The Eagles and the Saints clash in a game that could have all kinds of ramifications on who makes the top eight and where sides will finish. Such is the enormity of this game, Champion Data have even confirmed that statistically this is the most important game of the final rounds.
The Saints enter Round 20 in 11th spot on 36 points, sitting one win and percentage behind the Eagles who currently occupy the final spot in the top eight. Such is the closeness of the competition this season, had the Saints held on against the Power last weekend, they would have been equal on 40 points (as would have the Power), meaning that the sides from fifth to tenth would only have been separated on percentage.
The Saints could be done in 2017 if they don’t get the win this week, as they could be sitting two games outside the eight with a tough run home against Melbourne, North Melbourne and Richmond. A win keeps them in the hunt, although they still have to contend with the Bombers and the Bulldogs to force their way in.
For West Coast a win makes their chances a bit simpler, although a loss isn’t a complete disaster. The Eagles have Carlton next week, which isn’t necessarily a certainty, but they should be able to get the job done at home. Their last two games though will be big assignments against the Giants and Crows, and a loss this week against St.Kilda may mean that they are fighting for their finals lives against two of the premiership fancies in the final fortnight of the regular season.
The Eagles got the job done against Brisbane to allay some of the criticism from the disappointing loss to Collingwood, but continues the stuttering form they have shown since the mid-season bye. The Eagles haven’t strung together consecutive wins since Rounds 7 & 8, and would be desperately looking to build momentum into the finals.
The Recent History
West Coast and St.Kilda met earlier in the season, with the Eagles claiming the points at Subiaco. However, it was a tough battle for the Eagles, with the vistors leading at the first three breaks, before a Josh Kennedy inspired final term saw West Coast overrun the Saints. Kennedy had been well held for three quarters by Nathan Brown, but a three goal purple patch swung the momentum and the Eagles won by 19 points.
That victory made it 8 wins on the trot for West Coast, with St.Kilda’s last win between the two sides coming way back in 2011. The Saints halted a resurgent Eagles side who were surprising many by rising from the wooden spoon in 2010 to a preliminary final, recording a 21 point victory. Since the start of the eight game winning streak, the Eagles have also managed three wins at Docklands – by 4 points, 53 points and 33 points.
And despite the Saints having a 58% winning record at Docklands, the Eagles have a slight edge with six wins (and a draw) from 12 games played at the venue between the two sides.
Match selection was always going to be an interesting one for West Coast, with the side recording an 11 goal win over Brisbane last week. There were very few passengers in the win and as such, the Eagles have kept faith in the squad despite the availability of Nathan Vardy and Matthew Priddis.
Priddis heads east as the travelling emeregency, with Chris Masten given the nod ahead of him as the only change. Masten has racked up plenty of the ball in the past two weeks at East Perth, and was most likely recalled for his pace against a zippy St.Kilda line up. Tom Barrass is the player making way, due to a groin strain.
The non-selection of Vardy means that Drew Petrie will once again lead the ruck for West Coast, with the Eagles likely to use Jeremy McGovern as support. Traditionally, the Saints have only generally gone in with one ruck, in this case Billy Longer. Longer will take the majority of the centre bounces, with Jake Carlisle the possible second option.
Will Schofield holds his place despite copping a late knock against the Lions, and pleasingly for most Eagles fans so does Luke Partington. Partington picked up 16 disposals, three tackles and a classy goal in his debut, and will provide extra run to an Eagles midfield that will have their work cut out for them against the likes of Jack Steven, Jade Gresham, Jack Billings and Jack Sinclair.
The Saints made two changes, with Nick Riewoldt returning following a break last week, and former Eagle and Bulldog Koby Stevens coming back from a hamstring complaint. Riewoldt’s return is a welcome boost for the Saints who will be without Paddy McCartin for the rest of the season as he continues to deal with recurring concussion issues. The Saints have rotated between McCartin, Riewoldt, Josh Bruce and Tim Membrey all season, and with Riewoldt sidelined, they have also handed debuts to Rohan Marshall and Josh Battle. With their former captain back in the side, the Saints will have their settled trio as they make a late charge towards finals.
The likelihood of three talls means that Jeremy McGovern may spend more time in defence to assist Eric Mackenzie and Will Schofield. Last week, McGovern was able to play primarily forward with Tom Barrass in the side, but with the young defender out, the swingman may be called on in the backline. However, Adam Simpson could also stretch the Saints defence by having McGovern forward, so it could be a matter of which coaches box blinks first.
The Talking Points
Will speed be the key?
West Coast made a statement with match selection, no doubt wary of the Saints pace at the fast track of Etihad Stadium. The Eagles left out Matthew Priddis, despite the veteran midfielder being available, instead choosing Chris Masten who has bounced in and out of the senior side for most of the second half of the season.
