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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It was the worst case scenario for the West Coast Eagles, down five goals to none on the biggest stage – a sold out MCG on the final Saturday of September.
Fans and critics alike were quick to think of the ghosts of nightmares past coming back to haunt the Eagles. But this team were not those Eagles.
They were not the team others labelled as flat track bullies. They were not the team labelled as unable to win the big games interstate. This was a team that had toiled and worked and in the process developed a belief that was birthed out of a great number of understated wins.
The old Sunday school bible story, David and Goliath, is the most commonly spruiked religious text in sports (beating out its rival story, walking on water).
What’s lost in the narrative is that when a scrawny teenager rocked up to a battlefield ready to fight a giant and was rightly questioned by the Jewish leadership, young David pointed out he’d fought a bear and he’d fought a lion, what was that different about a giant? For David, Goliath was a case of been there, done that.
So when young Thomas Cole dropped a mark through his bread basket then watched as Jaidyn Stephenson rushed into the goals square, he laughed it off.
Or when ever-reliable Shannon Hurn bit off more than he could chew with a switch kick that led to a turnover goal, he did not shrink back.
Under the weight of pressure, this Eagles team didn’t think back to their 2015 failure, they chose to rely on a belief that had been forged in the years since, overcoming one giant at a time.
2016, Round 21 vs GWS
In Round 21, the Giants trotted out the full array of midfield talent – Josh Kelly, Dylan Shiel, Stephen Coniglio, Callan Ward, Lachie Whitfield and Tom Scully. It was even one of those rare occasions that their forward line had all of Jonathon Patton, Jeremy Cameron and Toby Greene.
On this day, West Coast lost ground in the third quarter and entered the final term four goals down.
This was a scenario Eagles fans had come a custom to. The midfield would lose control, the inundated defence would burst and another road loss as the interstate team rolls comfortably home. Except on this day, the Eagles found resolve and rallied.
On that blustery Saturday afternoon, Luke Shuey collected 38 disposals along with back to back last quarter goals to tie the game, in what now reads like his Norm Smith rehearsal.
The Eagles would learn a valuable lesson. Following Shuey’s back-to-back goals, with momentum behind them, they were stopped in their tracks by a Rory Lobb goal that gave GWS a six-point lead with just over a minute to play.
The Eagles had to keep pushing even when their best attempts at a comeback had seemed to fail. Enter Nic Naitanui.
Moments after a behind from Josh Hill, Naitanui snapped from a stoppage in the pocket, the shot wobbled through the goals giving the Eagles a one-point lead and the siren wailed as the team swamped their ruck star.
2017, elimination final vs Port Adelaide
The Eagles made a blistering start that saw them out by as much as five goals early in the second term. Port surged back into contention, however, trailing by two goals at the half, and just three points behind at the final break.
Port had brought the game back all the way back to even when in last minute of the fourth term Eric Mackenzie, running back towards his own goal, in a moment of genius crashed into the behind post.
A stunned umpiring group couldn’t pay deliberate rushed behind and chose not to pay deliberate out of bounds. The scores remained tied and the Eagles lived on to fight two periods of extra time.
Even then, the Eagles seemed dead in the water, the raucous home crowd cheered as Port kicked the first two goals of extra time. Undeterred, the Eagles fought on before Jared Polec caught Luke Shuey high at a stoppage with 20 seconds left.
At the top of his mark, with the season on the line, the siren rang out. Shuey’s kick never looked like missing and sailed through for another heroic, defiant victory.
The Eagles would be knocked out without a yelp by a strong GWS outfit the next week, but the belief bank had received another deposit.
2018, Round 17 vs Collingwood
Round 17 against the Pies was discounted as irrelevant when the Victorian media and bookmakers announced Collingwood as the grand final favourites, but in hindsight, it read a lot like the grand final.
Collingwood dominated the opening exchanges, albeit differently to the grand final. It wasn’t merely scoreboard pressure applied by a few moments of brilliance, but rather their intensity overwhelmed the Eagles.
The early possession count was so lopsided it wasn’t unreasonable to assume that the Eagles were lined up for a ten-goal blowout.
Collingwood with the form of seven consecutive wins leading into the match and the much-publicised Eagles struggles at the MCG could have weighed like a full-sized gorilla on the back of West Coast.
Once again, instead of rolling over, the Eagles picked up their workrate, lifted their attack on the football and trusted their gamestyle.
Having gained ascendancy, their resilience would be further tested when Nic Naitanui left the game in the second quarter – another ACL blow for a team that had many of their hopes pinned to their unique star.
US psychologist Angela Duckworth studies what makes people successful. In her bestseller, Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance, Duckworth argued that the prime indicator of achievement isn’t IQ or talent, but the possession of ‘grit’, the ability to dig in and keep going despite the headwinds.
