The Eagles and Bulldogs meet in a rematch of last year’s elimination final, when the Bulldogs turned the finals upside down with an upset 47 point win at Subiaco. The game would be a footnote to the Bulldogs fairytale premiership, but for West Coast, it remains a bitter end to their 2016 campaign.
The two sides enter the Round 8 clash with a 5-2 record, and whoever can take victory will stake an early claim for a top four spot. Following this clash, the Eagles have games against the Bombers, Giants (at home) and Suns, and would be eyeing a 9-2 record at the mid-season bye. The Bulldogs on the other hand have Geelong and St.Kilda before the bye and a win on the road may prove vital to their finals hopes. The Bulldogs will be setting themselves for the second half of the season when many of their key players return.
West Coast made it two wins in a row when they secured an important ten point away win against Port Adelaide. Questioned in recent weeks about their form away from home, the Eagles got an early break on the Power, and then held on to the win, despite Port Adelaide dominating most of the key factors in the game.
Having secured their second away win for the season, West Coast return to Subiaco where they have won 19 of their past 21 games, and all three to start 2017, by an average of 29 points. The Bulldogs were one of the two teams to defeat West Coast in recent times, with the win in last year’s Elimination Final breaking a losing run of 8 games at Subiaco Oval against both West Coast and Fremantle.
Elliot Yeo continued his stellar start to the season, and currently sits second in the Coaches Association award, after receiving another nine votes against the Power. Yeo finished as the leading ball getter for West Coast with 27, and also took 10 marks as he moved between the midfield and defence. Matt Priddis had 26 disposals with nine clearances, showing some of his Brownlow form in the past fortnight after a quiet start to the season.
The Bulldogs are yet to fully hit their straps in 2017 as they battle a growing injury list. The Bulldogs were poor against the Dockers in their trip to Perth earlier in the year, scrambled over the line against North, and found themselves five goals down at home to Brisbane, before putting on a ten-goal turnaround in the second half.
The Bulldogs have shown more of their 2016 season in the past two weeks in two tight finishes. The Bulldogs went down to GWS in Canberra by a couple of points in one of the games of the season before coming from behind to beat Richmond by five points, after trailing all night.
Marcus Bontempelli has gone up another level in 2017, and if the AFL watchers didn’t already think he was going to be a future superstar, he would have put any doubts to rest following some of his performances this season. Bontempelli averages 24.5 possessions per game, and also sits second on the club goalkicking, behind only Jake Stringer. Tom Liberatore leads the club for tackles and clearances and will relish another stoppages battle.
The Recent History
The Bulldogs won both of the meetings between these two sides in 2016 – only the third time ever that the Bulldogs have won consecutive games against West Coast. The Bulldogs and Eagles met at the Docklands during the season with the Bulldogs getting up by 8 points. Trailing at the final change, the Eagles booted three goals in as many minutes to hit the front, but the Bulldogs steadied to win. The Bulldogs dominated possession, with 120 more disposals, and 40 more contested possesions, as well as winning the clearances and inside-50’s.
It was much of the same in the Elimination Final, as the Bulldogs smashed West Coast around the ball and at the stoppages, stunning them for an upset 47 point win. It was the small fleet that did much of the damage with Caleb Daniel (33 disposals), Luke Dahlhaus (29) and Lachie Hunter (26) all getting plenty of the ball.
West Coast made two changes to the winning line up of the Port Adelaide match, with a new ruck combination to be tried against the Bulldogs. Fraser McInnes plays his first game in 2017, after managing just two in 2016 to partner Nathan Vardy. McInnes has been in solid form at East Perth playing as a forward and ruckman, and provides greater mobility than Jon Giles who was well beaten around the ground by Paddy Ryder and Jackson Trengove.
Liam Duggan also comes back into the side after being a late withdrawal against the Power with a corked quad. Duggan replaces Mark Hutchings who came in as his replacement last week, but could only manage 12 possessions. Jack Redden could consider himself lucky to hold his place, while Lewis Jetta has been named as an emergency, a potential hint that he could be close to resuming in the senior side.
For the Bulldogs, it is more a matter of who isn’t playing than who is. Josh Dunkley and Jake Stringer are both set for stints on the sidelines after getting injured against the Tigers last week, although the news on Stringer wasn’t as bad as first feared with the dynamic forward only expected to miss a couple of weeks with a knee injury. The Bulldogs have also left out captain Bob Murphy who has been spared the long trip to Perth.
