Two of the 2016 finalists open their seasons at the Docklands with differing pre-season expectations. West Coast and North Melbourne were both eliminated in the first week of the finals and according to the experts have potentially contrasting 2017 seasons ahead.
The Eagles will still consider themselves to be premiership contenders, despite an inconsistent season that ended in a poor home finals defeat, after being Grand Finalists in 2015. Meanwhile North Melbourne are expected to be the sliders this season after openly acknowledging they would look to ‘regenerate’ the squad in coming years.
The Kangaroos allowed Daniel Wells to join Collingwood and parted ways with fellow veterans Brent Harvey, Michael Firrito, Nick Dal Santo and Drew Petrie. In a twist to the opening fixture of 2017, the final member of that group, Drew Petrie, will line up against his former side, after being rookie drafted by West Coast as they recruited to provide cover for their ruck stocks with Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett both sidelined by injury.
Both sides have tough early draws to start the season, and will be keen to bank four points from the opening game.
Both teams recorded two wins in the JLT series, with the youthful Kangaroos surprising the Swans and the Hawks before falling to the Giants in the final warm-up game. The Eagles also dropped a game to the Giants when they took a largely inexperienced side in the opening JLT game, before wins against Fremantle and Melbourne.
Sam Mitchell has stepped seamlessly into the Eagles setup collecting 39 disposals in his last outing, and many Eagles players have shown greater output compared to the pre-season of last year. The likes of Elliot Yeo, Chris Masten, Jamie Cripps, Mark Le Cras and Andrew Gaff were questioned during 2016 for not reaching the high standards of the previous year, but there has been a greater intensity in this year’s pre-season which has encouraged many fans.
Many players who have spent a number of years on North Melbourne’s list have been given chances to impress with the departure of many senior players at the end of last season. Jamie Macmillan, Trent Dumont, Ryan Clarke and Ed Vickers-Willis have all had game time and the coaching staff will be expecting these types of players plus others to take that next step up in 2017. Jack Ziebell has stepped up during the pre-season taking over the captaincy from Andrew Swallow.
The Recent History
West Coast and North Melbourne met just the once in 2016, with the Eagles claiming victory by 32 points at Subiaco. The Kangaroos, having started the season with nine straight wins, were well and truly in the middle of their end of season stumble and never posed much of a threat on the Eagles home ground.
West Coast have won 7 of the last 9 meetings between the two sides, but apart from a 96 point thumping in the 2012 elimination final, the average margin in those games is just 17 points, with four matches decided by 10 points or less.
The Eagles and Kangaroos will meet at Docklands for just the fourth time, and the first time since 2010. The Kangaroos easily accounted for West Coast in that last meeting, but the Eagles hold a 2-1 advantage at the ground.
Both sides welcome fresh faces for the start of the 2017 season, but in vastly different circumstances. The Eagles traded in veterans Sam Mitchell and Drew Petrie with the latter to play against his former side. Nathan Vardy also represents the Eagles for the first time, with he and Petrie to lead a restructured ruck combination. The addition of Mitchell and Petrie, both 34, has transformed the Eagles list into the oldest in the competition, replacing their opponents who welcome a batch of youngsters.
Six players will represent North Melbourne for the first time with Mitchell Hibberd, Braydon Preuss, Declan Mountford and Jy Simpkin all making their AFL debuts. Marley Williams and Nathan Hrovat will both play their first club games with North Melbourne after switching across from Collingwood and the Bulldogs, respectively, over the off-season.
North Melbourne have also been able to pick Ben Brown who missed the entire JLT series as he recovered from a knee injury, and will provide a strong focal point. Brown booted four goals in the last meeting and will most likely match up against Eric Mackenzie who has reclaimed his spot after an impressive pre-season.
Mackenzie gets the nod to partner Jeremy McGovern in the back half, with Tom Barrass travelling as the emergency. Barrass could still come in depending on the final make-up of the Kangaroos line-up, but with Majak Daw not selected, West Coast may back a smaller defensive system which was so successful during the Eagles run to the 2015 Grand Final.