Pace, particularly through the midfield, has long been seen as the Achilles heel of West Coast. While they have done all they can to increase their overall speed by including Masten, Malcolm Karpany, Jackson Nelson and Luke Partington (plus leaving out Matthew Priddis), the key for West Coast will primarily be stopping the pace of St.Kilda.
The Eagles will back their defensive structures that pushes high up to their forward half, exposing them in their back half. If they allow the Saints to find their way through the zone defence, the Saints will move the ball too quick for the Eagles defenders one-on-one. In their earlier clash this season, St.Kilda found their way through the Eagles zone on a number of occasions but couldn’t land a knockout punch when they had chances early in the game. They won’t waste opportunities if they are afforded the shots on goal on their home deck.
Can Josh Kennedy still win the Coleman?
Josh Kennedy’s hopes of a third straight Coleman medal appeared dashed when the key forward was sidelined for six weeks with a calf and achilles injury. However, in one of the lowest tallies in recent years, Kennedy is only five off the pace having returned in scintillating form. Kennedy has kicked 15 goals in three games since his return, with consecutive bags of six goals against Collingwood and Brisbane.
Kennedy has booted 49 goals in 13 games, averaging 3.77 goals per game – his best average in any season at West Coast. Starting the round just four goals behind Joe Daniher, Kennedy will have chances against the Saints and Blues to add to his goal tally. Kennedy in particular has enjoyed playing against the Saints with 13 majors in his past three games against them.
Continuing on his current pace, there is no reason why Kennedy can’t be the first person since Gary Ablett from 1993 to 1995 to claim three consecutive Coleman medals.
How will the retirements of Priddis and Riewoldt affect the two sides?
Both sides will be riding the emotion of two respective champions for each team calling an end to their career in recent days. Matthew Priddis announced he wouldn’t go on after initially signing a contract extension for 2018, while Nick Riewoldt put an end to ongoing speculation but confirming that 2017 would be his last season.
Both announcements will have a galvanizing impact on the groups, although the impact will be felt more immediately at St.Kilda with only Riewoldt playing since the announcements were made. Riewoldt will leave a lasting legacy at the Saints, as a former captain and best and fairest winner and West Coast will need to be wary of the emotional drive that is likely to engulf the Saints side.
The Key Stat
West Coast’s ability to slow down the Saints thrusts forward will have a major say on the outcome of the game. The Saints are the third best team in the competition at scoring from inside-50’s and the number one side for generating inside 50’s from defensive chains. The Eagles will look to push a high defensive line and if the Saints are able to find their way through, West Coast could concede some easy scores.
Whilst the Saints have been able to generate a high number of scoring opportunities from their defensive half, the Eagles are the second best team at halting defensive chains from resulting in inside-50 opportunities. Both teams rely on their intercept possession to counter attack the opposition and the loss of Tom Barrass could have major effect on the Eagles structure. Jeremy McGovern could spend more time in defence as a result.
It’s A Big Week For….
Chris Masten. It may seem like a broken record, but the former number three draft pick is running out of lifelines. Adam Simpson has forecast that an evolution is about to sweep through West Coast and the 173-gamer could find himself on the outer as the next wave of midfielders are given more opportunities.
Luke Partington made his AFL debut last week and didn’t look out of his depth, while the Eagles number one draft pick from last year, Daniel Venables, will be right to go in 2018. Add the development of Dom Sheed, Elliott Yeo and Jackson Nelson and Masten may struggle to be a regular player from next season.
Masten has done what he needed too, collecting plenty of the ball at WAFL level, but needs to bring that consistency in the seniors. Masten has played just twice since appearing in the opening ten games of the season, with returns of 16 and 19 in games against the Bulldogs (at Etihad) and Fremantle. More crucially for Masten, he laid just one tackle in those two games, with this area of his game needing rapid improvement if he wants to stay within the Eagles system.
There is real danger for West Coast this week, with the Saints able to play the game on their terms at a stadium they love. The Eagles have been susceptible to sides with explosive pace, and while they were able to keep the Bulldogs in check, the Magpies ran over the top of them and the Bombers had them done from the get go.
Territory will play a large role in who wins this game and if the Eagles can get the advantage around the stoppages, they could halt the Saints running game. However, clearances and first possession hasn’t been a strong point for West Coast this season, winning the count on just six occasions.
For their part, the Saints have their season on the line, and if they want to make finals for the first time since 2011, this game presents as a must-win. At home, the Saints probably have the edge, and will probably squeeze home for a win.
St.Kilda by 7 points.
EAGLE TRIVIA: The Eagles current 8 game winning streak against St.Kilda is their best current streak against any other club. (@WCE_History)