The Eagles enter 2018 as one of the mystery teams of the year. West Coast bowed out in the second week of the 2017 finals series, going one better than the year before, despite having a more inconsistent season.
While West Coast will declare that they are still in the finals mix, there has been a clear regeneration over the Summer. Matthew Priddis, Sam Butler, Sam Mitchell and Drew Petrie all hung up the boots while experienced duo Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill weren’t given new contracts. All up, 11 players departed the club, with the club set to field the future of the club in 2018.
Brandon Ah Chee joined from the Power before the club hit the draft hard, with five selections inside the top 40. Victorian Jarrod Brander was the Eagles first selection, followed by local Oscar Allen, goalsneak Liam Ryan, the pacy Jack Petruccelle and inside midfielder Braydon Ainsworth. Hamish Brayshaw also joined the club as a late selection.
The influx of new players was just a small part of the transformation over the break. The new Perth Stadium will debut as a football ground when the Eagles host the Sydney Swans, with West Coast also starting their transition to the new training ground in Lathlain. The Eagles also released a new logo with a fresh brand to support the changing feel of the club.
Not all things though went through change. Shannon Hurn remained as captain with Josh Kennedy and Luke Shuey his deputies. There was a return to the past, with former captain Ben Cousins joining the club in a community role, after serving a ten month prison term, while on the field, excitement is building over the return of ruckman Nic Naitanui from a knee reconstruction. 2017 Worsfold medallist Elliot Yeo committed his tenure with the club signing a five year deal that will keep him at the club until the end of 2023. Focus has now turned to Jeremy McGovern and Andrew Gaff, who are both free agents come the end of 2018.
On the field, it was a mixed bag through the pre-season. The Eagles sent a young side as part of the AFLX, with Liam Duggan captaining the squad that participated in two games against Adelaide and Collingwood. West Coast then notched a small win over Port Adelaide in a scrappy first JLT match, with Lewis Jetta scoring the winning goal in the final minute, reviving memories of the last gasp elimination final win.
The Eagles then fielded a young side in a practice match against Fremantle, before playing the Dockers again in their official second JLT game. The second outing certainly didn’t go to plan with the Dockers romping to a 67 point win, despite West Coast playing a side that will most likely resemble their opening round side. The Eagles have dismissed the result but internally there would be disappointment in the last performance before the real action kicks off.
Are West Coast in Finals Contention?
It doesn’t seem so. Most experts and fans anticipate a drop down the ladder as the Eagles in what could be one of the tightest seasons ever. The Eagles will have a much younger side in 2018 and have also been handed a tougher draw for finishing in the top six last season. With many sides who finished outside the top eight last year expected to push for a finals spot this year, West Coast could be squeezed out.
While finals appears unlikely, most Eagles fans have accepted their fate knowing that the club is undergoing an evolution of the team that will hopefully lift them deep into finals in the coming years.
What Impact Will Nic Naitanui Have?
Hope that Naitanui will be a catalyst to a deep finals run seem outlandish as he continues his comeback from a knee reconstruction that had him on the sidelines for the entire 2017 season. The Eagles will look to ease their big man back in and may have secretly wanted an extra few weeks to prepare Naitanui, after reports he suffered a setback in his rehabilitation during the pre-season. But with Nathan Vardy sidelined and Scott Lycett also on the comeback trail, the Eagles will risk their trump card upfront.
However, while expectation should be tempered, Naitanui is sure to add plenty to a side that was down in 2017 for contested possessions and clearances. The ruckman creates a distinct advantage for a midfield that is admittedly thin, and his athleticism and ferocity around the contest brings much needed x-factor.
How Much Pressure is Adam Simpson Under?
Simpson has faced heavy criticism from a restless fan group who have demanded changes to underperforming players and rewarding youngsters in the WAFL. With a bevy of list changes at the end of 2017 and a number of injuries to senior players to start the season, Simpson has no option but to throw several young players into the fray.
