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The West Coast Eagles are headed for the cliff's edge

West Coast Eagles coach Adam Simpson. (AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
17th September, 2017
93
3244 Reads

West Coast’s remarkable efforts to scrape into finals and then win past Port Adelaide were among the most memorable moments of 2017 – but don’t let that fool you. The Eagles have problems.

AFL list management series
18 – Brisbane Lions
17 – Gold Coast Suns
16 – Carlton Blues
15 – North Melbourne Kangaroos
14 – Fremantle Dockers
13 – Collingwood Magpies
12 – Hawthorn Hawks
11 – St Kilda Saints
10 – Western Bulldogs
9 – Melbourne Demons
8 – Essendon Bombers
7 – Port Adelaide Power
5 – Sydney Swans
4 – GWS Giants
3 – Geelong Cats

2017 in short

The Eagles entered this season likely aiming for a top-four berth and with a bit of hope at being premiership contenders. I certainly thought they were.

As it was, they fell well short of that lofty goal. Really, if you took their 2015 season off the books it’d be hard to understand why anyone thought they were a particularly good team at all.

A bit of good luck and some commendable efforts saw them sneak into the finals and even win one, but this doesn’t seem likely to have been anything other than a memorable last hurrah for a few retiring veterans.

Matt Priddis West Coast Eagles AFL 2017 Finals

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Coach

It’s amazing how quickly you can go from hero to zero in the coaching game. Adam Simpson was widely lauded after taking West Coast unexpectedly to a grand final in 2015, but the club’s middling results since have left many Eagles fans a bit unhappy with him.

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As it is, he’s contracted until the end of 2019 and will certainly remain in charge of the Eagles next year, however there’s a good chance they’ll be dropping down the ladder in 2018 and if they do, scrutiny around him will quickly intensify.

It’s worth noting that at the end of 2015 Adelaide poached his right-hand man Don Pyke to be their new senior coach, and the team hasn’t been the same since. There’s more to the story than that, certainly, but perhaps the Eagles need to invest more heavily in the staff supporting him.

Captain

Shannon Hurn took over captaining the club in 2015 and led the team all the way to a grand final in his first year, and they have made finals in every year under his leadership.

At 30 years old, the club should be turning an eye to who is likely to be the team’s next skipper and a change could be made as soon as this offseason.

Luke Shuey probably seems like the most likely candidate for the job, though truth be told there isn’t really a standout young leader on West Coast’s list, which is a potential concern for them going forward, and perhaps a quality they should be looking for when they hit the draft this year.

Shannon Hurn West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

List management

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West Coast’s veteran core is at a clear tipping point where the majority of players that make up the group are only scarcely in the best 22.

Some of them are finishing up this year, and most of those that continue on will only do so to retire at the end of next year instead.

Sam Mitchell, Drew Petrie (both 34), Matt Priddis (32) and Sam Butler (31) have already confirmed their retirements. Mark LeCras (31), Eric Mackenzie, Sharrod Wellingham (both 29) and Josh Hill (28) are out of contract. Jonathan Giles (29) is unconfirmed, but probably is out of contract also.

Of the veterans on the list, Josh J Kennedy and Shannon Hurn (both 30) look the only ones likely to make a serious contribution next year – Kennedy as once again a potential Coleman medallist, and Hurn likely as captain of the club or the mentor to a new one.

Mackenzie (29), Will Schofield, Chris Masten and Lewis Jetta (all 28) could all play some role over the next couple of years but seem unlikely to significantly steer the direction of the side.

Instead, West Coast in 2018 and beyond will structure their side around the current middle tier which is a reasonably strong group with some genuine star power.

Nic Naitanui, Luke Shuey (both 27), Jack Redden, Brad Sheppard, Mark Hutchings (all 26), Jeremy McGovern, Jack Darling, Andrew Gaff (all 25) and Elliot Yeo (23) is the core of this team for the next few years at least, and not a bad one.

Luke Shuey West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(AAP Image/David Mariuz)

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What would be more concerning from West Coast’s perspective is a relative lack of youth ready to take up the workload left behind by the retiring veteran core.

Dom Sheed (22), Tom Barrass (21) and Liam Duggan (20) have all shown enough to suggest they can be key members of the best 22 going forward, but that’s about it.

The likes of Malcolm Karpany, Willie Rioli (both 22), Tom Lamb, Luke Partington, Tom Cole (all 20), Josh Rotham (19) and Daniel Venables (18) could all join this group, but we haven’t seen enough of them at senior level yet to say for sure.

If the Eagles can find a good crop of future stars out of this group then their list will be in a healthy enough position to be happy enough, but that’s a big if as you’d think they’d have forced their way in for more senior opportunities by now if that was the case.

The chief concern would be that it’s largely a vanilla group of inside midfielders and flanker-types, without much in the way of genuine speed, excitement or star power.

To be genuinely competitive in the flag race with this group of players, West Coast probably need to add some more talent to this group, but that will be hard to do without compromising their ability to continue adding youth through the draft.

