Only when they went to the sky did the Eagles become themselves on Saturday night.
Until the final term the game had been played at ground-level, a series of congested, marvellous mauling contests and spreads from those contests.
It was a game that suited Collingwood, with younger, powerful, more quick-twitch bodies at stoppage, and more pace in open space.
For three quarters, the game’s defining strength was the Pies’ pressure. Then, in the final half hour, it became West Coast’s ability in the air.
The game was slipping away. Collingwood reached a level in the third quarter that appeared to be beyond the Eagles. Then West Coast reached that level, exceeded it, and gripped the game.
It started with marks to Jack Darling, Elliot Yeo and Josh Kennedy. Three contested grabs on the far side of the ground set the tone for the final quarter and the momentum started to build – it never really stopped.
Two weeks is a lot of time to think about a game, but the inescapable thought going into this one was simple: who plays on Kennedy and Darling? As it turned out, a magnificent Tyson Goldsack and a rusty but brave Jeremy Howe did as good as a job as could have been imagined or expected.
The caveat, though, was that Kennedy wasn’t Kennedy until the death. He never looked right, all his beats off, dropping marks, missing goals, everything mistimed. He looked fit and played at game-speed – it was just a speed different to the game going on around him.
But Darling always loomed and when Kennedy joined him for the final stanza, that was the game’s decisive turn. Kennedy’s hanger over Goldsack to start the last – the first proper ‘Kennedy’ moment – was ominous, and when he slotted the tough set-shot that followed, Collingwood was in trouble.
The goal ignited the Eagles and their next five minutes completely reversed the game’s course, gaining the advantage at stoppage, and finding a level of hardness and desperation that froze the Pies.
Darling took over. A clinical snapped finish was followed by a ridiculous contested chest mark that never looked like it was going to be a mark until it was.
In between, Lewis Jetta had his moment, and combined with Travis Varcoe’s slip, the Eagles were home. Kennedy, fittingly, took the sealing grab, a 50-50 contested mark that he’d been spilling all night.
The Eagles are a gallant outfit, a pleasure to watch and admire. They’re disciplined, well-structured, tough as anything, and have just enough mercurial talent to carry them in big moments. Occasionally they look over-matched, as though the talent gap in midfield is just too significant, as it was against Melbourne and looked like being against Collingwood.
But Jack Redden battles all day, Dom Sheed has found himself again, Luke Shuey is brilliant and Elliot Yeo is a superstar.
The defence is rock solid, though it will be tested in Brad Sheppard’s absence.
But it’s the forwards that lift the team from honest to alive. Darling has been a revelation, always an absurd specimen with his mix of height, strength, pace, leap and ability at ground level, and is now finally emphatically maximising those tools. When Kenndy looks like Kennedy – a sort of ripped, maniac caveman mixed with killer robot hunting spider – the Eagles become special.
They were special on Saturday night in the game of the week. With Darling and Kennedy on the ground together, and more importantly leaping off it, they have a chance to be special twice more.