The AFL world went into meltdown on Thursday with news filtering through about the West Coast Eagles’ livewire forward Willie Rioli being flagged by ASADA for urine substitution.
At this point it is all speculation as to what has actually happened, as the AFL and ASADA will continue to investigate over the coming days.
While the AFL media circus will be running rampant over the next few days to find out just what happened, the West Coast Eagles still have a job at hand, which is Friday night under lights at the MCG in a do-or-die clash against minor premiers, the Geelong Cats.
West Coast’s GM of football Craig Vozzo told journalists that Rioli is a well liked and respected member of the Eagles’ playing group, who were emotional upon hearing their team-mate has been provisionally suspended for Friday night’s final.
While this will be seen as a massive distraction for the 22 selected to play on Friday night, the team will be ready to go come the first bounce.
The Eagles have matured a lot in the past 18 months. They’re littered with premiership players. Ten of the 22 are fathers and the average number of games played by the team is 125.
Their form is peaking at the right time of the year. Despite a slow start, they reeled off 12 wins from 14 games before losing their last two games of the regular season against Richmond and Hawthorn.
The Hawthorn loss was inexcusable with a top-four spot on the line but the loss to Richmond was a contender for the best home-and-away game of 2019 and could have gone either way.
In their elimination final against Essendon last Thursday night, the Eagles piled on 31 scoring shots and 116 points, which was one of the best four-quarter performances we have seen from West Coast in season 2019.
The inclusion of Nic Naitanui, who has only played four games this year, has helped them find their mojo. He is crucial to the Eagles. Despite only playing a tick over 50 per cent of the game, he contributed massively to the Eagles kicking seven goals directly from centre bounces – an AFL finals record.
He makes everyone walk a little bit taller, and more importantly, gives the midfielders first use of the footy.
The MCG no longer holds any fears for them, and if they have any ambition to go back-to-back, they will need to win three in a row at the MCG – all against very good competition.
Now that the Eagles have plenty of finals experience, and more importantly, experience of winning a big final at the MCG, the sky is the limit for this group.
Thursday was a massive shock for everyone involved, but with form on the Eagles’ side and the maturity of their senior players, coach Adam Simpson will have the 22 ready to go for bounce down, momentarily forgetting about the dilemma Rioli faces.