While Brown was selected, the Kangaroos couldn’t pick Ben Cunnington who serves a one match suspension for kneeing Hawk Taylor Duryea in the opening JLT series. The Eagles also have lost a midfielder for the game, with Dom Sheed ruled out due to a calf strain suffered at training. His absence has given Jack Redden a first up opportunity after he gathered 26 disposals for East Perth last week.
The Talking Points
How important is a first-up away win for West Coast?
It could have a massive impact. The Eagles found themselves chasing the leading pack throughout 2016 after dropping their first three away fixtures against fellow premiership contenders Hawthorn, Sydney and Geelong. 2017 has given the Eagles a much friendlier start to their journeys, with trips to play North Melbourne, Richmond, Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, Essendon and Gold Coast before the mid-season bye. Of that group, only Hawthorn would be considered a genuine finals threat, and the ability to win games away from Subiaco will go a long way to consolidating a top four spot and a double chance. The Eagles also have the added benefit of not having to travel to play Sydney, Geelong or Adelaide, and just the one taxing trip to Queensland.
Many predict that West Coast will win close to 100% of their home games, so early wins away will shape their season and determine whether they are a genuine premiership threat. Anything less than four wins in the opening six away games could leave West Coast battling for a finals spot in the expected bottleneck at seasons end.
How will the new ruck set-up affect West Coast?
The loss of Scott Lycett for the start of the season and Nic Naitanui until the last few weeks (if he does return this season) has forced the Eagles to fill gaps through the off-season by both trade and draft. Nathan Vardy and Drew Petrie have joined the club, and along with Jonothan Giles who joined last season, will form a makeshift ruck unit in the absence of West Coast’s premier combination.
The Eagles strength in the ruck underpinned the web defence mechanism that saw West Coast reach the Grand Final in 2015. That season, the Eagles were number one in the competition for contested possessions and clearances, and the ability to win first possession enabled the Eagles to set up their defence behind the ball. In 2016, the Eagles dropped in both contested possession and clearances, meaning that West Coast had less chances to employ the web behind the ball, conceding more inside 50’s and ultimately scores against.
The Eagles lost the hit-outs in all three of their JLT series, and the trend would be expected to continue with Todd Goldstein leading the ruck for North Melbourne. West Coast have enjoyed a silver-service advantage from the tapwork of Nic Naitanui in recent years, but showed during the pre-season an adapted stoppage set-up. The Eagles started more defensive, with the trade of Sam Mitchell already proving a masterstroke. Mitchell has orchestrated many of the Eagles forward thrusts from behind the ball, with West Coast also starting many forward drives from half-back.
In a similar vein to the reigning premiers the Eagles have shown much more dare from the backline with a relentless, direct mode of football, with less emphasis on setting the defence from the centre clearances.
The player who wants a strong first game is…?
Lewis Jetta. It’s no surprise that the Eagles will be hoping that Jetta can deliver what was promised when they traded Callum Sinclair for him prior to last season. Jetta is seen as a key element in two areas where West Coast are considered lacking – pace and exquisite foot skills. Jetta has excited the Eagles faithful and coaching staff with a strong JLT series but that will mean nothing if he can’t deliver in the regular season.
The Eagles have certainly had precedent in previous seasons with highly touted recruits – Sharrod Wellingham joined the club in 2013 and had a horrid first two seasons at the club before finally getting things to click over the past two years. At 28, Jetta still has good football to give and many will think that a strong season from Jetta could launch West Coast into the top four.
West Coast should be too strong and will take in a much more settled side, as North introduce a number of youngsters who they hope will shape the clubs future success. Both sides will be seeking redemption for disappointing ends to their 2016 campaign, but with expectations that the two clubs will head in different directions in 2017, West Coast should notch a first up win.
West Coast by 32.
EAGLE TRIVIA: Three players will debut for West Coast against North Melbourne – the most in one game since Round 1, 2014 (4 – Jamie Bennell, Xavier Ellis, Dom Sheed, Elliot Yeo). @WCE_History