The Eagles and Essendon clash in Thursdsay Night Football, with the Eagles coming off only their second loss of the season, while the Bombers return to action after enjoying the bye in Round 13. West Coast will be looking to reclaim their spot on top of the ladder, with many of the teams currently sitting in the top four all having their bye this round. A win against Essendon will see West Coast jump back to a game clear in first, with the Tigers and Swans set to do battle against each other the week after when they return.
The Bombers have enjoyed a mid-season revival of sorts, with three wins from their past four outings. They weren’t overly impressive against the Lions, with both sides guilty of turning the ball over regularly, but at 5-7, they would still consider themselves an outside chance of making finals. A loss to West Coast could all but end those hopes, as they would most likely be three games outside the top eight, with nine games to play. Of those three games, two have been interstate – against GWS and Brisbane – so the Bombers will come over confident, given their recent successes on the road.
The Recent History
The Eagles and Bombers met just the once in 2017, with Essendon triumphing by 61 points at Docklands. The Bombers had too much speed across the ground and with Joe Daniher proving too much to handle up forward, Essendon weren’t troubled as they led from start to finish. Daniher was adjudged best afield with five goals from 18 disposals, while Zach Merrett ran rampant with 37 possessions and David Zaharakis had 31. Andrew Gaff was the best for West Coast with 27, while Josh Kennedy kicked four goals and Jack Darling an inaccurate 2.5
That win to Essendon broke a two game winning streak for West Coast, who recorded thumping wins in 2015 and 2016, both at Subiaco. In 2016, John Worsfold travelled to Perth to coach against his former side for the first time and the suspension-hit Bombers took a surprise early lead at quarter time. West Coast powered away in the second half, booting 12 goals to two to record a 76 point win, with Patrick McGinnity the surprise major goal kicker with a career best four.
In 2015, it was the Eagles by 50 points in a dire game that hit no real heights. West Coast controlled the ruck as the Eagles pair of Nic Naitanui and Callum Sinclair amassed 73 hit-outs giving the likes of Andrew Gaff and Matthew Priddis a day out at the clearances. Mark LeCras was the best for West Coast with 4.3 from 21 disposals, while Brent Stanton and Jobe Watson battled hard for Essendon with 31 possessions each.
In recent times, many of the games between West Coast and Essendon have resulted in blow outs. Six of the past eight games have been decided by 50 points or more, with the only two exceptions being the Bombers’ come-from-behind three point win over West Coast in 2014, and their narrow seven point win in Perth in 2013.
West Coast will be in foreign ground when they go without both Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy up forward. Fraser McInnes comes in for his first game since Round 9 last year, and just his 13th overall, and joins forces with youngster Jake Waterman (also in his 13th AFL game) as the two lead up options. Scott Lycett is expected to spend more time forward, while Jeremy McGovern has been named in defence.
The Eagles made a further two changes. Tom Barrass still couldn’t come up from a back problem that ruled him out against Sydney, meaning Will Schofield comes in for his third game this year. Schofield was unavailable last week due to the birth of his son, but provides important defensive height alongside McGovern. Mark Hutchings also comes in, with midfielder Dom Sheed and young forward Jarrod Brander both omitted.
Brander could consider himself a little unlucky considering the SCG would not have been the most friendly ground to debut as a lead up forward, but will no doubt be better for the experience. The Eagles match committee were keen to shore up the front half with greater experience, considering the load that will be placed on veteran Mark LeCras, and a number of first year players.
The Bombers were given a boost when both Dyson Heppell and Devon Smith were passed fit to play, naming an unchanged line up to the one that defeated Brisbane ahead of their bye. Heppell was collected by Luke Hodge in a fierce bump that left the Essendon captain concussed, while Smith injured a shoulder, but both will make the trip west. However, Joe Daniher remains sidelined as he continues a slow recovery from oestietis pubis and David Zaharakis won’t return until late in the year from a fractured collarbone.
Like the Eagles, Essendon have limited tall options up forward, with only Shaun McKernan named at full-forward, a player of any real height. He is supported by the likes of Stringer, Baguley and McDonald-Tipungwuti as the Bombers will try to inject pace in the game. The three pronged attack that West Coast have used so well this season has forced a shuffle in the Essendon defence, with Cale Hooker returning to the backline, despite the Worsfold’s preference to playing Hooker forward.
The Talking Points
Can The Forward Line Operate Without Jack Darling and Josh Kennedy?
For the first time in nearly a decade, the Eagles will have neither Jack Darling or Josh Kennedy to aim at in the forward line, presenting an interesting challenge for coach Adam Simpson. The Eagles forward line has been impressive this season, with a gaggle of rookies providing an effective mix. Liam Ryan, Willie Rioli, Jake Waterman, Daniel Venables, Jack Petruccelle and Jarrod Brander have all made their debuts in 2018 and all have stepped up to hit the scoreboard, giving support to mainstays Kennedy, Darling, Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps.
But without the Eagles big duo and Nathan Vardy still injured, the first and second year players will be relied upon moreso to boot a winning score. Scott Lycett may be stationed up forward permanently as the key target, which will have the roll on effect of Nic Naitanui playing more game time. So far this season the Eagles have restricted Naitanui’s game time to around 60-65% as part of his return from a knee reconstruction, but may find he spends more time in the middle as the Eagles maintain their three pronged structure up forward.
One option for West Coast, which would be a little outside the box, would be to throw Jeremy McGovern up forward. McGovern has shown in the past that he knows where the goals are, but whether the Eagles are willing to disrupt their defensive unit to fill the gap up forward remains to be seen. With Tom Barrass still sidelined, the Eagles would lose that intercept mark in the defensive half, which they use to rebound with great effect, and the Eagles may see no real benefit if they are robbing one asset to cover another.
