2016 season preview: West Coast

Last campaign

2015 had all the early hallmarks of disaster for the Eagles.

They entered the year already down two club legends from 2014 – captain and spiritual leader Darren Glass, and superstar ruckman Dean Cox – and lost a third when Beau Waters’ battle-weary body finally said “no more” in mid-February.

Glass’ heir-apparent Eric Mackenzie, fresh off a career-best year in which he remarkably captured the Eagles’ best and fairest award ahead of Brownlow Medal winner Matt Priddis, went down with an knee injury in the very first pre-season game, and Mitch Brown did likewise in the season opener against the Bulldogs.

That was enough for most pundits to put a line through Adam Simpson’s men for the year. But somehow, buoyed by a reshaped defensive unit colloquially known as the ‘Weagles Web’ led by the unheralded Jeremy McGovern, and a powerful forward line that got plenty of supply from a quick and tough midfield, the Eagles just kept winning (and winning, and winning).

When they stormed over the top of the tired Hawks in week one of the finals even the most ardent critics were forced to admit West Coast was a real chance for the flag. However, after seeing off a determined North Melbourne in the preliminary final, the dream came to a disappointing end on the big stage – the squad’s lack of experience and polish was punished by a veteran Hawthorn outfit.

Josh Kennedy stamped himself as the dominant key forward in the game with a career-high 80 goals for the year. Nearly every Eagle improved some facet of their game in 2015, with oft-maligned senior players Sharrod Wellingham, Josh Hill, Chris Masten and Will Schofield all valuable contributors.

Comings and goings

Scott Selwood left for greener pastures only two years after being named co-captain – he headed to Geelong as a free agent to link up with brother Joel. Meanwhile veteran Matt Rosa shocked the Eagles when he demanded a trade, and he ended up at Gold Coast where he should get the game time he wants.

The Eagles traded out fledgling ruckman Callum Sinclair to the Swans in exchange for the homesick Lewis Jetta, whose pace and experience will be a valuable asset. Also joining the squad was Brisbane midfielder Jack Redden, who West Coast will hope can step into the role played by Rosa.

Strengths

As you’d expect for a premiership contender, the Eagles have an incredibly powerful midfield. While plenty has been written about the consistent and dependable Matt Priddis, it has been the emergence of their young guns that has elevated West Coast from a good team to a great one.

2015 marked career-best years for Luke Shuey, Chris Masten, Elliot Yeo and Andrew Gaff – the latter captured his first John Worsfold Medal as the club’s best and fairest player. They get silver service from Nic Naitanui – a ruckman who on his day is nigh on unstoppable. He just has to stay on the park.

Their forward set up is extremely potent, too: Josh Kennedy is the danger man, but Jack Darling, Jamie Cripps, Mark LeCras and Josh Hill form an excellent supporting cast that notched up 145 goals between them last year.

The Eagles also have time on their side. They’ve built a list that could be a contender for many years to come – Matt Priddis, who turned 31 yesterday, is their oldest player. Their senior core should all have at least three-to-five years of good football left in them.

Weaknesses

It may sound counter-intuitive, but the strategy widely considered the reason West Coast made it so far into September could be their undoing.

Given the resounding success of the ‘Weagles Web’, the coaching hierarchy will be reluctant to tinker with the team’s game plan and structure too much – but crucially, the Eagles no longer have the element of surprise up their sleeve.

Their competitors have likely spent a great deal of the summer devising methods to counter the zone. If West Coast attempts to enter 2016 with the same plan that took them to a grand final, they may be in for a rude awakening.

It remains to be seen how Eric Mackenzie or Mitch Brown slot back into that structure, so it’s possible we’ll see some variations on the defensive set-up early in the year before Adam Simpson settles on the right formula.

The Eagles need to protect Priddis and Nic Naitanui as much as they can during the year, as they’re the most important cogs to the machine come finals time. Naitanui in particular is the key; the developing Scott Lycett and journeyman Jonathan Giles are next cabs off the rank should NicNat go down, and both are largely unproven at AFL level.

It was only three years ago that West Coast were premiership favourites following a surprise 2012 finals appearance. They faltered badly under that tag in 2013 and finished 13th, a result that ended John Worsfold’s reign at the club. Most of the current team went through that experience; how they respond to a similar situation this year will be telling.

What to expect in 2016

Failure on grand final day can do strange things to footballers. It’s the pinnacle of a career, and the thing they strive towards every day of their professional lives. The moments of lapsed concentration, poor decision-making, and downright stage fright that saw the Eagles unravel against the Hawks could make or break this team. Too many West Coast players went missing when the heat was on in the biggest stage of them all, and they’ll need to work hard to make amends.

Adam Simpson played in premierships for North Melbourne after heartbreaking near misses and watched on from the coach’s box in 2012 as Hawthorn faltered against Sydney and then bounced back to purge their demons against Fremantle the following year. He has the knowledge and experience to harness the anguish of harrowing finals defeats and drive his charges back towards September glory. This year’s Eagles will be methodical, focused and ruthless – they’re chasing an opportunity that went begging, and another shot at the crown cannot be taken for granted.

Best 22

B: Shannon Hurn – Eric Mackenzie – Will Schofield
HB: Brad Sheppard – Jeremy McGovern – Sharrod Wellingham
C: Elliot Yeo – Matt Priddis – Andrew Gaff
HF: Jamie Cripps – Jack Darling – Lewis Jetta
F: Mark LeCras – Josh Kennedy – Josh Hill
FOLL: Nic Naitanui – Luke Shuey – Chris Masten
INT: Jack Redden – Scott Lycett – Dom Sheed – Liam Duggan

The Verdict

The Eagles have class and experience on every line, and a coach who has already proven his tactical nous. They’ve shown they can cope with adversity, too. If they can nab a top four spot and a home final in week one, they’ll be tough to beat for the premiership.

We have West Coast finishing second at the end of the home and away season, but the most likely to prevent a Hawthorn four-peat.