2021 Season Review: West Coast Eagles – Wings clipped

In 2021, the West Coast Eagles were sidelined in September for only the second time in Adam Simpson’s eight-year tenure.

With a list of high-end talent, West Coast was considered a premiership contender heading into 2021.

However, everything from injured stars, an inability to execute and adapt game plans and reincorporate players returning from injury led to a nightmare campaign.

What worked?

If there’s one thing Eagles fans can look forward to, it’s the future.

With a wealth of experience missing games, younger players had their moments to shine allowing fans to see which emerging talents are in the wings, and what they have to offer.

Up forward, Jamaine Jones brought speed, pressure, and determination, and showed potential to push into the middle.

Mature and composed under pressure, 2020 draftee Luke Edwards extracted and moved the ball cleanly through traffic, while a gritty Connor West attacked the contest and consistently applied pressure.

Josh Rotham had a break-out season, proving himself a solid rebounding and marking defender after finishing in the top five in marks for the season, while Luke Foley‘s intercepting and aerial prowess was exciting to see.

Ex-Lion Alex Witherden looked like a solid replacement for Shannon Hurn and was usually one of the best performers when fit while emerging tall Harry Edwards grew more confident with every game. With more experience and tutelage from Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass, he could go above and beyond.

The West Coast Eagles have secured their first first-round draft pick since 2017 and are set to hit the 2021 draft hard.

Round 11 marked the end of Elliot Yeo‘s long, tedious battle with osteitis pubis, providing the midfield with a much-needed lift.

Since then, he played as if he had never left, going back into his typical hard-nosed ways, often leading from the front when his teammates were struggling to find momentum.

In just 12 games, he finished seventh in clearances per game, 10th in inside 50s, and 13th in contested possessions.

After spending over 15 months on the sideline, goalsneak Willie Rioli finally received his long-awaited verdict – a backdated two-year penalty. He was set to return in Round 23, but he fell victim to the Eagles’ ongoing injury curse, missing with a hamstring injury.

What didn’t? 

West Coast was picked apart, outcoached, and rarely allowed to execute its precise kicking and marking game-plan.

The output was stunted enormously, as they simply did not win enough of the ball – and when they did, they struggled to win it back.

In 2021, the Eagles conceded more disposals (8344) than they won (7785), ranking first for uncontested possessions against. They ranked 14th in contested possessions, which is also a huge indicator of a lack of output.

However, tackling and lack of pressure on the ball carrier is a glaring issue. West Coast laid a league-low 1070 tackles for the season, with broken and missed tackles being extremely costly.

Often the ball movement looked stagnant and at times, had little urgency or speed. For that reason, the team’s forwards had little supply – finishing 14th for inside 50s.

All season, West Coast struggled to string together a full four-quarter performance – whether it was a first or final quarter fadeout.

In these fadeouts, the Eagles struggle to contain the opposition, either coughing up the lead or allowing the opposition to wreak havoc and set up a sizable first-quarter lead.

It was carnage on the injury front for the side in 2021, and much of the poor season can partially be attributed to this crisis.

By season’s end, 24 players with a combined 2738 games experience were dropped due to injury. This number does not include Willie Rioli, Daniel Venables, or Jarrod Cameron who were long-term outs.

Even when Luke Shuey, Elliot Yeo, and Tim Kelly returned, they were on limited minutes, which
restricted their overall output, and even threw off team balance.

Oscar Allen‘s development as Josh Kennedy‘s eventual successor also fell victim to the injury crisis, as
he played out of position for most of the season despite an excellent start in the forward line.

Who impressed?

Nic Naitanui was the most consistent and impressive performer across a season defined by injury and inconsistency.

As of Round 19, the West Coast ruck is the number one player Official AFL Player Ratings, due to proficiency in a number of categories including hit-outs, clearances, and ground ball gets.

He was the only West Coast player to be named in the 2021 All-Australian 40-man squad and is a shoo-in for the John Worsfold Medal.

Many were expecting Shannon Hurn and Josh Kennedy to retire come season’s end, but judging on their form this year, they both look like they could go around another year.

While Hurn is no longer captain, he demonstrated phenomenal leadership down back and was a consistent performer when available. He averaged 21.8 disposals per match, with 19.13 being effective. He is also rated elite in marks, rebound 50s, intercept possessions, and intercept marks. 

Kennedy finished 15th in the Coleman race this year, with 41 goals. Despite this low finish, he also provided consistency and reliability to a shaky forward line.

Tim Kelly, Jack Redden, Andrew Gaff, Dom Sheed, and Luke Shuey had bursts of excellence across the season when they weren’t injured, but were unable to find consistency or fire all at once.