The Bulldogs also resisted the temptation to bring back a number of players who have been returning from injury through the VFL. Mitch Wallis, Jordan Roughead and Tory Dickson have all been given one further week of preparation in the reserves, while Travis Cloke and Dale Morris are both expected to resume in the next fortnight.
Jack Redpath does return for his first game in the seniors, having rehabilitated from a knee reconstruction last season, while Lukas Webb and Bailey Dale are the other two inclusions. Redpath and Webb both come into the side to provide tall options up forward, with Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass patrolling the Eagles defence.
The Talking Points
Where do West Coast defeat the Bulldogs?
In both of the previous two losses, the Eagles were well beaten around the ball, losing the clearances and the contested possession, so it becomes pretty obvious that the stoppages is going to tip the scales towards the winner. Whilst the Bulldogs are the worst side in the competition for winning the centre clearances, they are the number one team for scoring from the clearances they do get, so nullifying the Bulldogs scoring from stoppages will be vital.
A key factor in stopping the Bulldogs around the contest will come from a dominance in the ruck, with the Bulldogs undermanned in this area. Without Jordan Roughead, the Bulldogs have relied on Tom Boyd, as well as unrecognised ruckmen in Josh Dunkley and Lin Jong which has given opposition teams a great advantage. While the Eagles won’t have their ace ruck combination, Vardy and McInnes will have greater size than Boyd and most likely Redpath, and should be able to give the Eagle midfielders first use.
The Eagles currently rank 10th in the competition for contested possession. The Bulldogs in contrast sit fourth, despite recording the 2nd least hit-outs, highlighting their appetite for the ball once it hits the ground. West Coast have Matt Priddis and Luke Shuey as their leading contested ball winners, but will need a bigger input from all of their players to ensure they can match the likes of Tom Liberatore, Marcus Bontempelli and Luke Dahlhaus.
Another new ruck combination for West Coast?
It will continue to be a talking point, until at least Scott Lycett can return, as West Coast trial their fourth ruck duo in just their eighth game. Drew Petrie was given the first crack in Round 1, but broke a hand, allowing Jon Giles to join Nathan Vardy. Giles and Vardy have provided good service, before Giles was dropped for the Round 5 clash with Hawthorn. The Eagles used Jeremy McGovern and Jack Darling with little success before recalling Giles.
Giles led the Eagles ruck at the end of last season, but was exposed by the more mobile Tom Boyd in the Elimination Final, and it appears that those fears have resurfaced with his omission this week. Fraser McInnes is considered a forward-cum-ruck, but has played predominantly in the middle at East Perth this season and will give the Eagles greater agility in general play.
Is Jack Darling under threat?
Darling has been a staple of the Eagle forward line as support for Josh Kennedy, but his 2017 season thus far has been underwhelming to say the least. In six games, Darling averages just 11 disposals and four marks and has booted 13 goals. Darling has also laid just 17 tackles which is a poor return from a player who developed a reputation for his pressure when he first hit the AFL scene.
Previously, Darling has seemed like a core part of the West Coast setup, but may soon face fierce competition for his position. Nathan Vardy joined the club in the off-season to temporarily ease the Eagles ruck woes, but is a natural forward who can provide ruck support. The Eagles also have Drew Petrie, who is a week away from returning from a broken hand, and Fraser McInnes has been upgraded to the senior list on the back of solid form at East Perth.
With the return of Scott Lycett in the second half of the season, Vardy, Petrie and McInnes could all play dual roles across half forward and in the ruck, which will place pressure on Darling who seems to lack the same flexibility. Darling has been unable to compete successfully in the ruck, while calls to release Darling into the midfield have gone unheeded, with the likes of Priddis, Mitchell, Redden and Sheed already there.
At 24, Darling is set to hit the prime of his career, but he could find himself in a massive fight for a senior spot in the latter half of the season. Darling has booted 20 goals in nine games against the Bulldogs and with Dale Morris out injured, this game could provide the perfect chance to kickstart his season against one of the younger Dog defenders.
The Eagles won’t have a better opportunity to knock off the reigning premiers – at home, and with the Bulldogs undermanned. The game will be won and lost in the middle, with whoever can bring the contested attitude. In last year’s semi-final, the Eagles were smashed in this area, and the two games they have lost in 2017 have seen lopsided contested possession numbers.
The Bulldogs certainly can’t be underestimated, but need to cover too many key players who remain unavailable.
West Coast by 16.
EAGLE TRIVIA: Matthew Priddis equals Ashley McIntosh for the number of games in the #11 guernsey - 225. (@WCE_History)