By this point in their journey for redemption from the 2015 grand final failure, ‘grit’ or resilience was being exercised like a muscle, and would come to bear its rewards in the months to come.
2018, Round 21 vs Port Adelaide
In the fortnight leading up to their return to Adelaide Oval, the Eagles had lost by 40 points to North Melbourne in Tasmania and went through the Andrew Gaff ordeal of not only the media storm but coming to terms with their most prolific ball winner being suspended for the rest of the season.
At the scene of their great escape the year prior, for Eagles fans it was as the now famous match call goes, “who knew the sequel could be as good as the original?”
Port started 25-0, and early in the third quarter the Eagles were five goals down, a deficit made more daunting by the fact the Eagles only had 28 points on the scoreboard.
Taking hold of momentum the Eagles entered the final quarter 15 points down. They dominated play in the final term but couldn’t make a dent in the scoreboard.
Despite not making headway on their opponents lead, Will Schofield described watching on from Perth on the Eagles Backchat Podcast. “This one, watching it felt like we were always going to win.” Schofield continued “Even with two minutes were down by two goals, there’s no chance we’re losing this”.
While Schofield may have spoken with the bravado of hindsight, he highlighted a mentality in the club, they’d pulled these sorts of tricks out of the hat before.
With 51 seconds remaining, Mark LeCras goaled, bringing the game to a two-point margin. As the ball was returned to the centre square for the bounce, Jeremy McGovern meandered down the wing.
Port Adelaide pointed and gestured but by the time Scott Lycett hacked a kick from the clearance, no one was within arm’s reach of Jeremy McGovern who took a chest mark practically uncontested.
At the top of his run up, not far from the same spot as Luke Shuey’s memorable goal, the final siren went and when his drop punt wobbled through the Eagles led for the first time the entire game.
2018, qualifying final vs Collingwood
In the first final at the new Optus Stadium, the Eagles led by two goals late in the first quarter when Brad Sheppard’s hamstring went ping. Not only a man down for the balance of the match, the Eagles had lost their best match-up for danger man Jordan de Goey.
Following quarter time the Pies gained ascendancy, enough to hold a two-goal lead at the final change.
Mark Hutchings, as he would do three weeks later, curtailed Steele Sidebottom’s dominance and Josh Kennedy, who returned from injury, shook off the rust to make a meaningful contribution alongside Jack Darling.
In the end, the Eagles kicked five goals to one in the last quarter, punctuated by Lewis Jetta weaving through traffic for a go-ahead goal.
Come grand final day, it did not matter that the 2014 best and fairest winner, Eric Mackenzie, was forced into retirement with a foot injury (in the four years following his win, Mackenzie played only 26 games, missing all of 2015 and 2018).
It did not matter that, despite the conservatism and coddling, star Nic Naitanui would be unavailable due to another knee injury.
Nor did it matter that chief outside ball winner Andrew Gaff was absent through suspension or that the teams best defender for small forwards, Brad Sheppard was watching on.
Falling five goals behind on grand final day was not the first time the team had been behind early in a match with a mountain to climb.
Even when Collingwood started the fourth quarter with two goals from three kicks in less than a minute, West Coast knew it only took a moment to swing momentum back. The Eagels did not panic when a barrage of inside 50s resulted in only a string of behinds. They were familiar with tense late game situations and that a game was not over until the final siren.
So when Schofield was caught out of position and Jeremy McGovern was forced to cover De Goey on the last line, McGovern had the courage to not simply hope for the best but to take the outcome of the game into his own hands.
Leaving De Goey by himself unattended, McGovern rose to the flight of the ball. His knee thumping into Brody Mihocek, McGovern plucked the mark and played on immediately with a daring kick.
As Liam Ryan ran back tracking the flight of Nathan Vardy’s kick, he could have considered his two missed goals in the fourth term or the missed mark in the third when he became more concerned about the oncoming defender than the incoming ball.
But Ryan leapt, as very few in the league are capable of, and rising above the three bodies contesting the mark, he plucked the ball with both hands. Having been paid the mark, he again chose to play on and kicked to the pocket.
Dom Sheed, pinned against the boundary line, with the 100,000 at the MCG and the entire Australian sporting landscape watching him, was not concerned that two months earlier his position in the team had been under threat.
Only out of necessity resulting from Andrew Gaff’s error of judgement was his spot in the team cemented. The rest, as they say, is history. Only this bit of history will be forever a centrepiece of grand final history.
By the time the Eagles lifted their premiership trophy, they now had the highest winning percentage in the league for the previous four seasons.
In that time, the Eagles had turned from a team that had wilted in adversity to a unit familiar with it, with the audacity to persevere no matter the height of the giant standing before them.