It’s a classic catch-22 situation that is pretty common for teams that, like West Coast, have prioritised the push for a premiership over drafting and developing genuine youth in recent years. Unfortunately for them, they didn’t get the desired reward for doing so.

Liam Duggan West Coast Eagles AFL 2017 tall

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

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West Coast players by age
Sam Mitchell – 34yr 11mth
Drew Petrie (R) – 34yr 11mth
Matthew Priddis – 32yr 5mth
Sam Butler – 31yr 8mth
Mark LeCras – 31yr
Josh J Kennedy – 30yr
Shannon Hurn – 30yr
Jonathan Giles – 29yr 8mth
Eric Mackenzie – 29yr 3mth
Sharrod Wellingham – 29yr 2mth
Josh Hill – 28yr 7mth
Will Schofield – 28yr 7mth
Chris Masten – 28yr 4mth
Lewis Jetta – 28yr 4mth
Nic Naitanui – 27yr 4mth
Luke Shuey – 27yr 3mth
Jack Redden – 26yr 9mth
Bradley Sheppard – 26yr 3mth
Mark Hutchings – 26yr 3mth
Nathan Vardy – 26yr 2mth
Jeremy McGovern – 25yr 5mth
Jamie Cripps – 25yr 4mth
Jack Darling – 25yr 3mth
Andrew Gaff – 25yr 3mth
Scott Lycett – 24yr 11mth
Simon Tunbridge (R) – 24yr 5mth
Fraser McInnes (R) – 24yr 1mth
Elliot Yeo – 23yr 11mth
Paddy Brophy (R) – 23yr 6mth
Dom Sheed – 22yr 5mth
Malcolm Karpany – 22yr 3mth
Willie Rioli – 22yr 2mth
Francis Watson (R) – 21yr 11mth
Tom Barrass – 21yr 11mth
Jackson Nelson – 21yr 6mth
Tom Gorter (R) – 21yr
Tom Lamb – 20yr 10mth
Liam Duggan – 20yr 9mth
Luke Partington – 20yr 6mth
Kurt Mutimer – 20yr 6mth
Tom Cole – 20yr 3mth
Jordan Snadden (R) – 20yr 1mth
Matthew Allen – 19yr 10mth
Josh Rotham – 19yr 6mth
Tarir Bayok (R) – 19yr 6mth
Jake Waterman – 19yr 6mth
Daniel Venables – 18yr 9mth

Dom Sheed West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(Photo by Will Russell/AFL Media/Getty Images)

The Eagles do have some tough decisions to make on this current out of contract group before they get anything else started in the 2018 offseason.

Four veterans are already moving on and they’ve got older players Eric Mackenzie, Mark LeCras, Josh Hill and Sharrod Wellingham also out of contract.

As a general rule, eight players is a lot to replace in the space of a single year, especially given that the Eagles don’t seem to have any clear trade targets or a fistful of draft picks to do so with.

Eric Mackenzie should certainly be re-signed at least on a one-year deal. Of the other three, Mark LeCras would be the best choice to retain if the Eagles feel they need to stagger their retirements to some degree.

The other big question is Tom Lamb, who debuted for the Eagles in Round 1 after he was drafted (albeit as the substitute), then was dropped and never seen again.

He has played good football in the WAFL this year without getting any senior opportunities, but would be worth keeping around another year to see if he can crack into the side with more spots open next year.

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The Eagles also have a few important names in the 2018 contract group they’ll want to look towards retaining as soon as possible.

Liam Duggan, Andrew Gaff, Jeremy McGovern and Elliot Yeo are all crucial players coming out of contract next year that, for peace of mind, West Coast should ideally sign to long-term deals before 2018 even begins.

Jeremy McGovern West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

West Coast players by contract status
2022
Luke Shuey

2021
None

2020
Jack Darling
Daniel Venables

2019
Tom Barrass
Tom Cole
Josh J Kennedy
Chris Masten
Nic Naitanui
Jackson Nelson
Will Schofield
Dom Sheed
Brad Sheppard

2018
Jamie Cripps
Liam Duggan
Andrew Gaff
Mark Hutchings
Malcolm Karpany
Shannon Hurn
Scott Lycett
Jeremy McGovern
Luke Partington
Matt Priddis
Willie Rioli
Josh Rotham
Jake Waterman
Elliot Yeo

Out of contract
Matthew Allen (R)
Tarir Bayok (R)
Paddy Brophy (R)
Sam Butler
Tom Gorter (R)
Josh Hill
Tom Lamb
Mark LeCras
Eric Mackenzie
Fraser McInnes (R)
Sam Mitchell
Kurt Mutimer
Drew Petrie
Jordan Snadden (R)
Simon Tunbridge
Francis Watson (R)
Sharrod Wellingham

Unconfirmed
Jonathan Giles
Lewis Jetta
Jack Redden
Nathan Vardy

Elliot Yeo West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Delistings and retirements

Matt Priddis, Sam Mitchell, Drew Petrie and Sam Butler have already confirmed their retirements, and rookie Paddy Brophy left the club earlier in the year.

