The Giants and Eagles meet in Western Sydney in the first of three games that will decide how much influence West Coast will have in September. A win for GWS will go a long way to securing a top four spot, but a loss will bring them back to the pack. In fact, the Eagles should leapfrog the Giants with victory.
The Giants final two games are against Fremantle and North Melbourne, and although they should comfortably account for the Dockers at home, a loss against West Coast, could mean that a top four spot, or even a home elimination final may be riding on that final round game. The Giants will be confident going in, having won five of six games at the Showgrounds in 2016, by an average winning margin of 10 goals.
West Coast showed signs of their 2015 form in the second half of their 46 point win over Fremantle. That gave the Eagles six wins from their past seven starts, although their performances in many of those wins has been scratchy. More importantly was the positive signs of individual players, with Chris Masten collecting 33 disposals, Sharrod Wellingham gathering 24 in the back half and Josh Kennedy booting seven goals to take a commanding lead in the Coleman Medal race. Nic Naitanui returned to provide the Eagles much needed advantages around the stoppage, while Dom Sheed works his way back into senior football, following his second game in his comeback from injury.
The Giants were fortunate to get over the line against a desperate Suns outfit, who led at the first three breaks. Prior to that, they dismantled the Tigers by 88 points, their eighth win of the season above 40 points. Stephen Coniglio has been in super form in recent weeks, and averages almost 30 disposals across the season. Dylan Shiel ranks just behind Coniglio, and many of the other Giants midfielders are enjoying fine seasons, including Tom Scully, Callan Ward, Josh Kelly and Lachie Whitfield. Up forward Jeremy Cameron leads the way with 44 goals, but has fine support in Toby Greene (36) and Steven Johnson (35).
The Recent History
The Giants have never beaten the Eagles in their short history, with West Coast winning each of the four times they’ve met. The Eagles have bullied the AFL’s newcomers, with an average winning margin of 95 points across those four wins. Josh Kennedy has been a particular fan of playing the Giants with 24 goals in four matches.
In their last meeting in Round 5 2015, the Giants arrived in Perth having won three of their opening four games. But they were easily cast aside, with the young Giants unable to adapt to the longer Subiaco Oval. West Coast won by 87 points, with Josh Kennedy kicking six goals and Josh Hill four. Chris Masten led the way with 33 disposals, ahead of Andrew Gaff (32) and Matthew Priddis (29). Dylan Shiel was the shining light for GWS with 36 touches, despite his side managing just one goal after quarter time.
It is a relatively settled side for West Coast, with just the one change. Sam Butler returns from a week on the sidelines to replace youngster Jackson Nelson. The Eagles put in a better display against the Dockers, and Adam Simpson seems content in backing last week’s side to continue that form against GWS. Sharrod Wellingham admitted during the week that a pinched nerve in his foot was plaguing him, and that injections were getting him through the week. A late change by West Coast remains a possibility.
Simon Tunbridge could possibly consider himself lucky to hold his spot, with the Eagles hopeful that he will provide much of the forward pressure that is the lynchpin of their press style. Tunbridge booted a goal from 10 disposals, although many of his touches did miss their target. Moreover, he laid only three tackles. Tunbridge would be looking for an improved effort in his third game back.
Dom Sheed is another in his third game back and with 12 and 8 disposals in his first two games, would be keen for a larger impact. Many other Eagles, namely Le Cras, Yeo, Masten, Schofield, Hill and Cripps would all be looking for strong performances against a top side away from home.
The Giants have made three changes, bringing back key midfielder Dylan Shiel, after several weeks sidelined with a groin injury. A question mark remains with Shiel, so the possibility of a late change cannot be ruled out at this stage. Nathan Wilson was omitted for this game, but named as an emergency as a possible replacement. Sam Reid was also omitted, with Harrison Himmelberg rested following four games since debut. Adam Kennedy and Matthew Kennedy are the other two to come into the Giants side.
The Talking Points
Which forward line could stretch the most?
Both teams possess tall forward lines, and consequently both defences will need to find a way to stand up to them. The Eagles line up of Kennedy, Darling and either Lycett or Naitanui, against the Giants group of Jeremy Cameron, Rory Lobb and Adam Tomlinson means that each side’s respective team defence is going to be crucial. The Eagles are equal 2nd in the competition for marks inside-50 and the Giants are 4th, so both teams enjoy a distinct advantage in the heights of their forward lines.
