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Big things expected of mature Eagles

Travis King, AFL.com.au  March 20, 2017 8:00 AM

AFL 2017 JLT Community Series - West Coast v Fremantle

Jackson Nelson had a strong JLT Community Series campaign

2017 West Coast Eagles season preview

 

Best 22 – round one

B: Jackson Nelson, Eric Mackenzie, Brad Sheppard
HB: Shannon Hurn, Jeremy McGovern, Sharrod Wellingham
C: Andrew Gaff, Matt Priddis, Lewis Jetta
HF: Jamie Cripps, Jack Darling, Chris Masten
F: Drew Petrie, Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras
Foll: Nathan Vardy, Sam Mitchell, Luke Shuey
I/C: Dom Sheed, Elliot Yeo, Josh Hill, Sam Butler

Injury list

West Coast's shocking luck losing ruckmen to injury surely can't continue. After a quicker than expected recovery from a PCL reconstruction, Scott Lycett dislocated his left shoulder in his WAFL comeback and could be out up to three months. Jonathan Giles is still building match fitness after a thumb issue and is an outsider for round one selection. Nic Naitanui admits he might not get back from his ACL reconstruction this year. Forward Simon Tunbridge is targeting a mid-2017 comeback after a hybrid LARS knee reco. Willie Rioli (hamstring), Jake Waterman (foot) and Matthew Allen (hamstring) will miss the start of the season.

The big questions

Can Nathan Vardy and Drew Petrie stand up in the ruck?
The recruits acquitted themselves well in the JLT Community Series after tutelage from Dean Cox over pre-season. Now the real test begins. The Eagles, who also have Giles as an option, need their big men to compete and, most importantly, stay on the park.

What can we expect if/when Nic Nat returns?
The star ruckman will be cooling his jets for most of the season and recently cast doubt on coming back at all in 2017. Big men aren't renowned from bouncing back to their best immediately after ACL reconstructions, but a fit and firing Naitanui returning late in the campaign would be a huge bonus.

Are the Eagles genuine premiership contenders?
West Coast caught everyone by surprise by making the 2015 Grand Final but flopped last year. Sam Mitchell's arrival has already had a huge impact, and the Eagles have trained the mental side of the game to stand up when it counts in big occasions. With the oldest and most experienced list, West Coast's opportunity is here and now.

Look for…

The Eagles were bold with their ball movement in the JLT Community Series, pulling the trigger on risky kicks into the corridor from half-back and using handball to link up and break through zone defences. Adam Simpson wants faster transition in 2017 and more supply to a potent forward line. It could lead to some thrilling and high-scoring football.

Who they play

The Eagles have a tricky three games to kick things off but will start favourites against North Melbourne (away), St Kilda (home) and Richmond (away). Their toughest stretch is probably either side of the round 12 bye against GWS (home), Gold Coast (away), Geelong (home), Melbourne (home) and the Dogs (away). The Eagles face the Dogs and Giants twice, but no other top eight teams from last year.

Fantasy cash cow

Liam Duggan ($321,000) looked on the verge of a breakout season before hurting his hamstring at training. The bulked-up midfielder is back in action at East Perth and, although spots in the engine room are at a premium, Duggan shouldn't be far away from pushing for the best 22. Has had his injury concerns in his short career but is a proven ball-winner.

Sudden impact

It always seemed likely that Sam Mitchell would push for recruit of the year honours when his bombshell trade was ticked-off, and the ex-Hawthorn champion did nothing to change those perceptions racking up 28 and 39 touches in his two pre-season hit-outs. Despite playing the majority of their careers as forwards, former Cat big man Vardy and ex-Roos veteran Petrie are set to carry the ruck load in round one.

It's crunch time for…

Josh Hill. The arrival of mature-age recruit Willie Rioli created pressure in the small forward department. Although Rioli is sidelined after hamstring surgery, he has the goalscoring talent and defensive workrate to push for the best 22 when fit again. Hill booted 40 goals in 2015 and only 24 last season. He needs to do more when games are in the balance to stay ahead in the pecking order.

Pressure rating on the coach

Bubbling away on the backburner. Adam Simpson is contracted for three more seasons but he'll know supporters will become restless if 2017 doesn't live up to expectations of a premiership assault.

The Eagles will have a good year if…

Mitchell's profound midfield influence continues and spearhead Josh Kennedy stays fit. Losing the dual Coleman Medallist for an extended period would be a hammer blow.

They’re in trouble if …

More ruckmen go down. Nathan Vardy and Drew Petrie deserve plaudits for their efforts so far, but the Eagles' thin ruck stocks would be seriously challenged by more long-term injuries.

Pass mark

Top four. Although it looms as one of the most competitive seasons in recent memory, the Eagles' talented, deep and experienced list is in the sweet spot to challenge for the flag. West Coast has recruited for the now and the club is growing restless for success.

AFL.com.au predicted ladder finish

Fourth. Despite a host of players struggling to reproduce the form that propelled the club to the 2015 Grand Final, the Eagles only missed the top four on percentage last year and should be knocking on the door again. 

Player Ratings star

Nic Naitanui, seventh. Naitanui has his critics for not doing enough around the ground, but his tap-work and bullocking follow-up work inspires his teammates and has been crucial to West Coast's success in recent years. Can Mitchell's arrival cancel out Naitanui's absence?