As discussed, Josh Hill and Sharrod Wellingham are other possible delisting candidates, with neither able to hold a spot in the best 22 this year.

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Simon Tunbridge and Kurt Mutimer haven’t done much to suggest they’ll deserve another deal, and Jonathan Giles’ time will probably end if he is indeed out of contract.

One way or another, it’s clear that there’s going to be a lot of change at West Coast this offseason, though some players who are possible candidates to move on will probably be kept simply to prevent there being too much sudden change.

Free agency

Mark LeCras (unrestricted)
Eric Mackenzie (restricted)

Mackenzie might get some interest from a club looking for a mature key defender if the Eagles don’t opt to retain him, though at 29 it would have to be one looking only for a short-term fix.

LeCras presumably will either stay on with the Eagles or retire.

West Coast haven’t been linked to any free agents in particular and this seems unlikely to change. If they’re targeting someone this offseason it’s probably someone too young to currently be eligible for free agency.

Trade period

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Things have been pretty quiet on the rumour front as far as West Coast’s trade ambitions go this year.

They were linked to both Jason Johanissen and Mitch McGovern during the year as potential Western Australian players to return home, but in both cases they re-signed, and in both cases Fremantle’s pursuit of them was probably more advanced and more financially lucrative than that of the Eagles.

Brandon Matera is another who could be on the way to WA and would be worth putting in an offer for, though not likely any big loss if they miss out.

At this stage, unless the Eagles throw us a serious curveball during this offseason, it seems more likely than anything else that they will have a quiet one and prepare to hunt players more aggressively in 2018 and beyond.

Trading a player or two out is something they should be seriously considering as a way to make a greater investment in the draft, but this would be a tough decision.

Chris Masten will likely be floated as someone who is available to other clubs, but it’s difficult to see there being much interest, let alone a club willing to give up a high draft pick.

From a purely logical perspective, the best way for the West Coast Eagles to increase their investment at the draft without robbing their middle tier or youth of talent would be to trade 30-year-old Josh J Kennedy.

Even though he is a veteran player, his elite abilities could still see him be worth a first-round draft pick to the right club.

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From a more realistic point of view though, this seems unlikely to happen – it would come as a slap in the face to fans and the Eagles are unlikely to consider going down that path.

If it was to happen it’d more likely need to be initiated by the club targeting Kennedy, and that’d need to be a club that has salary cap space and draft picks to spend, and wants to do so on a 30-year-old key forward. There probably isn’t one in the league right now.

Josh J Kennedy West Coast Eagles AFL 2017

(Photo by Morne de Klerk/Getty Images)

Draft

First three rounds: 13, 31, 49.

Local prospect Aaron Naughton would be a consideration for the Eagles if still around at this stage, but that does seem a bit unlikely.

Another WA prospect in the mix would be Oscar Allen, a key forward. It’s probably a little earlier than most would expect to see him picked.

The ideal result for the Eagles would be that a dynamic midfielder like Jack Higgins or Jaidyn Stephenson slips to this pick, but that’s more optimistic than realistic.

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It may be the case that, as they have more than once in recent years, they are forced to settle for someone a bit more vanilla.

Outlook

The promise of West Coast’s future largely banks on the development of a 22-and-under group that, at this point in time, looks worryingly thin.

These players should get more exposure at senior level in 2018, something they’ve been starved of so far, and Eagles fans must hope that they flourish when given these opportunities.

If we don’t seem some hidden talent revealed here then it will be fair to say that West Coast’s situation looks a little bleak, and they are likely headed over a cliff.

A team that loses a lot of veteran talent in a short space of time and doesn’t have much in the way of youth to replace it is only headed in one direction: down.

West Coast Eagles AFL

(AAP Image/Joe Castro)

Don’t be surprised if that prompts questions about the future of Adam Simpson at the club or even makes it difficult to retain out-of-contract stars like Jeremy McGovern or Andrew Gaff, or young gun Liam Duggan.

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In order to make best use of what is a talented middle tier, the Eagles will eventually need to look to bolster their 19-22 crowd.

However in addition to it being traditionally difficult for the WA clubs to attract talent that isn’t WA-born players, to do this the Eagles would have to rob Peter to pay Paul by giving up draft picks they should instead be using to acquire young talent.

Likely the best path forward will be to keep investing in the draft and only look to land talent via either free agency or shopping at the bargain basement bin and hope for the best when it comes to trading with other clubs.

In, say, four to eight years, it’ll be a good time to hit the free agency market and bolster what is currently the 22-and-under group, and if the Eagles have drafted some good talent between now and then they may be able to briefly push for the flag again in the early 2020s while the likes of Nic Naitanui and Luke Shuey are still contributing as veterans.

In the short term though, with a good chunk of talent leaving the club, next year looks likely to be a year of transition and rebuilding – perhaps the first of several in a row – and after just barely making the finals this time around the Eagles will probably fall well short in 2018.