The Eagles are quietly building towards a dynasty as one of the competition’s top teams with a possibility of multiple premierships.
The West Coast Eagles last season participated in one of the great grand finals of all time, with Dom Sheed kicking the famous matchwinning goal.
This season has meandered along a similar path, with the Eagles still as dominant as last season. The slight slip-up came at the beginning of the season with a 44-point loss to the Brisbane Lions, who have turned into one of the top teams this season, but they quickly righted the ship with a 52-point win against the Giants at home and a 13-point win in the derby against Gold Coast.
West Coast have had a rather uneventful season, with only a few hiccups coming against the Power, Cats, Swans and Pies. The game against the Tigers at the MCG this weekend will be the most telling of all – it will give us a real understanding of exactly where the two most fancied teams stand.
The Eagles have the most well-balanced team in both defence and attack, with two of the most damaging key forwards and two of the most steadfast key defenders. They’re ranked fifth in points conceded and fourth in rebound from 50 differentials, with Shannon Hurn ranked fifth in the league for rebounds from 50 based on average.
In attack the Eagles are ranked third in points per game and fifth in goal assists per game, with Jack Darling fifth in the Coleman Medal race.
Their midfield, while not as flashy as that of Geelong or Collingwood, always provides a contest and creates opportunities to move the ball forward. With no dominant ruckman and Tom Hickey fighting a lone hand admirably, the Eagles still manage to sit fifth in clearances.
West Coast have one of the most dynamic forward lines in the league. It’s built around pressure and is always creating a contest. They are the top-ranked team in restricting rebounds from 50 and second in opponent clangers per game. Elliot Yeo is the top-ranked tackler in the AFL with 147 and Luke Shuey is not far behind in 11th with 114.
The Eagles play a fast brand of football regularly set up by the raking right boot of all Australian Shannon Hurn. Players like Jack Petruccelle, Willie Rioli and Liam Ryan have the ability to break lines and get out the back of defences if they are not aware.
Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy have the potential to pry a game open and win it off their own boots.
Most defences comprise one tall defender along with what has become a hybrid player, such as Dylan Grimes or Jake Kolodjashnij. The eagles, however, have three key talls in Josh Kennedy, Jack Darling and Oscar Allen, with Tom Hickey rolling through occasionally when he needs a break in the ruck.
These three tall targets have the potential to create headaches for opposition teams and defensive coaches with match-ups. Coupled with the pace and X factor of Rioli, Pettrucelle and Ryan, they could be seen as among the most dangerous.
The only concern for the Eagles is Hickey in the ruck coming up against someone like Brodie Grundy in the finals.
Other teams like Geelong and Richmond, however, have ruckmen who are not dominant, and Hickey should be able to break to give his midfielders first use of the ball.
The criticism from previous seasons has been an inability to win at the MCG, but last year’s grand final disproves this as an issue. The Eagles have continued to prove this story wrong this season and have won every game at the G – they haven’t even got this strong a record at home.
This is a team full of players with finals experience. They’ve played finals every year since 2015 and have played in two grand finals.
When comparing the Eagles to teams around them, Geelong is now widely believed to have lost the spark they had earlier in the season and all backing appears to have them third in the pecking order. The Cats have floundered and have beaten only the Kangaroos convincingly in recent weeks – and that was at home, where they’re always tough to beat.
Brisbane, while playing electric football, simply lack the experience. The Lions are one or two seasons away from giving the competition a real shake and going the whole way.
So this round will be telling. Can the Eagles travel to the MCG and defeat a red-hot Tigers team in what could become a preview to the grand final?