Where Is Dom Sheed At?
For the second time in three weeks, Dom Sheed was dropped from the Eagles line-up, ‘squeezed out’ of the Eagles midfield. Sheed had a reprieve in Round 11 against the Saints when he was brought back into the team after Luke Shuey pulled out, but it seems unlikely he will get the same chance for the game against the Bombers, meaning he will run out for East Perth on the weekend.
Much was expected of Sheed in 2018, particularly with the retirements of Matthew Priddis and Sam Mitchell. Sheed has been mostly an outside player during his career, but was seen to have the attributes to play inside with the opportunity at the coalface presenting this season. But after a strong start, where Sheed was arguably the Eagles’ best player in the Round 3 win over Geelong, Sheed has drifted off the pace. Sheed missed two games in Round 7 and 8 due to knee soreness and hasn’t managed the same impact since.
17 possessions against the Tigers was followed up with 22 against the Hawks, however his game was also punctuated with a number of turnovers. After being dropped and then recalled for the Saints, Sheed responded with 26 disposals, seven clearances and a goal, but again committed a number of turnovers. Sheed has often been guilty of using the ‘dump kick’. Instead of holding possession to find a teammate, Sheed often throws the ball on the boot in contested situations, which has often resulted in the opposition gaining possession as a direct result.
Despite being the second highest ball winner for the Eagles against the Saints, Sheed failed to pick up a single coaches vote, suggesting that there was still plenty that the Eagles coaching committee weren’t happy about. After just 11 touches against the Swans, it seemed inevitable that Sheed would be sent back to the reserves.
Sheed has been highly rated by West Coast from before he even joined the club, with the Eagles using their first pick of the 2013 draft to nab him. Sheed would still be seen by many as part of the Eagles’ best 22, but with the side flying and competition for spots at a premium, there are some deficiencies that Sheed needs to iron out before returning to the senior side.
What Will the Free Kick Count Look Like?
Plenty was made of the lopsided free kick count from the Eagles’ last home game, when they finished with a 25-12 advantage over the Saints. That led St Kilda coach Alan Richardson to reiterate previous comments that he had previously made about the ‘noise of affirmation’. Richardson’s comments in turn created a discussion about the overall benefit that West Coast have received from the officials, with one statistic showing that the Eagles have enjoyed a +919 differential on free kicks since 2003.
The influence of the intimidating home crowd has been attributed to the uneven free kick counts, as umpires respond to the crowd reaction, which at Eagles home games are predominantly parochial West Coast fans. So following comment about the nature of umpires to subconsciously favour West Coast at home, will the umpires hold back on awarding free kicks to West Coast against Essendon?
The player who needs a big game…?
Fraser McInnes. Harsh to place such huge responsibility on a player in just his 13th game of AFL football, but so much of the Eagles structure will depend on whether McInnes can hold up his end of the bargain.
It’s possible that many of the tall timber selected may spend parts of the game in various roles around the ground. Scott Lycett could spend more time as a permanent forward, meaning that Naitanui increases the amount of game time on what has been standard in 2018. McInnes generally rucks at East Perth, meaning that he could give either player a chop out if required, on top of starting up forward.
The versatility of McInnes could also help West Coast release Jeremy McGovern if the Eagles really fall down up forward. Will Schofield returns to the Eagles line up following the birth of his son to give much needed height down back and will play the tight one-on-one role, but if the Eagles are desperate, McInnes can slot in in defence allowing the Eagles to play McGovern higher up the ground.
Finally, on top of coming in and playing a vital role while West Coast battle a tall shortage, McInnes is also playing for his future. A journeyman at the club, McInnes is out of contract at the end of 2018 and was recently demoted from the senior list and re-drafted on the rookie list. McInnes has found himself down the pecking order as both a forward (behind Kennedy, Darling and Quinten Lynch) and a ruckman (behind Dean Cox, Naitanui, Sinclair and Lycett), filling in at time when the clubs injury list has hit hard. While he remains down the order in the big-man department, a strong performance could be enough to convince the club of continuing his career.
West Coast will have to be inventive in finding ways to score, and much will depend their small to medium fleet of Mark LeCras and Jamie Cripps, as well as resting ruckmen Nic Naitanui and Scott Lycett. One area that has improved in 2018 from previous seasons has been scoreboard impact from players running through the midfield, with Dom Sheed, Mark Hutchings, Andrew Gaff and Jack Redden all regular contributors through the first 12 games.
While West Coast may not be at their scoring peak, the Bombers haven’t been one of the most productively offensive sides either, managing 100 points on only one occasion – in Round 4 against Port Adelaide. Joe Daniher failed to recapture his 2017 form before getting injured, while Cale Hooker and Jake Stringer have failed to be consistent in front of goals.
This could ultimately become a battle of the defences, and while West Coast are also depleted in this area without Tom Barrass, they have shown that they can close down the opposition, particularly at home. The Bombers are a high press team, often looking to lock the opposition in their forward half, with Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, Jake Stringer and Orazio Fantasia applying the pressure. West Coast though have shown they can absorb high inside-50 counts from their opposition and sting on the rebound, so who can come out on top will fall largely on who can capitalise on their preferred match strategy.
Despite having a depleted spine, the Eagles look the stronger side overall and they will be keen to bounce back from just their second loss of the season.
West Coast by 25.
EAGLE TRIVIA: The last time West Coast had neither Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling on the field was Round 6, 2009 against Fremantle. @WCE_History