West Coast Eagles: The AFL's Most Complex Riddle
The West Australian state election? Now that was straight forward. The state’s most famous footy team heading into season 2021…….Not so much.
While an understandable air of mystery surrounds all 18 teams heading into the new season, it’s the West Coast Eagles who shape as the league’s most confounding and divisive.
When Stats Insider released its famed season projections last week, the biggest discrepancy between its estimations and public perception unquestionably pertained to the Eagles. In fact, our data crunchers slotted them in as the ninth favourite for the flag, slapping then with a 56.5% chance of missing finals entirely for what’d be the first time since 2014. As for the bookies, well they’ve kept the porch-light on, with most still considering them a top-5 premiership prospect.
With this conundrum in mind, let’s take a look at some of the factors underpinning this head-scratching Eagle’s riddle.
‘I can’t quit you’
Historically, West Coast stock is some of the most dependable in the business. Theirs is a brand built on trust and performance, consistently delivering shareholders strong dividends. Four premierships, Finals in 25 of their 34 seasons, record membership figures and relative internal stability speak to a club who parties hard, but works even harder.
And West Coast’s contemporary history is just as compelling too. Premiers as recently as 2018, and the only club to have played finals in each of the last six seasons, the Eagles brand is seemingly as robust as ever.
Their home ground advantage remains one of the league’s most formidable, with few signs of deterioration. Last season they won all seven of their home and away fixtures in Perth, and while Collingwood eliminated them from Finals on their home deck, West Coast’s ability to hold serve at home was once again instrumental in securing yet another post-season berth.
As for West Coast’s playing stocks, theirs is a squad dripping with star power on every line, the bulk of whom are in their absolute prime. This is the league’s third oldest and second most experienced squad, headlined by a league-high ten All-Australians.
They enter 2021 with Nic Natanui coming off perhaps his most complete campaign yet, missing just a single game in 2020, romping to his debut Best and Fairest win and first AA spot in eight years. Tim Kelly’s first season in yellow and blue was a hit, and was one of just 11 players in the league to average at least 20 touches and 4 inside-50s per game. Liam Ryan looks to be knocking on the door of genuine stardom while only three players in the entire league took more contested marks than Jack Darling last season.
That’s the night-time story West Coast fans read themselves just prior to bed, and before conjuring dreams about winning the 2021 flag.
So why the long face?
Because frankly, the Eagles have been a decidedly average team since winning the 2018 flag. This is a club who’s stopped beating good teams, and who’s level of play away from home has left a lot to be desired.
Over the past two seasons, the Eagles are just 7-8 against top-eight and 2-7 against top-four foes. What the Eagles continue to do exceptionally well is beat-up on the teams they’re expected to. They’ve gone 17-2 against bottom-eight opposition over the last two seasons, easily and systematically disposing of the league’s cellar-dwellers, yet often looking out of place in top-tier company.
West Coast’s Jekyll & Hyde impersonation against good and bad teams is mirrored by what they do from a home and away perspective. While we touched on West Coast’s supremacy in Perth, going 16-3 at home over the last two seasons, they’ve struggled mightily when they’ve had to cross state lines, compiling an 11-9 record since 2019. Furthermore, we have to trawl all the way back to 2015 to find an instance of the Eagles knocking off either Richmond or Geelong outside of WA.
But what about all that star power, all those All-Australians? Well on paper they’re imposing, but in practice, they’re not exactly humming. Of last season's finalists, only Collingwood entered with a less potent offence, with the Eagles cobbling together an average score of just 63.2 points over its last nine games. Their attack wasn’t helped by the serious decline of Josh Kennedy who despite coming to life in last year’s Elimination Final, had kicked just 13 goals from his previous 9 games, all of which were accompanied by single-digit disposal outings. While no, amassing touches isn't a pre-requisite where the club's greatest-ever forward is concerned, kicking goals certainly is, with his 2 goal per-game average his lowest since 2012.
While blaming Kennedy is convenient, it's worth considering that the vaunted, talent-laden Eagle midfield led by the likes of Luke Shuey, Andrew Gaff, Dom Sheed and Elliot Yeo were good for just 39 inside-50s per game last season, which ranked 15th in the league. This despite getting continual first-use of the ball via the dominance of Nic Natanui with the club ranked top-five in both hit-outs and clearances, while also leading the league with 11.3 centre clearances per game.
Not even close. Debate and difference exist as some of the best aspects of a healthy league, so it's thus comforting to grapple with an entity like the Eagles who at this stage of the season have inspired such vastly different forecasts.
While the Stats Insider model has simulated the season 10,000 times, with the Eagles actually missing the Finals on the bulk of occasions, their admirers understandably remain steadfast, and have a very reasonable body of evidence to wrap their arms around.
While our schedule difficulty tool pegged them as having a close to a league-average fixture, what will be interesting to see is how West Coast navigate their early portion of the draw, which is among the league’s most brutal. While a first-up assignment against the Suns in Perth is favourable, their following five games are all against 2020 finalists, while their WA-Victoria ping-pong travel schedule will play out over the team’s first nine games, making for a dizzying start to the season.
While sure, this team does have a pronounced air of mystery, we'll at least have uncovered a good deal of truth by the time May rolls around.
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