The flipside to being such an oppressive force on your home deck is that opposition clubs smell blood the minute you hit the road or step foot on an aircraft. To say that West Coast struggled in the COVID-19 season is an understatement – their inability (or refusal) to adapt to a new environment in the Queensland hub reeked of an immaturity that belied their standing as the 3rd-oldest and 2nd-most experienced club.
West Coast winning all 6 games with home-ground advantage whilst also recording 5 of their 6 losses in Queensland showed the two starkly contrasted faces of the AFL’s biggest fair-weather club. Don’t let me get started on the actual weather either – the fact that a single drop of moisture (humidity, rain, you name it) can undo an entire football team in a winter sport is embarrassing.
If nothing else, 2020 was a timely reminder that it’s absolutely crucial for interstate teams to finish in the top 4 to have any chance. West Coast’s season effectively ended with the heartbreaking last-minute loss against the Bulldogs in Round 16 that sealed their fate with a 5th-place finish.
So how does West Coast claw their way back into the elite quartet? Josh Kennedy (33) and Shannon Hurn (33) have already started the steady decline, while the improvement isn’t going to come from established stars in Shuey (30), Naitanui (30), McGovern (29) or Sheppard (29). No, the key will be in improving that middle tier of players at a faster rate than those senior players drop off, so West Coast’s future is down to budding stars like Duggan, Sheed, Barrass and Allen taking that next step. And preferably sooner rather than later.
One unique thing I noticed about the Eagles – they are basically the only club that has extremely insulated lines. Many teams build chemistry in the backline by rolling out a self-contained unit, but West Coast has taken that to the next level by essentially isolating their midfielders and forwards too. Unlike other clubs, West Coast do not rotate their MID’s through the forward line and instead go solely through the bench and the wings. Keep that in mind when trying to estimate roles; especially with youngsters like Ainsworth and O’Neill, who looked really good on paper last year but weren’t part of the “cool” midfield clique.
Hickey [trades, free agency]
Jetta, Watson, Brayshaw, M O’Neill, Reid, Treacy [delisted]
Witherden (BRIS), Langdon (GWS)
The Premiership window is closing rapidly but the Eagles didn’t have a lot of draft capital to wedge it open, so they got creative by plugging their list holes with more economical recruits.
The Eagles missed Jetta’s impact off half-back last year and earmarked Witherden as a cheap replacement, albeit with a slightly different skillset. Langdon adds to the small forward fleet that has been hamstrung by the absences of Rioli (suspension), Venables (concussion) and Petrucelle (hamstring) that significantly weakened their forward press that was so feared a few years ago.
As for that midfield filled exclusively with 26-30 year olds? Off to the draft they went.
#52 Luke Edwards – M/D – 107 avg from 3 games in SANFL U/18’s
The son of Adelaide legend Tyson Edwards was poached by the Eagles before they could sneak him onto their rookie list, with Luke ultimately missing the opportunity to land at the Crows as a father/son pick due to their unusually top-heavy draft hand. West Coast certainly aren’t complaining though, landing a high-IQ and versatile player who could develop as an inside midfielder in their next wave, or as a distributing defender in the meantime. Either way, we won’t see Edwards’ best fantasy environment in 2021, and likely won’t until West Coast’s current Premiership window closes.
#57 Isiah Winder – F – 110 avg from 5 games in WAFL Colts
The Eagles reverted back to their home-grown talent pool thereafter, locking in the highly versatile Winder with their next pick. Small forward, wingman, half backman and half forward flanker – Winder has done it all over his junior career at Peel Thunder. However, he seems poised to take the path of many draftees before him by starting out as a small forward, while keeping an eye on a move further up the ground once he has a few pre-seasons (and the improved endurance that comes with it) under his belt.
Rookie #12 Zane Trew – M – 96 avg from 7 games in WAFL Colts
Surprisingly overlooked in the National Draft, West Coast were stoked to be able to beef up their inside midfield stocks with the handball connoisseur. Trew has already defied his rookie-list status by making a strong impression at his new home, culminating in last week’s cameo appearance in the AAMI clash against the Dockers. Zane is an inside bull in the purest sense, attending 24% of West Coast’s CBA’s in the 26% game-time he was active for – although that might work against him in the short term with so many guns ahead of him.
