This game was always big. It is always is playing Hawthorn at the MCG.
But even by the benchmark set in the last decade, when Hawthorn have commanded maximum respect as one of the most accomplished clubs in the AFL, this game carried even greater significance.
It marked the return to senior football of Nic Naitanui, 11 months after he had damaged the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, at the same venue, against Collingwood.
Naitanui, one of the competition’s marquee players, let alone West Coast’s highest profile athlete, made a standard WAFL fixture a week earlier into one of extreme interest, when he played his first game post-surgery against East Fremantle.
He had spent many weeks building up to his return to elite level and it was worth the wait. The big man started in the middle, slipped at the first bounce, but then he imposed himself on the contest producing all the trademark Naitanui moves.
With Naitanui, working in tandem with Tom Hickey, and giving the Eagles first use of the ball, the Eagles controlled the first half and should have held a more commanding advantage than the 20-point buffer they enjoyed at half time.
Against a foe like Hawthorn, it’s always dangerous to keep them in the game, and predictably they came hard in the third term to lead by five points at the last change. The Eagles had struggled for that 30 minute period to get their hands on the ball, the Hawks surged and so did their belief.
With the game on the line, this developed into a classic quarter of football, with first one team and then the other gaining the ascendancy.
In the end, it came down to a brilliant snap, with 30 seconds on the clock, from West Coast forward Jamie Cripps to seal the deal, clinching an important six-point victory that elevated the club to third position, equal on points with Collingwood.
While Cripps applied the finishing touch, the drive to victory was energised by the work of midfielders Luke Shuey, Elliot Yeo and Andrew Gaff.
At three-quarter time coach Adam Simpson asked for something special from the engine room and those three players responded accordingly – along with Jack Redden and Dom Sheed.
Shuey produced a remarkable final term, with 15 disposals to finish with 39 possessions, 20 of them contested, 11 clearances and nine tackles. He reignited his synergy with Naitanui and was responsible for a significant clearance advantage.
While it was not a single-handed performance, it was breath-taking and Yeo also took his game up a notch or two.
Also highly influential was forward Jack Darling, who kicked five goals, three of them in a blinding opening quarter, while Cripps and Liam Ryan loomed large in attack and defensively Shannon Hurn, Brad Sheppard and Liam Duggan were resolute.
As well, Jackson Nelson, in his second game back in the team was terrific across half-back, amassing 21 touches.
In the absence of the suspended Jeremy McGovern, the defence held up, although the Hawks did kick 4.7 in that dominant third term.
Round 15 v Hawthorn
West Coast Eagles 3.5 6.8 7.8 11.11 77
Hawthorn 3.3 3.6 7.13 9.17 71
Goals – West Coast Eagles: Darling 5; Cripps 3; Ryan 2; Shuey. Hawthorn: Nash, Howe, Smith, Gunston, Worpel, Breust, Hanrahan, Henderson, Burgoyne.