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West Coast Eagles

Sheppard looking forward to the Walters challenge

MANDURAH, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 10 : Brad Sheppard of the Eagles in action during the 2019 JLT Community Series match between the Fremantle Dockers and the West Coast Eagles at Ruston Park on March 09, 2019 in Mandurah, Australia. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Media)
Brad Sheppard cannot wait to test himself against Michael Walters

Brad Sheppard lives for contests against the AFL's dangerous small forwards and the West Coast defender will know he's alive if he's opposed to Fremantle star Michael Walters in Saturday night's Western Derby.

One of the most reliable backmen in the game, Sheppard is finally starting to receive due recognition and should be in contention for a maiden All Australian jacket this year.

While the self-effacing 28-year-old sidesteps that talk with ease, he understands he could have a major role to play in the Eagles' bid to secure a record-equalling ninth-straight derby triumph.

Walters is arguably the No.1 mid-forward in the game and in a purple patch, booting 15 majors from the past five outings and helping drive Fremantle's engine room.

The brilliant left-footer and dual Brownlow medallist Gary Ablett are the only two players averaging more than 20 disposals and two goals per match.

Walters holds a key for the Dockers in derby No.50 and could test the Eagles' defensive organisation by drifting forward from centre bounces.

"It's no different whether it's 'Son Son' or whoever else in the competition, you love playing against the best forwards," Sheppard told AFL.com.au.

"His role has changed a bit, which is getting the best out of him. He's so dangerous from 70m towards goal because he makes something happen with each possession.

"He'd be in the top one or two (of my toughest opponents) for sure. It's just trying to limit what they do and try to take away as many chances for them to get the ball as possible.

"He's in career-best form at the moment. I'll definitely enjoy the challenge if he comes forward, but the way AFL footy is this year it's very hard to get a match-up you want for all the game.
"I've done scouting for a number of opposition (players) and there's no doubt I'll be playing on multiple opposition throughout the night."

In round four, injured tagger Mark Hutchings followed Walters (17 possessions, two goals) everywhere and Sheppard was among West Coast's best with a career-high 27 touches and 14 marks as West Coast hung on grimly during inaccurate Freo's late charge.

Sheppard is finding more of the footy in 2019 and the former No.7 draft pick is enjoying his best campaign – motivated by watching last year's premiership from the MCG stands alongside Nic Naitanui (knee) and Andrew Gaff (suspension) due to a serious hamstring tear.

"I feel I had a pretty good last year, but I've probably grown my game a touch and probably getting a bit more of the footy, but that really depends who I play on," Sheppard said.

"I've always been a role-driven player and I've really been open with my matchups this year playing on key position forwards or smalls. 

"The coaches have backed me in and it gets the best out of me."

Although the Eagles hit some early bumps on the road in their flag defence, they have won seven of their past eight games, inching towards a top-two spot and two coveted home finals.

It's a strong position and Sheppard is confident West Coast has another level to get to with Naitanui (knee) and Tom Barrass (foot) coming back from long-term lay-offs.

"I feel like we're starting to play the footy we know we're capable of. We're getting soldiers back, so we're slowly stripping out our best 22 and getting minutes into the guys (who are) coming off injuries or had limited pre-seasons," he said.
"I think we're at a stage now that our game style holds up in big moments and big games, now it's about winning as many games as we can to get as high up as we can on the ladder.

"It's good to see Nic back. (Andrew) Gaffy's having another great year. The motivation is definitely there, but it's the same as every other player in the AFL, it's why you play is to achieve the ultimate success.

"It's good we are there and thereabouts. We know we've got a squad to compete against the best."