2017 has been a long time coming for the Eagles who are still smarting from their disappointing exit in 2016. Forever a footnote to the Bulldogs remarkable premiership win, Adam Simpson has been open with the club’s desire to make amends to the poor end of last season. Simpson has commented recently that last year’s final was more disappointing than the Grand Final defeat of 2015, and that the biggest challenge for the Eagles squad will be the ability to step up and win the big games against the teams above them.
Unless you have been living under a rock, Sam Mitchell crossed over from the Hawks in one of the biggest trades in AFL history. For nothing more than a token draft pick, Mitchell joined West Coast to play out his career, before a move into coaching. Whether the Eagles can squeeze one year or two out of the veteran is still to be seen, but either way Mitchell will prove to be a great influence on the young Eagle midfielders.
Along with Mitchell, the Eagles also brought in Nathan Vardy from Geelong and delisted Kangaroo Drew Petrie as the Eagles temporarily bolster the ruck stocks in the long-term absence of Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett.
While the Eagles were able to bring in players to complement the squad, the overall strength of the player list remains high with no substantial losses between seasons. Xavier Ellis announced his AFL retirement, after three years on the list, whilst fringe players Patrick McGinnity and Jamie Bennell both exited the club. Mitch Brown also departed, when he chose not to accept a one-year contract and rookie-listed players Kane Lucas, Brant Colledge and Corey Adamson were all let go.
Alec Waterman was also delisted after spending the majority of his two years with the club fighting glandular fever. But while it was disappointing for one father-son, younger brother Jake was selected with the Eagles final pick in the National Draft. Waterman was one of four players to join the club, with the club also selecting Daniel Venables, Josh Rotham and Willie Rioli. Thomas Gorter, Tarir Bayok and Francis Watson all joined the club as rookies.
The Injury List
For much of the off-season, Scott Lycett remained a 50/50 chance to lead the ruck in Round 1 as he recovered from a damaged posterior cruciate ligament. However, Lycett fell at the final hurdle, dislocating a shoulder in a WAFL practice match, which will see the ruckmen miss three months. His absence, along with Naitanui who will miss most if not all of 2017, has vindicated the decision to draft in Nathan Vardy and Drew Petrie.
The majority of the Eagles have enjoyed streamlined pre-seasons. Simon Tunbridge will undergo LARS to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, as he enters his final year under contract with West Coast. The core players for West Coast have stayed injury-free with the biggest woes affecting many of the new recruits.
Willie Rioli, who could have pushed for a debut against the Kangaroos tore his hamstring before the first the JLT game and has been ruled out until mid-year. Jake Waterman will also spend a stint on the sidelines after stress fractures were found in his foot, while Daniel Venables is being eased into the AFL workload after having surgery in the lead up to the draft.
Emerging midfielder Liam Duggan injured a hamstring that slowed his pre-season, with Duggan held back from participating in the Eagles JLT series. Duggan made his first appearance for 2017 in East Perth’s opening WAFL game, as did Sam Butler who strained a calf on the eve of the season.
The majority of the core Eagles players have enjoyed streamlined pre-seasons, including the likes of Dom Sheed, Jack Redden and Lewis Jetta who all had interrupted lead-ins to 2016.
The JLT Series
West Coast recorded two wins from three in the JLT series, with the signs for many players promising for the year proper. The Eagles fell to the Giants by 33 points in the opening game, with a young side travelling to regional NSW. With the majority of the senior players returning, they smashed the Dockers by 55 points in Geraldton and then a hard-fought 25 point win against Melbourne, who are expected to challenge for finals this year.
Josh Kennedy finished the JLT series as the leading goalkicker in a sign that he will still be a dominant force up forward, while Mark Le Cras also showed good form after a down 2016. Le Cras is expected to spend more time as a permanent forward in 2017 and was arguably best on ground in the win against Fremantle. Lewis Jetta was the big disappointment in 2016, but played all three JLT games and looks to be one of the big improvers in 2017. Eric Mackenzie is another who played all three games and looks to have done enough to claim a spot in the opening game, ahead of youngster Tom Barrass who was preferred through the second half of 2016.
Unlike 2016 when West Coast limped through the pre-season, the Eagles have been sharp with ball use and ball movement. West Coast have shown a greater intent to move the ball through the middle of the ground and many of the players have displayed good form heading into the opening clash with North Melbourne.
West Coast have a great chance to get a running start into 2017, with winnable games to open the season against North Melbourne, St.Kilda and Richmond. From there it will get tough. Before the bye, the Eagles will have consecutive games against the Swans and Hawks, as well as matches against the Giants, the Bulldogs and unpredictable duo Fremantle and Essendon.
The Eagles will have a great opportunity to build momentum after the Round 12 bye, before closing the season against the Giants and Crows. In 2016, the inability to win away games against the top sides early in the season had West Coast chasing the top sides for the rest of the year. The Eagles have avoided away trips against Geelong, Sydney and Adelaide who are all expected to challenge for the finals.
West Coast have double up games against GWS, Fremantle, St.Kilda, the Bulldogs and Port Adelaide and only travel to Adelaide, Sydney and Queensland once. In a bonus for many Victorian fans, the Eagles will play seven games in Victoria, although will only have two visits to the MCG – both before Round 5. The Eagles have also enjoyed a drop in six-day breaks after having an AFL-high eight in 2016. West Coast will have to deal with a five day break though before the Round 4 game against Sydney as the opening game of the Easter long weekend.
West Coast’s summer was relatively low-key, but the orchestration of Sam Mitchell to the club shocked the AFL world in the trade period. Mitchell’s arrival initially on a playing contract and then as an assistant coach has already been labelled a masterstroke and will no doubt have a long-lasting impact on the young Eagles midfield group.
Many questioned whether the Eagles would be too slow having Mitchell and Matthew Priddis alongside one another, but these fears appear to have been allayed by the strong showing in the final two JLT games. Mitchell has amassed 28 and 39 disposals in his first two outings, in a sign that the 34 year old will still have plenty of good football in him in 2017.
West Coast will look to avenge the poor end to 2016 and even though many are predicting a tight competition, the top four is not out of reach. The loss of the two leading ruckmen will pose the biggest question over the Eagles premiership credentials, but going deep into the finals is a real possibility if many of the underperformers of 2016 can improve.