Adrian Hickmott’s midfield coach replacement needs to find a way to accommodate their five vastly different games in the one midfield.

Not only could they incorporate their natural style into the game, but it could also lead to an overall change in the team’s system of play.

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Season Highlight

Suffocated by injury and coming off losses to Essendon and GWS – West Coast was desperate for a win in Round 12.

With five players with under 10 games experience fielded, West Coast broke its 20-year SCG curse with a 22-point win against Carlton, giving them momentum heading into the following week’s Richmond clash.

Against the reigning premiers, it was a tale of young and old in one of the best games of the season, with veterans and young guns playing a crucial role.

Second gamer Luke Edwards lifted and combined with Elliot Yeo to deliver a mature, but critical performance. Harry Edwards and Luke Foley were also among the Eagles’ best.

However, Josh Kennedy‘s matchwinner from the pocket to clinch a four-point win was the highlight of a season full of disappointment.

West Coast entered the bye 8-5, and with returns from injured stars on the horizon, at that moment, fans dared to dream of a top-four finish.

Season Lowlight

Despite having two 90 plus point losses to Geelong and Sydney at GMHBA Stadium, the lowest point of West Coast’s season was neither of those two games. Instead, it was the 45-point loss against Collingwood in Round 20.

It was Shannon Hurn’s 300th game and a day supposed to be full of celebration as a club champion and premiership captain achieved a milestone no other Eagle had reached before. Instead, they left the field dejected.

A lack of effort in a match as significant as this was a true indicator of deeper issues within the team. This prompted Chief Executive Trevor Nisbett to pen a letter to fans promising to get to the root of the onfield problem.

Chopping block?

West Coast has already made one list change.

Daniel Venables‘ ongoing battle with debilitating concussion symptoms and brain trauma prematurely ended his career after an AFL medical panel advised him to retire from all contact sport. It was a sad but inevitable list change.

Jarrod Brander‘s future could lay elsewhere as other clubs are showing interest and he has not formally received a contract offer from West Coast. He is yet to settle in a position – playing all over the ground despite being drafted as a key position player.

Both in the twilight of their careers, Nathan Vardy and Mark Hutchings have been unable to recapture their 2018 flag-winning form and could be moved on in favour of developing younger players.

Brayden Ainsworth struggled to break into an injury-plagued AFL side even after piecing several exceptional WAFL performances together. This doesn’t bode well for his career, especially since he is out of contract.

Also biding his time in the WAFL is Ben Johnson – an untried, but exciting prospect who has been an Eagle for two years. With tremendous backline depth, there have been few opportunities to play at AFL level and could leave him without a contract in 2022.

Many expected Shannon Hurn and Josh Kennedy to retire at season’s end, but they have both shown interest in playing on. Should they do so, they need to be gradually phased out, enabling their replacements to gain more experience and confidence.

Number one off-season priority

The West Coast Eagles need to go back to the drawing board and devise a new game plan as 2021 showed their game plan of old isn’t cutting it anymore.

At times, West Coast also plays too tall, so finding height balance is also key heading into 2022.

Additionally, getting more game time into younger players like Alex Witherden, Josh Rotham, Xavier O’Neill, and Jamaine Jones is crucial, especially with several senior players nearing retirement.

This season proved Nic Naitanui is incredible and important to the side, but not immortal. West Coast must look to the future. Despite playing back up ruck, Oscar Allen must remain forward to develop as Josh Kennedy‘s successor, leaving Bailey Williams next in line with only nine games experience under his belt and needing more AFL exposure.

In the draft, West Coast has their first first-round pick since 2017 and must target an inside midfielder to increase stocks in that area.

Looking locally, Subiaco’s Matthew Johnson should be available by pick 10, otherwise, Josh Goater is another option looking interstate.

Final Say

With a list like theirs, the West Coast Eagles are far more capable than what they served up in 2021, with many players’ natural skills and talents left untapped.

Missing out on finals should hopefully give Adam Simpson’s men the wake-up call needed, as numerous issues have needed fixing since winning the 2018 flag.

With fresh minds on the coaching panel, a list full of high-end talent, and pressure for change, West Coast could push for finals again in 2022 if its issues are acknowledged and addressed in the off-season.

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About Rebecca Ruthven 73 Articles
Rebecca is a footy, cricket, netball, and basketball writer for The Inner Sanctum. Based in Perth, she mainly focuses on the WA sporting scene, however, she does enjoy covering sport interstate. Currently studying Journalism at Curtin University.

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