The Eagles successful 2015 season was built around a smaller rebounding defence, that often had to battle out of their height division, due to a lack of available tall defenders. The Eagles have found their third tall defender this season, but ironically it is neither Mitch Brown or Eric Mackenzie who both missed the 2015 campaign. Tom Barrass has worked his way into the side as support for Jeremy McGovern and Will Schofield.
The Eagles prefer to play McGovern loose so either of Brad Sheppard or Sharrod Wellingham could find themselves matched against a taller opponent, most likely Tomlinson. The key will then be whether there is enough pressure up the ground from the midfield to ensure delivery inside the Giants forward 50 isn’t too advantageous for the Giants forwards. West Coast were exposed against Collingwood, with the lack of pressure in the midfield allowing Collingwood to bypass McGovern who was loose and find Darcy Moore on a number of occasions opposed against the smaller Wellingham.
At the other end the Giants have Phil Davis, Joel Patful and Nick Haynes as the taller defenders. Similar to West Coast, they like getting the ball in the hands of rebounding ball users in Zac Williams and Heath Shaw who both provide plenty of drive from defence.
The Giants have done particularly well at creating scoring chains from deep in defence, so expect the three tall defenders to stay relatively tight to the Eagles forwards, hoping to bring the ball to ground and allow the ball carriers of GWS to sweep the ball to the other end and create scoring opportunities. One strength of the Eagles talls is their versatility once the ball does hit the ground and if they can’t mark the ball, it is vital that they hold the ball in their forward half.
The Giants are the fourth best in the competition at preventing opposition sides from marking inside-50. One missing link of West Coast appears to be a genuine crumber, if either Kennedy or Darling can’t mark, so there presents a real danger to the Eagles if they can’t take marks. The Giants rebound is one or the best in the competition and the West Coast zone will be sliced open if they can’t control the ball in their forward half.
Do West Coast tag Heath Shaw?
A common tactic of opposition sides in recent weeks has been to place a stopper on Shaw, who can kick start many of the Giants offensive efforts with his pinpoint delivery from defence. Shaw has been in All-Australian form, but the ability of sides to reduce his influence has definitely had an effect on the Giants’ performance.
Shaw’s former side Collingwood, put a lot of time into him in their shock win in Round 16, and opposition sides have followed suit. West Coast generally don’t tag, and are even less likely to tag a defender, with no real standout option. One player who could be given the task is Mark Hutchings, who has been given close-checking roles in the past, and has also shown that he can have an impact on the scoreboard with 11 goals from 14 games this season.
Whether West Coast choose to run a hard tag or not, they will want to be mindful of the damage that he and Zac Williams can cause.
Was Xavier Ellis worth the investment?
Ellis announced his immediate retirement from AFL football, following another soft tissue injury whilst playing with East Perth. Recruited by West Coast as a free agent from Hawthorn, where he was also plagued by continual soft tissue injuries, Ellis struggled to have the impact he would have hoped in 2016.
However, his influence at the club since his arrival can’t be undisputed, and in the days following his retirement, he has already been earmarked for a coaching role with the development coaches at East Perth. In a similar vein to Zac Dawson’s arrival at Fremantle, Ellis was able to come into the club and help set the matchday structures that Adam Simpson brought across from Hawthorn.
Ellis may not have been able to stay on the park as much as he liked, but there is no doubt that the three years spent at West Coast would have been a rewarding finish, when it seemed injury had cruelled his career at Hawthorn. Ellis was also an integral part of the Eagles rise to the 2015 Grand Final, and the experience he has passed on in his 34 games at the club will be invaluable for the rest of the squad.
West Coast need to start proving the experts wrong about their premiership aspirations, but the Giants also have plenty on the line, and are showing little sign of the fadeouts that have affected previous years. GWS have been almost unstoppable at home, and they will probably have too much run through the midfield for West Coast to counteract.
The Eagles manic team defence of 2015 hasn’t been as prevalent this season, and if the Giants get enough ball forward of centre, they have plenty of players who can hit the scoreboard. GWS are likely to break their final duck in the competition.
GWS by 28.
West Coast are the only team in the competition who have not yet lost to either of the expansion sides. (@WCE_History)