: Elliot Yeo, Jack Darling, Chris Masten
F: Jeremy McGovern, Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras
R: Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey, Jack Redden
INT: Liam Duggan, Scott Lycett, Dom Sheed, Jamie Cripps
This is the equal-best forward line in the competition and may even be stronger than it was last season with McGovern likely to spend time forward.
Kennedy is the pre-eminent full forward in the competition, coming off a career-high 80 goals last season in a consistent performance where he kicked three of more goals on 16 occasions and he remains at the absolute peak of his powers.
Darling and LeCras had putrid days in the Grand Final, but remain members of a lethal support cast capable of kicking 45-50 goals if fully fit.
Darling has long threatened to become an elite AFL player, still just 23 years old but 105 games into a career where he has yet to deliver anywhere near what a player of his talent should.
With a move into the midfield, at least on a temporary basis, likely in 2016 and an injury-free pre-season in the bank, we may finally see Darling produce what he has long promised.
When you add Cripps and Josh Hill into the mix as well as the likelihood of McGovern playing a pinch-hitting role you have a forward line with tall marking strength, mobility and pressure small forwards – the second most prolific forward line in the competition in 2015.
They ranked fifth in inside 50s and third in marks inside forward 50, while conceding the second-least inside 50s per game to their opponents. There is nothing about this forward line to suggest they will drop off in 2016.
Forward line – 8/10
This backline was decimated by quarter time of Round 1 last season, losing its reigning club champion full back and first choice centre half back to season ending knee injuries.
Many thought that spelt the death knell for the Eagles in 2015, but someone forgot to tell the players and coaching staff.
Schofield played a key position back for the first time in his career and McGovern was among the league leaders in both contested and intercept marks, using his natural talent and attacking flair in balance with playing a role within the league’s fourth most frugal defence.
The return of Mackenzie this season allows coach Adam Simpson the luxury of utilising McGovern as a pure utility, or as a second key back should he want to try
to replicate last season’s success.
Sheppard, Hurn and Wellingham provided dash and attack from half-back, with Sheppard in particular impressing. A former early draft pick who seemed destined for a career of mediocrity and wasted athleticism, he featured among the league leaders in both effective disposal percentage and rebound 50s and was one of the few Eagles to walk off the field on Grand Final day with some pride intact.
While the Eagles ‘web’ was highly effective in 2015, clubs have the time and resources to study this game plan in detail over summer and the pressure will be on this group of players to modify the gameplan to come up with something different in an attempt to stay among the league’s best teams.
Backline rating – 8/10
The midfield strength starts with Naitanui, the league’s most effective pure ruckman and a player who gives his midfield brigade such a huge advantage.
For so long a sideshow and someone who was more effective off the field than on it, the Eagles star has taken tap ruck work to another level while being a contested and clearance powerhouse.
He is yet to become a threat around the ground, and that remains the flaw in his game stopping him from becoming a truly elite player.
At his feet Priddis is among the very best inside midfielders in the game, having ranked in the top 10 in both contested possessions and clearances for each of the last six season.
This is remarkable consistency for a player who might move at one speed, but proves that skills and smarts far outweigh athleticism and at 30 years of age shows no signs of regression.
Shuey, Gaff and Yeo were outstanding in 2015 and all three should continue to improve even further. Shuey showed intent to fight through a tag and Gaff ranked fifth in total possessions and first in uncontested possessions; the challenge to him this season will be to handle the likelihood of more attention, and the midfield depth provided by those listed above and new recruits Redden and Jetta should assist in this area.
Just 12 months ago there were questions asked about the depth of this midfield but now it is among the deepest and most prolific groups in the league.
Midfield rating – 8/10
The Eagles got a good break with their fixture in 2015, but with unexpected success in the modern AFL comes the reality of a tough fixture. After what should be a winnable game against Brisbane in Round 1, the Eagles face Hawthorn, Fremantle, Richmond and Sydney in Rounds 2-5.
The Eagles get eight 6-day breaks and platy 2015 finalists Hawthorn, Fremantle and Adelaide twice as well as expected improvers Collingwood and Greater Western Sydney.
After playing just once on the MCG during the season and being exposed on Grand Final day, three trips to the home of football will provide them with the opportunity to become more accustomed to the unique ground.
All in all this may be the toughest fixture in the AFL in 2016 and will challenge the Eagles.
Fixture rating – 5/10
Simpson bolted from the clouds to reportedly snatch the Eagles’ coaching job from Fremantle assistant and club favourite son Peter Sumich and it has proven to be a masterstroke by West Coast.
Calm, measured, tactically proficient and with a Hawthorn apprenticeship under his belt, Simpson would have spent many a sleepless night over summer wrestling with how close the ultimate glory was last season, but mindful that it is still a way away.
The challenge for 2016 is reintroducing Mackenzie into a back-line that surpassed all expectations and will need to be prepared for the 17 other clubs who are primed to attack ‘the web’, while ensuring the midfield can match it with the very best combinations.
On exposed form this attack has the ability to outscore any opponent, and one would expect Simpson and his coaching staff will prepare a game-plan to ensure the other areas of the ground complement this strength.
Coaching rating – 7/10
There are no excuses for the Eagles in 2016. It may not be known until finals time just how much scar tissue exists from last year’s Grand Final because there is no avoiding the fact that the performance was an embarrassment of the highest order.
Teams don’t take Grand Final appearances for granted (well, unless you are Hawthorn) as they aren’t a sure thing and don’t come around that often, and the challenge for the Eagles is to take a far more difficult draw and mounting injury concerns but still come out of the early parts of the season in a reasonable position.
Mackenzie is in effect a new recruit and the additions of Redden and Jetta are massive, given how little the Eagles had to give up to secure these two players.
With just two players aged 30 or more one would think this would be a youngish list, but the Eagles have the sixth oldest list with the fourth most games played on average.
This list is primed for success and can’t possibly play worse than they did in the 2015 Grand Final, whether they can go one step further remains to be seen.
Predicted finish – 2nd