West Coast host the Bulldogs in a showcase Thursday night elimination final at Subiaco Oval. Both sides face knockout finals for the duration of the series, depending on how far they can go. For West Coast, this will be their final game at home, with the remainder of the series to be played interstate.
The winner of the Eagles-Bulldogs will tackle the loser of the Geelong-Hawthorn clash at the MCG the following week. If successful beyond next week, the path leads to Sydney against the winner of the Swans and Giants. The loser of this game starts preparing for 2017. Eagles captain Shannon Hurn plays his 200th for the club.
The Eagles enter the finals series as one of the form teams in the competition, having won 9 of their last 10. The last month saw impressive wins over Fremantle, GWS, Hawthorn and Adelaide. The final round win against the Crows at the Adelaide Oval certainly confirmed that the Eagles weren’t done with when it comes to the premiership race.
Josh Kennedy looms as the man to stop with the full forward in a rich vein of form. Kennedy booted five goals against the Crows to take his tally for the year to 80, with 20 of those coming in the past four weeks. At the other end Jeremy McGovern runs the defence, and his year earned him All-Australian selection last week.
On the flipside, the Bulldogs had an erratic finish to the season, losing three of their final six games, including a poor showing against the Dockers in the final round. Despite having nothing to play for, coach Luke Beveridge would have hoped for a more positive result, particularly as the Bulldogs knew they would be returning to the same ground for a knockout final.
No individual has epitomised the Bulldogs recent form than Jake Stringer, who was dropped to the VFL in the final two weeks of the season. Many other players have suffered from having interrupted seasons due to injury. Marcus Bontempelli and Lachie Hunter have been the two through the middle that have managed to maintain their outstanding seasons, and these two will be driving forces against West Coast.
The Recent History
The Eagles and Bulldogs met just the once in 2016, with the Bulldogs coming out winners by 8 points at the Docklands. The Eagles though were fortunate to finish as close as they did, with the Bulldogs comprehensively outclassing West Coast in many facets of the game. The main area of the game was the contested possession, which the Bulldogs smashed the Eagles, winning the count 153-114. Further to that the Bulldogs were too good on the outside as well, with nearly 300 uncontested possessions, 80 more than West Coast.
The Bulldogs also claimed the points in their first meeting in 2015 (at the Docklands), but conversely the Bulldogs record at Subiaco is alarming. The Bulldogs haven’t won at the ground since 2010, losing their past seven games. Four of those were against West Coast, by an average of 14 goals, including the most recent meeting last year which saw the Eagles get home by 77 points. Josh Kennedy has feasted on the Bulldogs in those four wins, booting 23 goals.
West Coast have been forced to make the one change, with Lewis Jetta sidelined with a calf strain picked up during the week at training. Mitch Brown comes in for Jetta, in a somewhat perplexing decision that raises more doubts about the Eagles final line-up.
The inclusion of Brown places a question mark over whether Scott Lycett will take his place, or whether the Eagles think Lycett can even make it through the full game. West Coast have insisted that Lycett is fine to play so it is also quite likely that Brown may be used in the backline, as a bigger bodied defender. While the Bulldogs don’t possess a bevy of talls, they do have an array of medium sized forwards which Brown may be suited towards.
The likes of Tory Dickson and Jake Stringer may be too big for the running defenders in Sheppard and Wellingham and could be the reason for Brown’s inclusion. With the Eagles losing Jetta, Wellingham could also spend more time up the ground, with Brown covering in defence. Alternatively, Brown could also be sent forward to stretch a small Bulldogs defence. It's an intriguing selection, and there will be interest in where Brown plays.
Luke Beveridge hasn’t held back, bringing in five of his best players, in a do-or-die selection. The Bulldogs will arguably have their top 22 on the field against West Coast, bar captain Robert Murphy and midfielder Mitch Wallis. Easton Wood, Jordan Roughead, Jake Stringer, Jackson Macrae and Tom Liberatore all return to boost the chances of the Bulldogs causing a major upset.
The question mark over the inclusions will be how those players handle returning to senior action. Stringer has played the past few weeks at VFL level, but the other four all return from injury. Easton Wood and Jordan Roughead missed the final game against Fremantle, while Liberatore and Macrae play their first games since Round 19.
