My last few articles have concentrated on the players likely to disappear from the AFL top 100 goal-scorers list in 2019, so now my focus is the AFL top 100 game players.
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After being considered as Richmond’s biggest threat in the first part of the season, the West Coast Eagles have struggled to continue their stunning start with injuries and poor form contributing to their struggles of late.
It is safe to say not many of us expected the Eagles to be flying high in the top eight let alone the Top four of the competition and even leading the pack for a few weeks. After the retirements of veteran midfielders Sam Mitchell and Matt Priddis and barely sneaking into the finals in Season 2017, the Eagles depth was going to be tested and were considered the wooden-spooners of 2018 by Carlton great Robert Walls.
A remarkable start to the season eventuated where they boasted a 10-1 record after 11 games which is their best start since 2006, where they the won the premiership. How wrong we got it!
For the first 11 weeks, they were scoring more than 100 points on average (11 points up on 2017), ranked third behind Richmond and Melbourne, largely thanks to their superstar forwards Josh Kennedy (29 goals), Jack Darling (28) and Mark LeCras (22).
The three have combined to boot at least one-third of the team’s goals on every occasion, with Kennedy continually bagging goals, Darling arguably being the best forward in the competition and in career-best form and LeCras resurrecting his career after a poor 2017 by his lofty standards.
The ‘Weagles Web’ from 2015 was back on show with the skipper Shannon Hurn spearheading the defensive set up with he and Jeremy McGovern constantly taking intercept marks (contested and uncontested) to deny the opposition of the ball.
They are ranked first in marks as well as contested marks to date, with Hurn averaging 8.3 marks a game (second overall) ranked behind Tom Jonas of Port Adelaide.
Moreover, the Eagles are conceding on average 76.1 points a game, clearly improving on their defensive part of the game in 2018. Since Round 1 where Sydney’s Lance Franklin booted eight goals, the Eagles are yet to concede more than 90 points in a game since showing that there backline is solid.
Despite looking unbeatable in the first half of the season, the Eagles season has come to bit of a halt win-wise, with 3 straight losses after the bye before snapping that poor run with a gritty 11 point win over GWS in Round 16.
It was unsurprising where it broke down for the Eagles with their scoring drying up completely from 100 to just a tick over 62 points a game on average.
Unfortunately, they lost one, two and three of their main forwards mentioned above in Rounds 13, 14 and 15 respectively which proved to be a blow severe enough to make a substantial difference. They first came up against Sydney who are never easy to face especially playing away. A Friday night thriller eventuated, with both teams giving their all in a fierce, high pressure contest that ended with the ladder leaders at that point eventually falling short.
Astonishingly, what followed was simply a lacklustre performance against an improved Essendon back in Perth, where the Eagles surprisingly conceded the first eight goals of the game and never got into the contest at all.
A disappointing final quarter fadeout against an out-of-form Adelaide summed up the struggles a team is bound to face when they are missing their three key forwards.
Eventually, the high flying birds were able to post a decent score on the board against GWS, where they managed to get home in a thrilling contest courtesy of players including inexperienced forward Willee Rioli, swingman Elliott Yeo, prized midfielder Andrew Gaff, big men Jack Redden and Nic Naitanui as well as skipper Shannon Hurn stepping up and guiding them home to a much-needed win to stay in the Top four
How important will this win be? It could well and truly be the difference between top four and top eight. The Eagles’ will to win despite suffering injuries to key players is without a doubt there, and with their three key forwards returning imminently as well as key defender Tom Barrass, there is definitely a good chance that they can return to their best form before the end of the season.
Run Home (Currently 11-4)
Round 17: V Collingwood (MCG)
Round 18: V Western Bulldogs (OS)
Round 19: V North Melbourne (BA)
Round 20: V Fremantle (OS)
Round 21: V Port Adelaide (AO)
Round 22: V Melbourne (OS)
Round 23: V Brisbane (G)
We know the West Coast Eagles have a strong record at home and they should win their remaining three games back in Perth taking them to 14 wins.
On the other hand, they hold a 4-2 record away from home with three of these wins coming against Carlton (MCG), Western Bulldogs (Etihad) and Hawthorn (Etihad). One would think they must win at least two of their four away games to make the top four whereas three out of four would guarantee a top four spot, allowing them to finish on 17-5.
The main question is though, can they win the premiership? Well, the simple answer is of course they can! With a host of star players coming back, the team will undoubtedly be strengthened, however, doubts whether they can take a big scalp away from home especially in Melbourne will always exist until they do so.
Collingwood at the MCG is the best way to make a stand and prove they can do it on the big stage. The probable return of Kennedy and Darling means it is the Eagles’ time to show that they can win on the home of football against a contender. North Melbourne in Tasmania is arguably as tough itself due to the volatile and unpredictable wind that can rear its ugly head in.
There will be agreements and disagreements but in my opinion, if West Coast can win at the MCG and in Hobart, a deep run into the finals is more likely than not. If they cannot win at least two out of their next three games away from home, they most likely do not have what it takes to win the defining games on the big stages in September away from Perth.