West Coast on the brink of something special

Date: September 29, 2015 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

WCEShould the Eagles win the 2015 AFL decider it will be the third best turnaround in history from one season to another.

Only Adelaide (from 12th in 1996 to the 1997 premiership) and Geelong (10th in 2006 to the 2007 flag) will have surpassed the Eagles performance from ninth last season should they win on Saturday.

Immediately after last season’s decider the Eagles were installed at $31 for this year’s flag. At the same time, four-time All-Australian full-back, triple best-and-fairest and skipper, Darren Glass retired.

Another defender, 2012 All-Australian and premiership player Beau Waters at 28, was forced into retirement in the pre-season as a result of ongoing injury problems.

Reigning best and fairest Eric McKenzie had his season lost to a knee reconstruction before a game had been played. Then, 15 minutes into the opening round of the season, tall defender Mitch Brown was ruled out for the remainder of the year after succumbing to an ACL injury.

That opening round game against the Bulldogs resulted in a 10-point loss. When the Eagles went down by 30 points to Fremantle in round three the bookmakers had eased them out to $51 for the flag.

Five months hence they are one win from leaving many with egg on their face.

What coach Adam Simpson and his assistants have been able to do is truly outstanding.

The loss of three linchpin defenders before one match had even been completed saw Simpson develop what has been coined a ‘web defence’, where his back six primarily guard space rather than applying hard one-on-one match-ups.

With Will Schofield the only remaining experienced tall defender in the absence of McKenzie and Brown, Simpson was forced to dramatically change the side’s defensive set-up.

Jeremy McGovern entered the season with just 13 games under his belt, with many of those games spent in the forward line. By season’s end he had done enough as a tall defender to be named in the preliminary 40-man All-Australian squad. His ability to read the play and either peel off for marks or hit the contest and spoil belied his inexperience.

Sharrod Wellingham, a premiership player with Collingwood in 2010, was on the brink of retirement midway through last season as a result of the frustration he was feeling with his game. This year, as a hard running and rebounding backman he has reinvented his game.

Brad Sheppard entered his sixth season with the club potentially at the crossroads having never played more than 14 games in a year. He has played every match this season and has become a key player across half-back.

Former Brisbane Lion, Elliot Yeo has also excelled in 2015 – his aerial skills proving crucial at both ends of the ground.

The only remaining survivor of the Eagles’ 2006 flag, Sam Butler and former Hawk, Xavier Ellis have provided some steel and experience down back while skipper Shannon Hurn has marshalled the back six and provided tremendous rebound with his raking right foot.

In the midfield, Andrew Gaff has had a breakout year on the wing, averaging 29 disposals a game and earning his first All-Australian selection. His hard running and accurate left foot saw him lead the team in inside 50s.

Right behind him in that stat has been Luke Shuey, who like Gaff, has put together his most consistent season. He has averaged a goal a game from the midfield.

Chris Masten has produced his most productive season possession-wise and Dom Sheed, a number 11 draft pick in 2013, has shown he is destined to become a crucial player in the midfield mix.

Matt Rosa has again been solid when called upon in his 16 games.

Matt Priddis has upped the ante this season with his numbers for possessions, tackles and clearances all ahead of his Brownlow Medal winning 2014.

The strength of the Eagles’ midfield is reflected in the fact that 2012 club champion, Scott Selwood has struggled to nail down a permanent spot after missing rounds 2-7 with injury.

Nic Naitanui was unlucky to miss out on his second All-Australian selection, a victim of the selectors’ decision to go with just the one specialist ruckman.

Throughout the season he has received terrific support from Callum Sinclair, who managed just nine games in his first two seasons on the list.

Up forward the Eagles have a wealth of talent.

Josh Kennedy’s 75 goals in the home-and-away season saw him win the Coleman Medal. Fellow power forward Jack Darling played his opening game of the season in round 11 after overcoming a persistent foot injury.

The pair gave the on-ballers two strong marking targets while both are fierce tacklers should the ball hit the ground.

Mark LeCras has shared his time across the midfield and forward line, kicking 44 goals from his 16 games. Josh Hill, who at times has been a maligned player, improved dramatically in the back half of the season, kicking four goals against both Fremantle and the Bulldogs and another three in the qualifying final against the Hawks to see him sit on 39 goals for the year.

Jamie Cripps has played every game this season and kicked 34 goals from a half-forward flank. His defensive skills regularly came to the fore with his fierce tackling often resulting in front-half turnovers.

Seemingly out of flag contention after the opening month of the season, West Coast now sits on the brink of a premiership.

The opponent is formidable with Hawthorn to start as favourite in its quest for a third successive premiership.

The two clubs have met twice this season, both at Subiaco Oval. Hawthorn won by 14 points in round 19 however the Eagles were without both Naitanui and Sinclair and had to rely on Scott Lycett to lead the ruck.

In the qualifying final a fortnight ago the home side held the Hawks to nine goals while scoring 15 themselves for a 32-point victory.

At the end of the home-and-away season, Hawthorn and West Coast sat one-two with respect to points scored while defensively their points conceded were only 24 points apart.

Saturday is set for a classic finale to the 2015 season with the wily Alastair Clarkson going head-to-head with Simpson, a man who was his assistant for four years.

Regardless of the outcome, the Eagles – should they get through the pre-season without mishap – will likely start as flag favourite for 2016.

And, given their squad is the seventh youngest in the league their premiership window may remain ajar for quite some time to come.

First published on The Roar – theroar.com.au – on 28 September 20