From the grandstand: Eagles the real deal

28 June 2011

Written by: Ben Waterworth

It was the darkest day in the West Coast Football Club’s proud history.

In their final game of the 2010 season, the Eagles suffered a comprehensive 44-point loss to Geelong. The defeat confirmed the worst – they had ‘won’ the wooden spoon for the first time in their 24-year existence.

Going into 2011, many thought the Eagles would replicate the previous season’s feat and continue to languish around the bottom four.

And with his contract set to finish at the end of the year, it seemed inevitable coach John Worsfold would be sacked come August. Maybe earlier.

It wasn’t looking bright, to say the least.

Now, the light couldn’t be brighter.

The spotlight is still firmly on West Coast. This time, though, it’s for all the right reasons.

The Eagles have undoubtedly been the biggest surprise packet of 2011 to date. After 14 rounds, they sit fifth on the ladder with nine wins and a healthy percentage. They’ve surprised everyone – including themselves.

Until Sunday, the Eagles still had plenty of doubters. While they’d shown significant improvement over the first three months, losses to Sydney, Hawthorn, Essendon and Collingwood – teams who were all in the top four at the time – had many unconvinced.

If there was ever a game and a time for the Eagles to announce themselves, Sunday’s match against Carlton at Etihad Stadium was the perfect occasion.

And boy did they announce themselves.

West Coast defeated the in-form Blues by 36 points. But it was more than a six-goal victory. It was an emphatic triumph. It was proof this team is the real deal in 2011 and has the potential to beat the best sides in the league – away from home.

But where has this sudden improvement come from? How can a team go from zero to hero so quickly?

We often discover how good a team’s mental strength is when it’s put under pressure. If it can hold its opposition then counterattack, it’s considered a force to be reckoned with.

Against Carlton on Sunday, West Coast showed extreme resilience.

The Eagles started the match superbly and led their opponents by 28 points at half-time. Unsurprisingly, the Blues mounted a challenge and produced an inspired comeback after the long break, reducing the margin to four points at the 12-minute mark of the third term.

But with their backs against the wall in front of a pro-Blues crowd, the Eagles responded. They kicked 7.3 to 2.0 to run out the match.

The best teams win from the stickiest of situations. West Coast did that and is, therefore, one of the best teams in the league.

No question the Eagles have matured in 2011, particularly without the footy.

Everyone continues to rave about the Eagles’ forward ‘press’. In layman’s terms, the press is a contemporary defensive strategy, which places enormous pressure on the opposition when they have possession of the ball.

The Eagles have become the press masters. Their work rate without the footy is amazing and each player has a genuine desire to put pressure on the ball carrier.

In 2010, they were conceding 387 disposals per game – the third most in the competition. In 2011, they’re conceding 341 disposals per game – the fourth lowest in the competition. Big tick.

West Coast’s tall forward line is functioning superbly too. Josh Kennedy is having a career-best season with 39 goals, Quinten Lynch has somewhat rediscovered his mid 2000’s form and Jack Darling’s defensive pressure inside 50 has caught the eyes of many.

Speaking of tall men, how about those two ruckman?

The combination of Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui has worked a charm for Worsfold this season. The Eagles average 51 hit-outs per game, clearly the highest in competition.

Cox is back to his best. His mobility around the ground is freakish for a man of his stature and the communication he has with his fellow midfielders at stoppages is more than handy.

At 20, Naitanui’s already a star. Despite accumulating a mediocre eight touches on Sunday, he stole the show, with a crucial 17 hit-outs – of which 47 per cent when to the advantage of a teammate. Oh, and he took a decent mark, and a telling goal follow-up goal, too.

Watching Naitanui play is like watching a ShamWow advertisement on repeat. Everything he does on a footy field is exciting. Suppose the hair helps too.

They also have a beauty of a midfield tagger in Scott Selwood. For the majority of his short career, the 21-year-old has lived in the shadows of older brothers Adam and Joel. But he’s carving his own reputation this season and is ranked number one in the league for tackles.

On Sunday, Selwood did a magnificent job on Chris Judd. He had 10 tackles, 33 pressure acts and restricted the Blues’ skipper to 17 possessions – of which only four were kicks.

The rest of the Eagles’ midfield is in form too. Matt Priddis is averaging 28 disposals per game and is a genuine chance for All-Australian selection. Daniel Kerr’s return to form has been encouraging, averaging 24 touches per game, the most he’s averaged since 2007. Add Andrew Embley to the mix and you’ve got one hell of a classy midfield group.

West Coast’s run home looks sweet on paper. It has the bye this round and plays five of its remaining nine games at Patersons Stadium. Their four road trips are against St Kilda, Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and Brisbane – sides who currently sit outside the eight.

Perhaps the biggest challenge for Worsfold’s men this season comes after the bye. They host Geelong – the league’s only undefeated team. We’ll find out plenty that night.

If the Eagles do make the top four, the whole finals make-up changes completely. They would be guaranteed a home final and, if they won, would be no pushover the next week.

West Coast supporters no longer need to fantasise about reaching the top four. It’s now a distinct possibility.

This club is the real deal.

Ben Waterworth is a third-year Bachelor of Journalism student at La Trobe University and is upstart’s former sports editor. You can follow him on twitter: @bjwaterworth