The Eagles coach received an extension in 2016 to the end of 2019, but if things go awry for West Coast this season, the Eagles could make a change before Simpson reaches his final year. Last season, the drums were beating that Eagles management were looking at a potential change at the top, with former player Peter Sumich (who was beaten to the position by Simpson) being lined up.
A slip out of the finals could be seen as the necessary drop West Coast need as they plunder games into the Eagle youth, but if West Coast reach the mid-season bye sitting 3-10 or 2-11 (which considering the tough start to the draw is a real possibility), the future of Simpson could be under serious question.
Do The Elder Statesmen At the Club Still Have A Role?
The Eagles made their intentions clear for 2018 with a number of senior players retiring and letting go Sharrod Wellingham and Josh Hill as they usher in the next generation of players. Mark LeCras was surprisingly given another year, with 2018 set to be his swansong. However, there is no guarantee he is in West Coast’s best 22 with his lack of forward pressure and could find himself down the pecking order behind Jamie Cripps, Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli, particularly if he struggles to hit the scoreboard. while Chris Masten and Will Schofield found themselves out of the Eagles best 22 by the end of 2017.
Chris Masten and Will Schofield are another two who could spend the majority of the year at East Perth. Neither Masten or Schofield are expected to feature in Round 1 with both players having minimal exposure through the JLT series. Chris Masten in particular finds himself at the crossroads with the midfielder out of contract at the end of 2018. Masten has consistently proven himself as one of best runners, but is well down at the club in contested possession and tackles and has poor disposal efficiency. With West Coast investing heavily in midfielders in the past couple of drafts, the likes of Venables, Ainsworth, Brayshaw, Partington and Ah Chee are in front of the 174 game veteran.
Another player who enters his final season of his contract is Eric Mackenzie, who will have a delayed start to the season due to a foot injury. Mackenzie has struggled to find the pace of the game since returning from a season out in 2015 although he managed to cement a spot through the second half of 2017. However, with a general trend towards smaller sides and smaller forward lines, the Eagles may only go into the season with two tall defenders and Mackenzie may struggle to get a place ahead of McGovern and Barrass.
Likely West Coast Round 1 Side
The Eagles are expected to take a youthful side into their Round 1 clash with Sydney through a mixture of list evolution and injury. Adam Simpson has flagged that a number of first year and second year players will get opportunities in 2018, and the Eagles could unveil anywhere from three to five debutants to start the season.
The Eagles number one forward, Josh Kennedy, will have a delayed start to the season with ankle surgery in December ruling him out of the first few weeks. Nathan Vardy injured a groin in the practice match against Fremantle, while new recruit Brandon Ah Chee has also been sidelined with injury. Jack Petruccelle and Willie Rioli were two youngsters that were tracking for Round 1 selection but will have to wait a little longer, while Tom Cole may take time away from the club after the passing of his father.
With plenty of spots up for grabs, Jake Waterman, Liam Ryan, Francis Watson and Daniel Venables could all feature for the first time in the blue and gold. Nic Naitanui appears set to return after getting through a practice game with East Perth and training strongly since. His return has also been hastened with the injury to Nathan Vardy and the Eagles thin ruck stocks. Scott Lycett will also play after managing just one appearance in 2017 due to shoulder and knee problems.
Lewis Jetta has been earmarked for a role in defence, spending plenty of time there in the pre-season. Liam Duggan could resume on the half-back flank after being a revelation in defence through the second half of 2017, however there are expectations that he will spend more time through the middle with Matthew Priddis and Sam Mitchell no longer at the club. Elliot Yeo is another who could move up the ground for defence, while Jack Redden and Dom Sheed will also receive their chance to impress.
Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps may hold their spots in the forward line, but they will have competition for spots in 2018 once Willie Rioli becomes available from knee soreness. Jackson Nelson hasn’t had a strong pre-season, but may get a call-up with the Eagles looking to cover themselves down back and through the middle, ahead of the experienced Will Schofield.
B Sheppard Barrass Hurn
HB Jetta McGovern Duggan
M Gaff Redden Sheed
HF Cripps Darling Venables
F Ryan Waterman LeCras
R Naitanui Shuey Yeo
I Lycett Hutchings