The Eagles seven point win over the Bulldogs could prove symbolic for a number of reasons.
While the win maintained the Eagles position inside the top eight (they could have tumbled as low as 11th with a loss) and temporarily put to bed the discussion about performances away from home, it was the 22 that took the park for West Coast which could shape the remainder of West Coast’s season.
Or more pertinently, the players that weren’t out there.
West Coast’s win over the reigning premiers was secured without mainstays in captain Shannon Hurn, vice-captain and full-forward Josh Kennedy, Brownlow medallist Matt Priddis and veteran Mark LeCras. Further to that, the Eagles lost Sam Butler and Sharrod Wellingham not long after half-time, leaving a bevy of youngsters to hold on against a Bulldogs side that came rampaging home in the last term.
Malcolm Karpany provided the early spark for West Coast in just his fifth AFL game, eventually finishing the game with three. Tom Cole was steady in his fourth AFL game as part of a half-back line that included Liam Duggan and Tom Barrass, totalling 64 games in total. Duggan in particular has started to find his way at the top level in recent weeks, while it’s also easy to forget that Jeremy McGovern has played only 69 games.
Nathan Vardy was playing just his 40th game in 8 years and stood tall in the last quarter when the Eagles were calling for a match-winner. Dom Sheed showed maturity beyond his 50th game to gather 21 second-half possessions and boot a crucial goal. Jackson Nelson’s season has been interrupted twice by injury but has stamped himself as part of the Eagles’ best 22.
Which all leaves coach Adam Simpson with quite the conundrum coming into the final eight rounds of the season: to return to the core group of players who he has pinned his faith in since West Coast’s unsuccessful Grand Final appearance in 2015, or embrace the new brigade of youngsters who are thriving with the opportunity finally afforded to them?
Matt Priddis, Josh Kennedy, Mark LeCras, Will Schofield and Josh Hill will all be available for the clash with Port Adelaide this week, but only Kennedy would be seen as a walk-up start. Sam Butler and Sharrod Wellingham seem unlikely to play this week, while Chris Masten is another who has found himself on the outer in 2017 and managed just 16 possessions and no tackles against the Bulldogs.
Matthew Priddis seems the most interesting decision for West Coast. Priddis has been a warhorse around the stoppages for nearly a decade, but in the modern game of forward presses and counter attacks, Priddis looks slow. West Coast have been exposed for pace in losses against the Bombers and Tigers, while the Demons were able to pierce their way through the Eagles defence and score a number of goals from close range.
Priddis’ contract extension for a further season in 2018 appears to be a mistake. Against a Bulldogs side who are renowned for quick ball movement and leg speed, the Eagles held their own without the lumbering Priddis through the middle. Instead, it was the likes of Shuey, Sheed, Duggan and Yeo who obliterated the Bulldogs out of the centre, an area West Coast have struggled this season due to a plastered up ruck division.
LeCras and Butler are both expected to retire at seasons end, while Wellingham and Hill are yet to receive contracts for 2018 and beyond. Sam Mitchell seems likely to transition into full-time coaching next season, while questions will be asked as to whether Drew Petrie can play an 18th season at AFL level.
Sitting at 8-6 after 14 games, the Eagles find themselves in a delicate position as they contend for finals.
But having seen what his young charges could do against the reigning premiers away from home, and with a generous run of games to come against lower opposition, the time is right for Adam Simpson to put faith in the Eagles younger brigade.
The Eagles have the perfect platform to make a run at the finals with games to come against Collingwood, Carlton, Brisbane and Fremantle, following this weeks clash with Port Adelaide.
Since the Grand Final loss to Hawthorn, West Coast have sacrificed draft picks and development to climb that last rung on the mountain. Lewis Jetta and Jack Redden joined prior trades in Elliot Yeo and Sharrod Wellingham as West Coast aimed to ‘top up’. While Elliot Yeo has taken his game to a new level in 2017, the other three have failed to deliver on expectations.
Drew Petrie and Nathan Vardy were brought to the club to cover the clubs short-term ruck deficiencies and have performed admirably while Sam Mitchell was traded in, in what was seen as a massive coup for the club.
Still, the Eagles have plateaued.
Across town, the Dockers reinvigorated themselves in the early part of the season when they introduced a batch of youngsters, while the Swans competed in their third Grand Final in five seasons on the back of a number of first and second year players.
Conversely, the Eagles have blooded just 11 players since Adam Simpson took over the coaching reigns in 2014. Only the Giants have had less debutants (six), mainly because the majority of their squad were introduced in the clubs formative years of 2012 and 2013 before Simpson’s arrival.
Of those 11, Tom Lamb has managed just one game, Malcolm Karpany and Tom Cole have played four and five games respectively, while Kurt Mutimer has managed four games in 2017 as the clubs only debutant this season.
Fraser McInnes waited four years to crack through for a debut and Simon Tunbridge has managed just 10 games although injuries have curtailed his chances. The Eagles top pick from the last two National Drafts - Luke Partington and Daniel Venables – are yet to make their senior debuts.
LeCras, Priddis, Hill, Wellingham, Butler and Masten got West Coast to the penultimate but they couldn’t reach the pinnacle and now it is time for Simpson and his match committee to put faith in the young band of players.
The Eagles could be waiting to see how far they can go this season to determine the future for a number of seasoned players, but in one of the most even seasons in recent memory, the time could be right now for the new wave of Eagles to take West Coast forward.