AFL news, as it happens.
Today we start a new footballing year – a year in which the West Coast Eagles are the defending premiers of the AFL.
It would have been a very brave person – or a very passionate West Coast fan – who predicted that we’d be sitting here saying this today. So how did it happen?
To find that out we really must go back to 2013. After finishing fifth and suffering a narrow semi-final loss to Collingwood in 2012, the Eagles spent just one week in the top eight for the entire 2013 season. They missed the finals for the fourth time in six years under John Worsfold, and he and the club parted ways at the end of the season.
Enter Adam Simpson, another of the fabled Alastair Clarkson assistants, to take over the helm. Only five years out of the game, Simpson was a fresh face for a fresh West Coast team. In his first year, 2014, West Coast had their first Brownlow Medal winner since 2006, in Matt Priddis, and missed the finals by one game.
That game is one Eagles fans with longer memories will remember, against Essendon at Etihad Stadium. The Eagles led for most of the game before Essendon hit the lead in the final term and won by three points thanks to a hooked Josh Hill kick.
Enter 2015, the beginning of a Shannon Hurn leadership and the return of West Coast to the front of the pack. A young Eagles outfit dropped just five games in 2015, and barring a draw against a plucky young Gold Coast outfit, they would have stolen the top spot from cross-town rivals Fremantle.
West Coast entered the grand final full of hope. They had beaten Hawthorn convincingly in their first final and were set to face them again on grand final day, but on that last day in September they allowed the Hawks a quick start and went into the quarter-time break mentally beaten.
The Eagles were doomed to history as the third straight interstate team the Hawks had beaten on grand final day, but if history has anything to say about it, a grand final loss for West Coast usually means a premiership isn’t too far ahead, with every West Coast premiership to date coming within three years of a grand final loss.
In 2016 the Eagles again won 16 games to confirm another home final, this time finishing sixth, only to be steamrolled by the juggernaut that was the Western Bulldogs. It was a dark day for a team that went in heavy favourites and left suffering a heavy defeat.
The club spent the off-season evaluating itself internally before being handed a lifeline in the shape of Sam Mitchell. The club also used this off-season to recruit Nathan Vardy and draft Willie Rioli, players whose value wouldn’t truly come to the fore until 2018.
In 2017 the Eagles scraped into the finals thanks to a spirited win against ladder leaders Adelaide and a shock loss by eighth-placed Melbourne to a Collingwood team that was just starting to hit its straps. Emotionally charged by the pending retirements of Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell, West Coast played one of the great finals of all time against Port Adelaide, with Luke Shuey the hero after kicking a goal after the siren in extra time to drag the team across the line.
Unfortunately the fairytale ended there, with the Eagles seeing off the two veterans with a 67-point drubbing at the hands of Greater Western Sydney.
West Coast went into 2018 suffering the losses of Drew Petrie, Priddis and Mitchell, and they were written off by many. Robert Walls infamously picked the Eagles to finish on the bottom of the ladder. Those who had them making the finals certainly didn’t see them doing much damage, and after they lost their first ever game at Optus Stadium to the Swans, it seemed that it was all going to come true.
But that’s not the story went for this Eagles team. They then went on to win ten games straight, and take top spot on the ladder after taking care of reigning premiers Richmond to the tune of 47 points.
But after a hard-fought home win against St Kilda they found themselves heading into the bye without Josh Kennedy or Jack Darling, and they came back from the bye and lost three on the trot.
They were again written off by many, but the Eagles stayed strong. They comfortably beat Collingwood at the MCG but tragically lost Nic Naitanui to yet another ACL. Andrew Gaff was the next to go, ruled out for the rest of the season after an ugly incident against Fremantle’s Andrew Brayshaw.
Many thought the stocks were now too thin – that this young team couldn’t have the depth to cover the losses. In the past they may have been right, but not this year. They secured second place on the ladder and booked in a home qualifying final against Collingwood. To date West Coast have never finished in the top two and missed a grand final.
After early ascendancy the Eagles allowed Collingwood to get on top with a two-goal lead and take the game’s momentum into three-quarter time. Other teams may have buckled, but thanks to one of the all-time inspirational sprays from now assistant coach Sam Mitchell, the Eagles dug deep and recorded a five-goal-to-one final team to win a home preliminary final.
The preliminary final against Melbourne was almost a non-event. The Dees had won their last two games against West Coast in Perth but didn’t score a goal for the first half of this game, and the Eagles just had to hold on in the second half to make their seventh AFL grand final.
Things were coming over shades of 2015 – a qualifying final rematch at the MCG against a Melbourne side who they’d beaten just three weeks earlier, and by quarter-time many West Coast fans would have been having flashbacks of that season.
Other teams would have wilted against a five-goal scoreline and lacklustre performances from some of their best players, but not this Eagles team. From the second quarter onwards the Eagles played the game on their terms, with scoreboard accuracy being their biggest weakness as they piled on inside 50 after inside 50 against a makeshift Collingwood defence.
Eventually the pressure was too much – a Dom Sheed goal and a defensive 50 mark by Luke Shuey and the rest is history.
The Eagles have now missed only seven finals series in the AFL era, a statistic that sees them head and shoulders above the rest. They defied adversity all throughout the 2018 season and were on reflection probably the best team throughout the entire year.
They not only finished as premiers, but they also defeated all three of the other top-four sides, and were the only team to win games in all five AFL home states. The Eagles now sit behind only Hawthorn in terms of AFL premierships won.
They probably would have been forgiven for losing the grand final on Collingwood’s home ground after a year during which their list depth had been thoroughly exposed.
Other teams might have, but not this Eagles team.