30/05/2024

The Eagles are set to soar in 2021 (Source: @westcoasteagles twitter)

It's premiership or bust for the West Coast Eagles as they enter the 2021 season. Have they got what it takes to give the flag one last shot?

West Coast’s 2020 season was like a rollercoaster. It battled its way through the Queensland hub but sailed through their home run in WA with relative ease to book a home final spot, ending in the cruellest of fashions.

Last year

5th – 12 wins, 5 losses 117%

Elimination final loss against Collingwood.

Losses against a youthful Gold Coast Suns side, and table toppers Brisbane and Port Adelaide exposed their lack of composure in Queensland’s dewy conditions when their usual kick-mark game style was failing as the Eagles failed to adjust to hub life.

They gained momentum with wins against Adelaide and Sydney before heading back to Perth. Over one month, they extended their winning streak by another six matches.

It only went downhill from here once they returned to Queensland. The winning streak ground to a halt after a loss to Richmond before injuries plagued the Eagles.

Stars like Elliot Yeo, Luke Shuey, Nic Naitanui, Jamie Cripps (birth of his first child), Jack Redden, Josh Kennedy, Dom Sheed, and Jeremy McGovern spent time on the sidelines, as the depth of the Eagles list was well and truly tested.

It was deja vu for West Coast as top-four hopes all came down to one late-season slip-up. A two-point loss against the Western Bulldogs in round 16 costing them a double chance.

The season came to a cruel end as the Eagles lost to Collingwood by 1 point in Perth in another nail-biting final.

Track watch

On the injury front, West Coast’s preseason has not been ideal with numerous injuries across the board. Nic Naitanui’s timely recovery allowed him to play in the preseason clash against Fremantle. Teammates Josh Kennedy and Tim Kelly will play round one. Skipper Luke Shuey (hamstring), Jake Waterman (Back), and Bailey Williams (Ankle) are a few weeks away while Elliot Yeo‘s ongoing battle with osteitis pubis won’t be ceasing anytime soon.

With plenty of stars still missing, several young players have stepped up to provide cover. The emergence of defender Liam Duggan as a midfielder offers balance and defensive output typically provided by Yeo. Rising midfielder Xavier O’Neill is almost a clone of his captain Luke Shuey, effective in stoppages and handles the ball cleanly.

Rookie Zane Trew has turned heads after sliding in the draft, but people took notice during a promising preseason. Forward Jamaine Jones has impressed in his new midfield role and is in the frame for selection in round one.

Keen to prove themselves, recruits Zac Langdon and Alex Witherden seamlessly slotted into their new side and are both firming for a Round 1 debut in front of a packed Optus Stadium crowd.

Premiership player Daniel Venables has increased his training loads after spending 2020 on the sidelines recovering from ongoing concussion issues while in the Tiwi Islands, crafty forward Willie Rioli finally has answers about his suspension and has a date as to when he can re-join the club.

What to look forward to

Despite being one of the oldest sides in the competition, there is still plenty of young talent on the list.

Livewire Liam Ryan is on track to have another electrifying season after soaring into the 2020 All-Australian team last year. On return from injury, Ex-Giant Zac Langdon‘s speed, pressure, and contested football and Jake Waterman’s athleticism and creativity will only strengthen the forward line. Utility Oscar Allen looks to spend more time in the forward 50 and hit the scoreboard more.

With 199 games between them, Alex Witherden, Tom Cole, Jackson Nelson, and Josh Rotham will rotate through West Coast’s backline, while pillar Tom Barrass set for a big season after an outstanding preseason. Like Shannon Hurn, Witherden has a penetrating kick and will prepare to cover for the premiership captain as comes closer to his impending retirement.

In the midfield, Jamaine Jones, Liam Duggan, Xavier O’Neill, and Zane Trew provide more depth to an area lacking and left exposed last year. After seeing glimpses of excellence, fans will expect to see Tim Kelly lift and improve from last year.

It’s a big year for

When West Coast drafted him in 2017, he was touted as the heir to veteran forward Josh Kennedy. Over two seasons, he’s kicked 38 goals, but this year is his ultimate test for Oscar Allen as he prepares to step into Kennedy’s boots.

Like a Swiss Army Knife, he is versatile, handy, and can fulfill many roles. He has a strong mark and is clean below the knees, and there is no doubt he is undeniably talented, with a Larke Medal, Club Emerging Talent Award, and a Rising Star nomination to his name.

With longer quarters and fewer rotations, the importance of utility players is understated. It’s certainly advantageous having Allen who can play various positions around the ground and use fewer rotations.

2021 is an opportunity for major growth as Allen balances forward line responsibilities as well as his other roles in the ruck and backline. Ideally, he should spend more time up forward with Jack Darling as Josh Kennedy’s retirement looms.

Oscar Allen will perfect his balancing act in 2021 (Source: @westcoasteagles on Twitter)

Biggest unanswered question

Who supports Nic Naitanui in the ruck?

Even on managed minutes, Nic Naitanui is the most influential player in the side. However, he still needs a fellow ruckman to support him.

On the list is Premiership player but injury-prone Nathan Vardy, an untried Callum Jamieson, and utility Oscar Allen. In the preseason they even experimented with Harry Edwards – a tall defender who had minimal success in the role.

It makes the trading of Ruckman Tom Hickey to Sydney in the off season even more of a head scratching move.

The best option is the talented, yet inexperienced Bailey Williams, but is ready to shoulder the responsibility?

Coach pressure index

Low-Medium

Everybody knows Adam Simpson can take his men to finals, missing them only once since taking over in 2014. West Coast has made two elimination finals, two semi-finals one grand final in 2015, and a premiership in 2018.

This season though, it’s premiership or bust for Simpson’s men. The window is shutting as Shannon Hurn and Josh Kennedy are likely retirements at season’s close and many others are nearing 30.

It’s not doom and gloom for Simpson, as many of 2018’s premiership players are still around. The trio of Brad Sheppard, Nic Naitanui, and Andrew Gaff still hunger for the same success their teammates had in 2018.

The general consensus is, with a star-studded list, they should’ve achieved more. This year, making a preliminary final is a pass after the last two years’ failed finals campaigns.

For now, Simpson’s position is secure for the foreseeable future, with a potential contract expansion beyond 2022 on its way.

Ins: Luke Edwards (Draft – Glenleg). Zac Langdon (GWS), Zane Trew (Rookie Draft – Swan Districts), Isiah Winder (National Draft – Peel Thunder) Alex Witherden (Brisbane)

Outs: Hamish Brayshaw (Delisted), Tom Hickey (Sydney), Lewis Jetta (Delisted). Mitch O’Neil (Delisted), Nic Reid (Delisted), Will Schofield (Retired), Anthony Treacy (Delisted), Francis Watson (Delisted)

Predicted Round 1 line-up

FB: Tom Cole – Tom Barrass – Brad Sheppard

HB: Shannon Hurn – Jeremy McGovern – Alex Witherden

C:   Liam Duggan – Jack Redden – Andrew Gaff

HF: Jamie Cripps – Jack Darling – Zac Langdon

FF: Oscar Allen – Josh Kennedy – Liam Ryan

R: Nic Naitanui – Tim Kelly – Dom Sheed

IC:  Jamaine Jones – Xavier O’Neill – Jackson Nelson – Nathan Vardy

Ladder Range:

3rd-6th

A huge strength of West Coast’s is endurance. It should be unfazed by the loss of rotations and longer quarters and could even use it to its advantage.

With one of the best lists on paper, if West Coast can avoid major or long-term injuries, it could be a major threat to the competition in 2021.

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