Despite the risks with bringing back underdone players, Luke Beveridge knows there is no next week for the loser, and is willingly rolling the dice. The five changes were all omissions for the Bulldogs, with Will Minson, Fletcher Roberts, Koby Stevens, Nathan Hrovat and Bailey Williams all making way.
The Talking Points
Would the bye have helped or hurt West Coast?
While the general public (and probably most at AFL headquarters) would have liked the season to keep going, the players and clubs have both acknowledged that they are better for the week off.
At West Coast, Scott Lycett would have been the player that enjoyed the break the most. Lycett has battled a knee injury since the middle of the season and copped a further knock in the game against Adelaide. While Giles was outstanding coming in for the injured Naitanui, Lycett will be required to lead the ruck if the Eagles hope to go far in the finals.
While the players would have enjoyed the break to rest sore bodies and recover from any niggling ailments, there is an argument that the weeks break could have been detrimental. The Eagles were clearly in their best form this year, and the week off has robbed West Coast of the momentum that was building with wins over top four sides in the last three weeks of the season.
Futher, the bye has allowed the Bulldogs additional time to recuperate from the final round trip to Subiaco. There is no doubt that having to play in Perth twice within a week would have been a massive disadvantage for the Bulldogs, but the bye has given them a 10-day break to recover between games.
Certainly, West Coast would have fancied their chances against a side forced to make the trip to Perth in successive games. The bye has also allowed the bevy of injured Bulldogs an extra week to recover, with coach Luke Beveridge conceding that had the game been played last week, a couple may not have been available. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, first choice players in Easton Wood, Jackson Macrae and Tom Liberatore have all returned to the side.
Does it come down to who wins contested possession?
There is no doubt that contested possession will go a long way to determining the result. The Bulldogs won this area comprehensively in the two teams' meeting earlier in the year, and this area has been a concerning factor for West Coast during much of the year.
However, the past three weeks have seen the Eagles return to their strong contested possession game that got them so far in 2015 and they will be keen to atone for the performance earlier in the year against the Bulldogs. The inclusion of Dom Sheed has certainly helped West Coast in recent weeks, but the Bulldogs possess some strong inside ball winners with the returning Tom Liberatore, alongside Marcus Bontempelli, Liam Picken and Luke Dahlhaus.
While it will be important for West Coast to match the Bulldogs in this area, the Eagles won't want this to be a game that is left in the trenches. The Bulldogs have struggled to boot competitive scores, and will be keen to make this a scrap from start to finish and keep the game as low-scoring as possible. West Coast will need to bring in the likes of Gaff, Wellingham, Masten and Cripps on the outside to give themselves plenty of forward entries and scoring opportunities.
The size of Subiaco Oval has also been a issue for the Bulldogs, so if West Coast can get quick movement of the ball from both the stoppages and quick transition from the backline, it could spell trouble for the Bulldogs defensive set-up. The better West Coast can control the ball around the ground, the better chance they will have of setting up their forwards, who should have an advantage one-out against the Bulldogs defenders.
Can Giles back up his performance against the Crows?
The Eagles will certainly be hoping he can! Giles played arguably the most influential game of his career against the Crows, and his timing couldn’t have been more perfect. With Scott Lycett hampered with a knee injury, Giles will be expected to carry more of the load than he initially expected.
Giles was the best big man on the ground against Adelaide, easily taking care of Sam Jacobs. One area of advantage for West Coast does appear to be in the ruck stocks. The Bulldogs aren’t blessed with a natural ruckman, giving Giles and Lycett an excellent opportunity to again wield an influence.
Will Minson has made way for Jordan Roughead, and while he will be mobile enough to have an impact around the ground, Lycett and Giles should be able to control the tap. Tom Boyd is likely to provide the support for Roughead in small stints. Still without a genuine ruckman, Giles may again be an important factor for West Coast.
Like most of the finals in the opening weekend, this game could go either way, and despite their poor record at Subiaco, the Bulldogs will come into the contest with the attitude that they can keep their season alive.
The question mark though is whether their game plan is suited for Subaico, and how much the Eagles will allow them to play their way. The Eagles form in the past few weeks has come down to a greater intensity at the ball and a stronger defensive attitude across the ground, and if the Eagles can turn up with the right mindset, they should be too strong at home.
West Coast by 23.
Mitch Brown plays his first final for West Coast, in his 94th career game. It is the most number of games played at West Coast for a first final (@WCE_History).