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The suddenly clumsy, absent Eagles are only hanging on

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Expert
7th May, 2019
25
1140 Reads

In the fourth quarter last Saturday night, as the Eagles kept doing things that the Eagles never do, something inconceivable started to get real: Gold Coast might actually beat West Coast in Perth.

Last year it would have been laughable, and so too would it have been a month ago.

But the Eagles right now aren’t the team they were, only a drunken ode to it.

And even though they scraped across the line against the Suns, everything was off and everything was difficult.

Shannon Hurn fumbled regulation ground balls and Elliot Yeo tried to run 30 metres before taking a bounce.

Jack Darling – as he has done all season – attacked packs side-on, intent on crashing the air adjacent to the pack more than the pack itself.

Jack Darling celebrates a goal

(Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

West Coast are not currently present.

Port Adelaide brought fierce intensity in the first five minutes of their game in Perth and that was enough to force the home side into submission for the whole night.

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The Eagles took the field against the Cats in body but not mind or spirit. Geelong players roamed the ground as though they were at a mid-week training session, not what should have been a blockbuster clash between the reigning premier and the premiership favourite.

Strange things are happening. Players are not running when you’d expect them to run. They are taking bizarre, incomprehensible routes to cover space in defence.

Premiership hangovers are usually defined by fatigue and lethargy. But the Eagles are playing as if still inebriated.

It’s been a month now. The win over an improved Fremantle holds up fine on the scoreboard, but Nat Fyfe was out and the rest did the bare minimum to get the result.

That night, at least, they were clean, or something approaching clean. Their contested ball use has always waxed and waned but the foot skills and expert stylings in kick-mark, kick-mark football have been a constant over the journey.

Over the past three weeks, that too has abandoned them.

The names are still there and still impressive. Remembering the individual performances last season – and with Nic Naitanui to return – they might still have close to the best team on paper this year, having added Andrew Gaff, Brad Sheppard, Jack Petruccelle, Oscar Allen and Naitanui to a premiership 22 that has only lost Scott Lycett and Mark LeCras.

Nic Naitanui

(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

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Except, then again, this is more or less the same team that sleepwalked through much of the 2017 season, never a threat to do anything interesting or significant.

Players made a leap from 2017 to 2018.

Jack Darling became a star, Gaff a superstar, Dom Sheed an icon.

This year, though, Darling has been more first-half grand final Jack Darling than second half, Gaff is accumulating more than dominating, and Sheed is in an awkward post-hero, returned-Gaff phase with his optimal role – as well as Jack Redden’s – in the midfield machinery still being worked out.

There are too many good players around for this side to properly fall off. The team line-up is rampant with stars and competence.

A slow build and a few no-shows – the year after a premiership that came after three consecutive finals campaigns – was inevitable.

After catharsis, there is often ‘blah’.

But there are real issues, from the midfield configuration incorporating Gaff back into the fold at the expense of players who thrived in his absence, to the defence looking vulnerable and lacking in height and presence with Tom Barrass sidelined.

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The biggest concern, though, is how human Darling and Josh Kennedy have looked – last year destroyers of everything, this year closer to just a couple of big blokes.

There is plenty of time for these issues to resolve themselves, and the imminent return of Willie Rioli will give the team a much-needed extra dimension of life, flare and magic.

Naitanui’s return will do so, too, and Barrass is expected to come back at some point.

When whole, the Eagles should be formidable. They clearly still have brilliance in them.

There is no crisis for a team that has – it must be recognised – crushed Greater Western Sydney and Collingwood this season.

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But something is lacking and likely won’t be found in time to secure the two home finals that they did last season.

Excelling in the contest has not been the Eagles’ hallmark since 2015, and it took a superhuman, historic effort to raise their game in the contest late last season to a level where the other parts of the game that do come naturally to them – the defensive structure, the aerial game, the precision kicking – could take hold to subdue the best opponents.

With the mountain already conquered, the demons already exorcised, and a start to the season defined by sloppiness and indifference, one suspects that the Eagles’ ability to own the contest – to want everything more than the opponent at the most visceral, violent level – may be compromised.

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