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After a pre-season where they were universally written off as the team most likely to fall from the eight, after seven rounds of this season West Coast have emerged as the real deal, and most likely challenger to Richmond.
This year, what’s proving more important than individual talent or even the system of each team is the cohesion which with the selected 22 operate on any given day, and the consistency of performance week to week.
Right now, the Eagles have that cohesion. It’s clear the Tigers do. North are playing with it. Hawthorn are for the most part, just as they did in their premiership years under Alastair Clarkson.
We know West Coast has weapons at either end of the ground, as they have done for years.
Josh Kennedy isn’t getting a lot of the ball but is hitting the scoreboard as he works his way into the season. He’s only taken 11 marks in his four games, with only one of them contested, and those numbers will rise as his fitness increases and his timing gets better.
Jack Darling has picked up the slack as he finds career-best form in his eighth season, on track to completely demolish a series of personal bests and potentially claim his first All Australian gong. There might only be one more confident footballer than Darling in the competition right now, and his first name is Nat.
Mark LeCras has wound back the clock off the back of focus on his pressure game. He’s top five for tackles at West Coast, along with Jamie Cripps. Jake Waterman looks a find at a great size, Willie Rioli is doing the family name proud in his early days, and Liam ‘Flyin’ Ryan could be anything.
Down back, Jeremy McGovern is doing his intercept mark thing as he always does, while Shannon Hurn is also winning the ball back from the opposition and then controlling matches with that lethal right boot.
Brad Sheppard is playing good footy, as is Tom Barrass on the last line, while Elliot Yeo helps out when required.
The job of the defence is being made easier by the Eagles midfield not just winning the ball, but pressuring when they don’t have it.
Poor sides or those down on confidence always make the mistake of collapsing on the ball carrier, too many players targeting them, and not coordinating their attack. It comes from individuals trying to impress, but it leads to a team losing their defensive structure.
West Coast’s pressure between the arcs has been reminiscent of Richmond. The Eagles move in unison, with the right player going at the right time, and others in the vicinity closing off the exits of the ball carrier.
Football is always about what happens next when the ball is in hand, and right now West Coast are predicting their opposition’s movement, clamping them, and not giving them an outlet. If they do happen to get the ball forward under all that pressure, it’s easy to read for McGovern and co.
In terms of offensive ball movement, Andrew Gaff has been key. He’s a player that has often divided critics, with his prolific ball gathering unquestioned, but his impact on games is the question mark. This year, he has become more dangerous than ever before, and his team is the beneficiary.
Jack Redden has lifted in the last two weeks, a timely run of form given Luke Shuey was out early against Port and will miss some football. Dom Sheed has become more inside after the retirement of Matt Priddis, while Chris Masten is back in favour. Mark Hutchings had a monster game against Port and gets a chance to cement his spot.
Football is a team sport, and the best sides become more than the sum of their individual parts through a combination of belief, confidence and selflessness. It was certainly the case for the Western Bulldogs in 2016 and Richmond in 2017. The 2018 Eagles are shaping up the same way.