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Youth conundrum could define Simpson's quest for Eagles flag

September is slipping from the reach of the Eagles. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Roar Rookie
27th April, 2017
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Kurt Mutimer is set to become the 11th player to be handed their AFL debut by Adam Simpson since he took over as West Coast coach four seasons ago.

No club in the AFL has had fewer debutants in that time.

Five of those ten Eagles debutants before Mutimer have failed to reach double figures in terms of games played.

Four of them – Brant Colledge, Tom Cole, Malcolm Karpany and Tom Lamb – can boast only three games or fewer.

Cole and Karpany were the Eagles’ only debutants last season, managing just three games between them.

Stats in isolation should of course be viewed with cynicism, like a desperate criminal they’ll tell you what you want to hear until you put a few more facts around them to wash out the truth.

It is worthwhile, therefore, to point out that during the same period Adelaide have had the same number of AFL debutants.

The Crows are top of the AFL ladder and, albeit after just five rounds, the benchmark for the season. Their premiership window is very much open.

The question on the minds of AFL insiders is whether West Coast can lay claim to such a notion.

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Certainly that was the belief of a number of pre-season observers, perhaps buoyed Sam Mitchell’s free ticket into the club, while just this week Fremantle coach Ross Lyon suggested the Eagles were in full premiership mode while his side begin their rebuild.

Call it mind games ahead of the derby – the most basic of stats tell us Fremantle sit alongside West Coast with a 3-2 record – but the jury is very much in deliberation on just where West Coast stand in the AFL pecking order.

One certainty we can take from the low number of debutants that Simpson has handed out is that he believes his club is in a premiership window rather than any rebuild.

Adam Simpson West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

And fair enough. The Eagles were in a grand final two seasons ago, they stormed into the finals last season during a winning run that included successes away to Greater Western Sydney and Adelaide that have been too readily forgotten in some quarters amid the club’s perplexing MCG jinx.

Indeed, their most impressive performance of the season arrived just a fortnight ago when they beat Sydney – who will surely prove that pesky 0-5 stat wrong soon enough – on the back of the fierce forward pressure that was woefully lacking on their bogey ground ten days later.

Such fluctuations in form would suggest at a young team, coming to terms with the hustle and bustle of the AFL, not to mention the vast travel that undoubtedly hamstring the hopes of the teams on the western seaboard.

But this Eagles team can not claim such a luxury.

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This is a battle-hardened unit. This is a squad that Simpson has shown faith in time and time again. This is a team he has had time to mould.

That initial stat shows Simpson’s unwavering support for his core group which has rewarded him with plenty of reason for that confidence.

But for how long can he pin his faith in that core and not let young players in?

At some point ignoring youth will leave his squad callow and slow – a trait that has already started to be pinned on a midfield built around the fast-of-mind, slow of leg qualities that have earned Matthew Priddis and Mitchell both Brownlow Medals.

Matt Priddis of the West Coast Eagles

At this point it is again prudent to provide some ballast to the argument – namely that the Eagles have not completely ignored young players.

The most significant of those is Jeremy McGovern, a steal as a rookie elevation in the draft before Simpson’s first season, while Tom Barrass has also stood tall.

Dom Sheed has shown glimpses, his career stalled by injury last year, and Simpson’s obvious frustration that he does not match his ball-winning ability with the sort of defensive effort he knows he will get from his tried-and-trusted.

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After that the next best capped Eagles players to have debuted under Simpson are products of the 2014 draft, Liam Duggan and Jackson Nelson – players the 41-year-old coach has been willing to persevere with – but who’s fledgling careers are yet to fully convince.

It is also worth noting that while Barrass has shown class in defence, it was the experience of Eric McKenzie that Simpson first turned to in Round 1 this season.

If the case that the former North Melbourne midfielder errs too cautiously on the side of experience is easy to make then, after piecing together an impressive few seasons in the west, it is perhaps only a feather to beat him with.

No Eagles fan could bemoan what the club has done under Simpson.

And in mitigation to his record of handing out AFL debuts, if you look at the Eagles’ senior list the players who are yet to debut have hardly made a resounding case to be picked.

First-round picks from the past two drafts, Daniel Venables and Luke Partington, don’t look ready while Matthew Allen, Willie Rioli and Jake Waterman are all plus-50 picks.

Josh Rotham is the only other player on the senior list yet to make his debut while on the rookie list Francis Watson was a rare shining light in a pre-season drubbing at the hands of Greater Western Sydney that would hardly have filled Simpson with much confidence he has much to work with behind the core of players he relies.

At the very least that makes any West Coast premiership bid extremely vulnerable to injury, while the next obvious question is what is going on with recruitment?

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The fact they picked up McGovern at pick 74, and then saw him become an all-Australian two seasons later is a fair retort to that particular question, while Barrass was snapped up at 43 in the same draft.

There have been misses, like any other club, and West Coast could feel some discomfort at the AFL rules that saw their second-round pick at last year’s draft drift out to 37 through no fault of their own.

Apportioning fault is hardly a trait of Simpson, however, and he has shown during his time that taking responsibility is fundamental to his body of work.

That was none better evidence than this week by his assertion his team must take their chorus MCG beratings on the chin and get better.

And better they must get if they are to bridge the apparent widening gap to the likes of Adelaide, and Greater Western Sydney, who they sit among if they are in a premiership window.

Just how he does that is the most significant narrative in the Eagles’ season.

The likes of Richmond, and indeed Fremantle, have shown that investing in youth can revive the older players at a club.

The Tigers gave the Eagles a first-hand account of the vitality of youth when they hunted them down at the MCG earlier this season and should the Dockers manage the same that drum will start to beat a little louder.

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If that happens starts it will be interesting if Simpson is willing to break the trend of his young career, and turn to youth, or whether again he will turn to the likes of Mark Hutchings, Chris Masten, Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill who have obvious ceilings but the trust of their boss.

Perhaps the most salient salient question is just whether Simpson has the young players capable of providing the answers in a midfield that has shown signs it might be too slow for the run-and-gun style that epitomises the AFL at present.

We’ll only know if they get a chance.