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West Coast Eagles

Eric Mackenzie: The archetypal defender

Ezy's top 5 Check out Eric Mackenzie's best plays over his 147 games for the West Coast Eagles

Big, powerful and athletic, Eric Mackenzie was the archetypal key defender of his generation.

That he was a natural match-up for the likes of Lance “Buddy” Franklin, Nick Riewoldt and Jonathan Brown says as much about him as anything else that can be written in tribute to a career that was off the top shelf.

It’s easy to forget just how good Ezy was.

As a key defender he had it all. He had the tank to run with Riewoldt, the mix of smarts and stamina to play on Franklin and the strength to stand toe-to-toe with Brown.

This quintessential custodian of the back half, Mackenzie was a ‘defend first’ player, who would work on nullifying his opponent ahead of getting the ball himself.

An effective spoil was as good as a mark; a smother as satisfying as a kick and halving the contest was as good as winning it.

Cruelly, when Mackenzie, 30, was at the top of his game, it cut him down.

He won the 2014 John Worsfold Medal as the fairest and best player at club – an achievement in itself to win such a prestigious honour from deep in defence. Midfielders normally dominate individual awards of this magnitude.

While he had not been afforded the recognition he deserved on the other side of the country – he should have been selected in the all-Australian team in both 2013 and 2014 but was inexplicably overlooked – he was highly regarded at the Eagles.

Unfortunately, while preparing for the 2015 season with a pre-season hit-out at Rushton Park against Carlton, disaster struck. In an innocuous marking contest in the middle of the ground, Mackenzie’s knee gave way.

He was assisted from the ground, went straight to the rooms and feared the worst. It was soon confirmed that he would require a reconstruction.

Mackenzie – and another key defender, Mitch Brown, who suffered a similar fate in the opening game against the Western Bulldogs at Etihad – were both early casualties of the 2015 season. But inadvertently, they were the catalysts for a dawn of a new age defence that carried the club to the grand final.

In the absence of two key pillars, the Eagles defence developed a new style – they were undersized, generally going in with just two tall options and having players like Shannon Hurn and Brad Sheppard punch above their weight.

While Mackenzie spent a year recovering from knee surgery, diligently setting about his rehabilitation program, he was keenly observing the transition of the game plan dubbed in the media as the “Eagles web.”

At elite level the game can change quickly and while Mackenzie was ready to resume at the start of the 2016 season, it took a little while to adjust. Not only that, but coming off a knee reconstruction at his size generally takes a little longer to regain full agility.

His athleticism, Ezy’s major asset, did not return immediately and he spent a little time building confidence and touch. And another injury issue was starting to have an effect.

He suffered from chronic pain in both of his big toes and despite exploring every avenue, there was no solution

In 2017, however, the familiar attributes were back and he was a key factor in propelling the club to another finals campaign.

Indeed, he was a hero of the extra-time elimination final victory against Port Adelaide 12 months ago.

Mackenzie, a smart and instinctive defender, had the sense to ‘encourage’ a dribbling ball over the boundary line, rather than allow a rushed behind in the dying seconds which might have been enough for Port to clinch victory in normal time.

The Eagles defended those desperate last seconds, forcing the game into extra time, when Luke Shuey famously kicked the winning goal to break the deadlock in the second period of overtime.

That remarkably calculated action by Mackenzie, sadly, proved to be one of the final plays of his career with injuries to both of his big toes preventing him from playing any football at AFL level in 2018.

Mackenzie and the club’s medical staff tried every available option to remedy his problems, but it was to no avail, leaving the affable key defender with no choice but to step away from football.

He informed his teammates of his decision this morning.

His body could go no further.

He played one game at East Perth, was in serious discomfort, and it was at that moment the reality struck. He had run out of options.

If the message Ezy had for his teammates resonates with them, they will understand how quickly things can change; how quickly a career can turn.

Since being crowned Club Champion in 2014 when at the peak of his game, he has played just another 26 matches, finishing his career on 147 games.

He was denied the opportunity to play in the 2015 grand final, didn’t get the chance to play at Optus Stadium. Won’t get the chance to play in the 2018 finals campaign.

He deserved to experience it all, but this game is brutal.

While he has explored every possibility, Mackenzie has remained an integral part of the playing group. His leadership, intellect, football insights and experience have made him a valuable sounding board for younger players.

He has been outstanding in every respect and he will be missed around the club.

Of course he will remain intrinsically involved in the club’s finals campaign and will offer counsel to his teammates looking to advance beyond next week’s preliminary final.