West Coast have bucked the trend and remained committed to the controlled ball-movement model, with fellow contenders Geelong also running a similar program while the rest of the league tries to emulate Richmond’s style. Maintaining possession and eliminating risk is the aim of the game, so it’s no surprise to see the Eagles with the 3rd-highest kick:handball ratio as well as notching the 2nd-most marks per game last year.
These are excellent indicators for DEF’s and outside MID’s, which is why you’ll see the best DFS punters linking up those types in West Coast stacks. True to form, West Coast’s top 8 scorers in the AAMI hitout last week fit snuggly into those two categories.
But what happens when the ball is in dispute? Luckily for the Eagles, they have a midfield headlined by contested beasts in Naitanui, Kelly, Shuey and Yeo. That allows them to flex an elite clearance game by ranking #1 in centre clearances and #3 in clearance win percentage overall. Win the footy, then go back to controlling the tempo. Rinse/repeat.
Of course, RUC’s struggle against West Coast on the back of Naitanui’s hitout dominance and they rarely get off the leash against the All-Australian. NicNat only plays 55% TOG in full-length quarters so there’s plenty of downtime to make up for lost time for most players, but not so much for the big dogs that rely on an avalanche of hitouts to dominate. The Eagles conceding the 2nd-least hitouts of any teamnand Gawn & Grundy both scoring 32 points under their yearly average against them last year was not a coincidence.
5 IN FOCUS
1. Andrew Gaff
You know what you’re going to get out of Gaff – 15km covered each week and plenty of touches along the way. Gaff’s 95.4% game-time last year ranked 9th in the league, with the next midfielder on that list the Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale at 30th with 92.3%. On top of that, only one other midfielder in the league played out a full game with Ed Langdon clocking 100% TOG back in Round 1; Gaff achieved that feat 5 times over the course of the year. With quarters returning to 20 minutes and rotations being cut from 90 to 75, the endurance beast might never see the bench again.
Once considered a pure wingman, Gaff’s game quietly evolved in 2020 to the point where he was a core member of the CBA group to end the season. Injuries to Yeo, Shuey, Sheed and Redden leading into the finals series required his assistance, with West Coast opting to slide him across rather than bringing in young bulls from outside the 22. And they weren’t shy about it either – Gaff attended 100% of CBA’s in Round 17 and 93% in Round 18.
Injuries to Yeo (groin) and now Shuey (hamstring) leading into Round 1 assures Gaff will again be a member of that inside group, a fortnight after he top-scored in the AAMI hitout with 98 AF and a 29% CBA share. A must-pick in Eagles stacks.
2. Liam Duggan
Another Eagle that’ll help shoulder the midfield load is Duggan after he put on his cape on moved up from the backline during that midfield injury crisis late last year. He proved he has the chops for it by producing adjusted totals of 86 and 95 in those games, attending 94% of CBA’s in Round 17 before filling a more hybrid wing/guts role in Round 18.
Duggan has been training as a midfielder all pre-season and looks set to remain in that inside/outside role, at least in the short term while Yeo and now Shuey sit on the sidelines. Duggan was one of West Coast’s best in the AAMI clash, amassing 88 AF with his 38% CBA share. The only downside with the 24 year-old is that he’s just snipped off his flowing mullet, which can only be a negative for his output, right?
3. Alex Witherden
He’s relocated to the exact opposite side of the country, yet Witherden finds himself in the same old position he tried to escape from – teetering on the fringe of a Premiership contender’s backline. Rotham and Harry Edwards are hot on his heels in the 7-man defensive unit that the Eagles religiously roll out, and that’s not even taking into account Duggan’s ability to return to defense from the midfield if/when everyone gets fit.
The good news for us in DFS is that Witherden is a just-add-water fantasy guy. Throw him into any team and he’ll pump out 80’s and 90’s indiscriminately; plug him into a West Coast side that lives and dies by the +6 game, and he’ll thrive. Just look at last season – Withers was out of favour at Brisbane yet averaged 97 AF over his 6 games, including scores of 111 (10 marks) and 114 (8 marks) with access to the chip-chip game. I look forward to seeing what he can do when’s he’s full of confidence at West Coast.
