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Saturday, February 16, 2019

Five reasons why West Coast Eagles can win back-to-back premierships

Sweet, sweet redemption

There’s a tale of despair in almost every premiership team. Last year, the Eagles had three.
Nic Naitanui’s second ACL injury, suffered against Collingwood in July, sent shock waves through West Coast’s camp. Not only did it spell the end of his campaign, questions still linger over whether the superstar ruckman will ever return to the heights he reached earlier in his career. He’ll want to prove his doubters wrong.
Brad Sheppard’s hamstring tendon injury was less serious but just as agonising. The dependable - and once durable - defender was in career-best form, playing his 95th consecutive AFL match when a sharp pain shot through his left leg. What he did to deserve such bad fortune remains a mystery.
Then there’s Andrew Gaff, whose circumstances were of his own doing. Having repaid faith in the club that drafted him by rebuffing free agency, Gaff has an opportunity to rebuild his brand and move on from the notorious incident with Fremantle Dockers teenager Andrew Brayshaw.
All are quality players. All have a point to prove. All were visibly distraught on grand final day. You can’t help but feel the trio’s desire to win a flag will rub off on their teammates.

Fantastic five: West Coast’s elite

According to the stats boffins at Champion Data, West Coast is equal third for players ranked ‘elite’ in their positions and equal fifth for those deemed ‘above average’ or better.
Jeremy McGovern, Shannon Hurn, Josh Kennedy, Tom Barrass and Naitanui sit atop the tree.
But what’s to say the likes of Norm Smith medallist Luke Shuey, all-Australians Elliot Yeo and Andrew Gaff, and dynamic quartet Jack Darling, Jamie Cripps, Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli won’t join them this season?
Moreover, most of the above have room for improvement. Last year was Yeo’s first in the midfield, Shuey could be more consistent, Kennedy’s season was hindered by injuries and Barrass, Ryan and Rioli are still learning their craft.
On face value, it appears Adam Simpson’s list has more to give.

The pressure’s off

Financially, West Coast has never been stronger.
On-field, Simpson and his chargers have already created history.
What the Eagles achieved in 2018 will live long in the memories of those who witnessed it, leaving the club with precious little to lose if the team falls short of the mark.
Of course, that’s not the attitude they’ll employ; expect Simpson to wheel out the ‘we’re not resting on our laurels’ catch-cry at every opportunity.
And West Coast will embark on 2019 brimming with belief - a perennially underrated commodity - determined to repeat the dose.
But should they stay competitive and emerge empty-handed, only the harshest critics could justify slamming Simpson’s legacy.
As it stands, the premiership coach and his flag-winning side are assured a place in West Coast folklore.

No weak defensive links

A common thread of all the great AFL teams is their ability to defend.
Last year, West Coast’s backline was as cohesive as any. And on the evidence of this pre-season, not a lot seems to have changed.
McGovern and Barrass are among the best intercepting defenders in the competition, both capable of playing lockdown roles when required.
Will Schofield might be the most accomplished ‘reserve’ backman on an AFL list, though to call him a back-up undermines the phenomenal match he played on September 29.
Brad Sheppard’s return will only help Shannon Hurn, who in his own right is at the peak of his powers.
And what of Josh Smith, the former Collingwood rookie who stole Chris Masten’s longstanding mantle as the club’s best endurance runner?
All told, West Coast’s defensive set up – at least on paper – has every dimension covered.

Dynamic small forwards can improve

How good were Rioli and Ryan last year?
Moreover, how much better will they be with another pre-season under their belts?
It’s easy to forget the pair were AFL debutants in 2018.
They combined for 48 goals (Rioli 28, Ryan 20), tackled ferociously and stood up in big moments, particularly on grand final day.
An output that is poised to improve - particularly if reports of Rioli’s markedly improved fitness are to be believed.
Rioli and Ryan are already weapons for West Coast. The prospect of them getting better will send shivers down the spines of the competition’s best small defenders.
Throw the names of Kennedy, Darling and Cripps into the mix, and you’ve got a mouth-watering forward set-up that could once again be the envy of the competition.