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Challenging or rebuilding? West Coast faces a conundrum

Family time: Retiring West Coast veteran Sam Mitchell with his children after Sunday’s win against Adelaide at Domain Stadium. Photo: GETTY IMAGES

Challenging or rebuilding? West Coast faces a conundrum

Rohan Connolly    

Credit where it’s due. West Coast has copped plenty of flak throughout this AFL season, most of it justified, but the bottom line is the Eagles have made finals for a third year in a row, something they hadn’t achieved for a decade.

To get there, they had to not only knock over the best-performed side of the season, but do so by enough to edge ahead of Melbourne on percentage, still not the case when Charlie Cameron brought Adelaide closer with only a few minutes left on Sunday.

Those last few minutes saw West Coast display enough strength of character to make the difference, a trait which at times in 2017, has been sadly lacking.

Is that in itself enough? Of course not. This is a team which less than two seasons ago played off for a premiership. Limping into eighth spot now is far from what was expected of a side which, though soundly beaten on grand final day in 2015, had plenty of reason to believe that its best was still ahead.

West Coast will go into the elimination final against Port Adelaide on Saturday week a $51 outsider to win the flag. Few in the football world give the Eagles much chance, if any, of going beyond the semi-finals.

And yet, when it clicks, as it did against the Crows on Sunday, West Coast is capable of upsetting even the best. Which puts coach Adam Simpson and his brains trust in an interesting position.

Recent retirement announcements by Matt Priddis, Sam Mitchell, Sam Butler and now Drew Petrie have given off more of a feel of a club rebuilding than one shooting for a flag. So where are the Eagles exactly? Do even they know?

West Coast went into this season with the second-oldest and equal most experienced list in the competition. Those retirements will change that substantially, and not necessarily in a negative sense.

While skipper Shannon Hurn, Josh Kennedy and Mark LeCras will go into 2018 on the wrong side of 30, all are still producing close enough to their best football. Of the Eagles’ core players, the likes of Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff, Jeremy McGovern, Elliot Yeo, Jack Darling and Jamie Cripps, only Shuey is older than 25.

The foundations of potential success will still be there. Clearly replacing two midfield warhorses in Priddis and Mitchell is a priority, as should finding a good deal more run. But it’s about more than that.

Lewis Jetta’s pivotal role late on Sunday showed how big a difference that leg-speed and defensive pressure can make, but Jetta’s status is in a way reflective of the Eagles as a whole. For he and so many other Eagles, the battle has been psychological as much as physical, far too big a gap between personal bests and worsts.

While much is made of West Coast’s lack of tackling pressure, it’s never been a feature of the Eagles’ game under Simpson, even in 2015, when they ranked last for tackling on the differentials.

They were, however, strong in two other key indicators, ranked first for contested ball and sixth for clearances. Those rankings fell to ninth for each category last year, and this season, a woeful 15th and 17th.

That indicates a selectiveness of effort on too many players’ parts. So this season does the number of times the Eagles have let winning positions slip, and their record away from home. In 2015, West Coast won six and drew another of 11 games on the road. That became 5-5 last season, this year 3-7.

A team strong enough to have made the grand final only two years ago should be improving those numbers with more experience, not to mention the disappointment of letting a premiership chance slip.

Sunday’s effort against Adelaide was a salient reminder about how good West Coast’s best can be when the Eagles are switched on and made of stern enough stuff mentally. It’s a warning that victory even in an away final in Adelaide isn’t beyond reach.

But it’s also a reminder of how big a challenge, whatever the result in that game, Simpson has ahead of him in instilling a far more consistently ruthless attitude in his playing group. Because until that happens, West Coast, despite undoubted talent, will still just be making up the numbers.

  1. Nic Naitanui is a huge loss. I think people have either forgotten about him or don’t properly rate his impact. You’re not finishing 17th for clearances if he’s playing.

  2. I find it fascinating that there’s such a focus on the end result of the season, in terms of points earned for a win.
    Now whilst I am forever an optimist and have now completed 25 years as a member of the Eagles, I look back at the games we very nearly won and reflect on the what-ifs.
    If we had managed to hold onto 3 of those late 4th quarter fade games…we wouldn’t be talking like this… based on the performance against the crows on Sunday… the talent hasn’t changed…it’s the individuals belief combining to create a team belief that they are good enough. Yes some tired and slower bodies..but look at how Geelongs season started this year!!if we can play like we did on Sunday for another 4 games…why not!
    It’s between the ears… it seems that not enough players believe that they can go all the way, and it shows in their body language. Hold your heads up high Eagles.. believe, fight, support, and play hard… we are there with you every step. Leave next season to January 2018.

  3. Mate, I stopped reading after you said Mark LeCras is close enough to his best football. You’ve got no idea. The bloke is well past it.

  4. Hard to know how much the loss of Nic Nat for the season affected not only the win/loss ratio, but the psychological fads in close contests. Team seems to lift when he is on the field.

  5. The management team need to have leadership coaches and motivational speakers mentor the team weekly. If it’s about how they see themselves mentally as oppose to physical ability then surely some team mentoring would t go astray!

  6. Yep – WC are barely making up the numbers.

    Lets look at the Subiaco vs Away record:
    Subi: 9-3 @ 123%
    Away from Subi: 3-7 @ 89%

    WC were playing against the Crows playing ‘bruise free’ don’t get injured footy. Look at the last goal from Jetta – 2 Crows players did not put their body on the line to get the ball and then there were 2 half-hearted tackles. Jetta does not get that goal if the Crows wanted to win.

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