The Eagles and Dockers meet in the 45th Western Derby in an unexpectedly crucial early-season game. Both sides sit at 3-2, and while West Coast would have entered 2017 with September as a minimum requirement, the Dockers were seen as still years away from re-entering the finals fray.
The Eagles can’t afford to go 3-3 with an away game against the in-form Port Adelaide, followed by the visit of the reigning premiers. Adelaide, Richmond and Geelong are all still undefeated and the Eagles could find themselves two games out of the top four with a loss to Fremantle. West Coast were 3-3 last season and spent the rest of the year chasing ground and would be keen to avoid the same situation this year.
West Coast were dismal against the Hawks, with many of their players continuing their struggles at the MCG, and one of heavyweights of the last few seasons. West Coast have yet to string four strong quarters together, and the Eagles coaching staff would be demanding a more intense effort from the outset.
Many of the Eagles who regularly underperform away from home have come under fire from the external commentators of the game, and would be desperate to respond with a strong performance against Fremantle. Chris Masten, Mark Le Cras, Sharrod Wellingham, Jack Redden and Dom Sheed are just some players that will enjoy being back on home comforts and will want to put in a more solid effort than the one against Hawthorn.
At the start of the season the Eagles were expected to push for the top four, while the Dockers were firmly in a rebuild that looked a long way off from returning them to finals action after the opening two weeks. The Dockers lost their first two games to Geelong and Port Adelaide by a combined 131 points, but a change in philosophy has seen a remarkable change of form.
The introduction of some youngsters has delivered three consecutive come-from-behind wins against the Bulldogs, Melbourne and North Melbourne, and a previously unlikely spot in the finals is becoming a possibility. A win tonight will have the Dockers at 4-2, with home games against Essendon and Carlton to come in the next three weeks.
While the young players have done their part, the experienced group have also led the revival, with the likes of David Mundy, Nat Fyfe, Michael Johnson and Aaron Sandilands all influential after indifferent seasons in 2016.
The Recent History
West Coast have won the past three clashes between the two WA sides, claiming wins in the second derby of 2015 and both last year. This streak of three ended a run of six straight wins by Fremantle, with the Eagles now leading the overall count 24-20.
With the Dockers languishing down the bottom of the ladder in 2016, the Eagles recorded two comfortable wins, by 33 and 46 points respectively. Matthew Priddis and Josh Kennedy were the two respective Ross Glendinning medallists last season, although both have been below their best in recent weeks.
West Coat have made three changes, although despite the poor performance last week, only Will Schofield has felt the brunt of the axe. Jamie Cripps (ankle) and Jackson Nelson (wrist) couldn’t be considered after picking up injuries in the loss to Hawthorn, and both players are set for several weeks on the sidelines.
Jonothan Giles returns to the Eagles line up after being a late withdrawal against the Hawks, with West Coast reverting back to two recognised ruckman against Aaron Sandilands. Sam Mitchell has been named after missing the Hawthorn game with an ankle injury, although there are suggestions that he may need right up until the last minute to confirm his place. Kurt Mutimer is the third selection, making his AFL debut. Mutimer has been named as an emergency twice this season and breaks through for his first game after being the Eagles third selection at the 2015 National Draft (and number 57 overall). Mutimer has been in strong form for East Perth this year, and will slot in across half-forward replacing Jamie Cripps.
Interestingly, the addition of Mitchell means that all of Mitchell, Priddis, Sheed and Redden will play despite question marks over the lack of speed at West Coast.
The Dockers have made just one change with Stephen Hill injuring a hamstring in the final term against North Melbourne. Harley Balic comes in as his replacement for this third AFL game, after playing in Rounds 3 & 4. Stephen Hill has been a thorn in the Eagles side in past derbies and the Dockers will no doubt miss his run and carry.
The Dockers have had great success with their experienced players resting forward, with Mundy, Neale and Fyfe all having a scoreboard presence in their recent wins. Cameron McCarthy and Shane Kersten are still finding their way as the leading forwards at Fremantle, and the Dockers ability to share the scoring load has improved their forward efficiencies.
The Talking Points
Did West Coast err with their ruck tactics last week?
The Eagles made the decision to omit Jonothan Giles against the Hawks in favour of an extra midfielder, leaving Nathan Vardy to lead the ruck with minor support from Jack Darling and Jeremy McGovern. Having used two ruckmen in the first five weeks, the Eagles were spooked by the wider MCG and went for more run. To say the move backfired is an understatement.
Ben McEvoy was clearly the influential big man on the ground and dominated Vardy both in the hit-outs and in general play. The Hawks entered the round five clash as the third worst clearance team in the competition and being minus 20 in the contested possession in each of the first four games, but turned both these factors around through McEvoy’s aerial ascendancy.
The use of Darling and McGovern gave up too much of an advantage around the stoppages and the Eagles can’t afford to play with such a discrepancy against Fremantle behemoth Aaron Sandilands. The Dockers ruckman leads the competition in hit-outs, averaging 47 per match. The Dockers midfield have enjoyed his supremacy, with Fyfe, Neale, Mundy and Stephen Hill all recording over 20 clearances in the opening month of football.
Giles will return for West Coast and a recognised ruck duo will be needed to counter Sandilands’ influence around the contests.
What will Kurt Mutimer bring?
Kurt Mutimer becomes the Eagles’ first debutant in 2017, after joining the club in the 2015 National Draft. Mutimer has played mainly across half-forward for East Perth, and gets his chance with the ankle injury to Jamie Cripps ruling him out for two months. Mutimer has twice been an emergency for West Coast this season on the back of strong football at East Perth.
Mutimer was one of the Royals’ best in their first win of the season over Perth, collecting 28 disposals, 9 tackles, 8 inside-50’s and a goal. Mutimer has averaged 26 possessions and six tackles across the first five rounds of football, and the former Dandenong product is strongly built for AFL football. Mutimer is likely to start across half-forward, but has the capability to move into the midfield with more games under his belt.
How do West Coast manage Nat Fyfe?
Nat Fyfe has made a successful return to AFL football after consecutive broken legs and the new Dockers captain presents a massive challenge for the Eagles. West Coast faced a similar situation three weeks ago against Richmond, and struggled to contain their match-winner in Dustin Martin, who went on to be best on ground and have a huge influence in the Tigers victory.
West Coast don’t have many options as a direct match-up and will rely on a team defence to negate his impact on the game through the midfield. Where the Eagles could have a mismatch when Fyfe moves forward. Jackson Nelson could have been given the task but misses with a broken wrist, so the role could fall to either Shannon Hurn or Tom Barrass.
The Eagles put in their worst performance of the year against the Hawks, and will be keen to respond to the external criticism aimed at them during the week. Fremantle will be riding a wave of confidence on the back of three straight wins, but have needed to come from behind in all of the games. West Coast will have a period of control, and it will be a matter of whether they can get a large enough gap on Fremantle to shut them out of the game.
West Coast by 24.
EAGLE TRIVIA: Kurt Mutimer will be the 233rd player to represent West Coast and the 11th to make his AFL debut against Fremantle. (@WCE_History)