4. Liam Ryan
Last year’s All-Australian forward pocket has added another weapon to his considerable arsenal – endurance. Flyin’ Ryan’s biggest knock leading into his draft year was his aerobic capacity, and it looks like he’s finally improved it to the point where he can start having a consistent impact outside of the forward 50. Ryan played out 87% game-time in the AAMI hitout, but more importantly, it wasn’t spent just sitting in the goalsquare as he picked up a lot of touches roaming up the ground.
Ryan was a player I included in GPP’s purely as an upside guy last year; he averaged 93 AF when kicking multiple goals and 72 when jailing exactly one snag, compared to just 36 AF when going goalless. But if he can raise that basement with a few extra touches… Watch out.
5. Dom Sheed
The man with his own pocket at the MCG will never have to buy his own beer in a WA tavern for the rest of his life, but he’s much less celebrated on the AFL Fantasy circuit. Sheed’s massive pre-season has gone largely unnoticed, between winning West Coast’s 2km time trial in January to seeing his name in the ‘best’ for every single intraclub hitout and scratch match this year. Those feats should come as no surprise with Josh Kennedy’s singing his praises back in mid-January: “He has always been a quality (trainer) but he’s gone to a whole new level and he’s really excelling above a lot of the rest this off-season”.
Sheed’s 96 AF from a huge 81% CBA share in the AAMI clash with the Dockers looks more like being the rule rather than the exception this year, especially with Yeo and Shuey missing over the early rounds.
Is Dom. Is good.
- Barrass looks primed to capitalise on opposition teams clamping down on McGovern this year. The Mad Dog From Scarborough was West Coast’s best player in the AAMI warm-up, registering 89 AF from a team-high 12 marks and 7 intercepts.
- Rotham only played a half last week but was very sharp when activated (58 AF from 34% TOG) and was named BOG in one of the pre-season intraclubs. Has a bit of fantasy appeal with the right match-ups.
- The same goes for Nelson and Cole, who both play more lockdown roles traditionally but can rack up whenever the leash is loosened. I like Nelson in particular, following his multiple scores over 110 AF last year.
- Kelly picked up a thumb niggle this pre-season but is right to go in Round 1, with his aerobic capacity obviously unaffected. Will be leaned on heavily at the CBA’s to start the year.
- Redden looks to be the main beneficiary of the Yeo saga as West Coast’s Liam Shiels equivalent. Averaged 73 AF over the course of the year but that was cranked up to 95 in the last 3 rounds as his only outings with at least 50% CBA presence for the year.
- Jones might be one player that can penetrate the insulated midfield group from the forward line. Spent time on a wing in the AAMI hitout and worked hi way into the game as it wore on – I’m interested in his services in DFS at the right price.
- On the other hand, Cripps, Langdon and Petrucelle are your more traditional small forwards. Cripps has been fantasy relevant when playing a high HF role in the past but I’m yet to see it in action, although Waterman’s back issue and Brander’s absence from the 22 means it’s a possibility early.
- Allen will spend his 2021 season as a key forward primarily, with some chopping out in defense this year. The Eagles are set to marry Naitanui with a dedicated 2nd ruckman this year after an undersized Allen contested 35% of the ruck contests last year.
- With Williams dealing with a couple of niggles, that dedicated ruckman looks like being Vardy early doors. Couldn’t be less enthusiastic to pick him in DFS this year.
- O’Neill has put together an impressive pre-season and looks set to replace Shuey in the 22 for Round 1. While he was drafted as an inside bull, X showed in last week’s AAMI hitout that he’s improved his work on the spread with a few touches across half back. He finished with 82 AF from 43% CBA presence and looms as a relevant salary saver this year.
Thanks to Morts at DFS Australia for his all awesome tools, plus websites such as FanFooty, DT Talk/The Traders, Footywire, AFL Tables, Draft Central, AFL Ratings, Daily Fantasy Rankings, @Baked_Beams on Twitter and DT Live for their various stats and references.