AFTER a phenomenal 2015 campaign that saw them reach the AFL Grand Final, against the good sense of all experts – much was expected of West Coast in 2016.
But they failed – delivering inconsistent, limp efforts week-to-week, looking like they were hitting their straps late in the season, before rolling over against the Western Bulldogs in the finals.
Without talismanic big man Nic Naitanui for a six-game block last year, the Eagles looked uninspired and dour.
Even though they won five of those six games, the manner in which they did so inspired little confidence.
Now, of course, they must embark on season 2017 without him, as he recovers from a severe knee injury, with his return late in the year – at this stage – a pipe dream.
But the Eagles have brought in some cover, in the shape of North Melbourne discard Drew Petrie and former Geelong big man Nathan Vardy.
Add to that mix the nous and sublime skills of Hawthorn legend Sam Mitchell, and you see why some are tipping West Coast to be thereabouts in deep September.
We took a hard look at the Eagles, and found the five burning questions.
Can they offset the loss of Nic Naitanui?
Not completely, no. Naitanui’s influence around the ball is so profound that the Eagles are a far better team with him playing – a look at the games he missed last year tell you that. His athleticism is such that, should he lose the tap, he’s like another midfielder on the ground around the contest. West Coast’s stoppage strategies need an overhaul if they are to break even in the clearances, with Petrie, Vardy and/or Scott Lycett looking like shouldering the ruck load.
What exactly will be the Mitchell effect?
Sam Mitchell has done it all and he made the decision to head west to reinvigorate himself, setting himself up with a coaching career for life after playing. But it looks as though Mitchell the player still has plenty of life left in him, after he almost nonchalantly notched up 39 touches in a pre-season hitout against Melbourne this month. In partnership with fellow Brownlow medallist Matt Priddis, Mitchell looks like being a huge boon to West Coast’s work around the ball, and if those two warhorses can feed enough of the footy to the running brigade of Andrew Gaff, Chris Masten and Luke Shuey, the Eagles will be winning more than they’re losing.
Can Liam Duggan and Dom Sheed take the next step?
Both number 11 draft picks (Sheed in 2013, Duggan in 2014) this pair have shown glimpses that they are the real deal. This shapes as a potential breakout year for both silky left-footers, and Eagles fans will be licking their lips at the prospect of what they could add to an already packed midfield.
Will Jack Darling finally become a star?
Darling – after his dropped mark in the 2015 Grand Final, and pulling out of a contest during the elimination final against the Dogs – has become public enemy number one among Eagles fans. But the criticism he has endured is, frankly, ridiculous. Darling kicked 44 goals last year – three less than Taylor Walker from the same amount of games. More than Jake Stringer, Jessie Hogan and Nick Riewoldt. Yet listen to some pundits, and he’s been singlehandedly responsible for the Eagles last two finals defeats. Darling will turn 25 in June, works harder defensively than many of the competition’s best forwards, and – crucially – presents another dangerous option in attack. Josh Kennedy has won the past two Coleman Medals – he couldn’t have done it without Jack Darling.
Mackenzie, Barrass, McGovern?
Former club champion Eric Mackenzie fell out of favour with coach Adam Simpson last season, who opted to use youngster Tom Barrass in a key defensive post from Round 12. Whether Mackenzie can regain his place remains to be seen, but Barrass more than held his own. How Simpson handles these three – including who goes forward and when – looms as one of the more intriguing questions of season 2017. Both Barrass and McGovern are tremendous contested marks, are creative coming out of defence and are capable of going forward. Mackenzie has less strings to his bow, but as a pure stopper he’s one of the competition’s best.