AFL 2021 team previews: West Coast Eagles

The 2021 AFL season kicks off shortly, and Vendetta Sports Media is bringing you all the news you need on Australian Football. Our season preview series continues today with an examination of the highly rated West Coast Eagles.

For all of our previous team previews – there is only one team remaining – please click here.

West Coast’s home guernsey

The Eagles – winners of the 2018 premiership – have been at or near the peak of the competition for several years. As their list ages, can they keep it up?

Season 2020

5th: 12 wins, 5 losses, 117%

Finals: Lost to Collingwood by 1 point in week 1

The Eagles 2020 season could be defined by a single, well worn phrase: home cooking.

As COVID forced the AFL into hub’s in southern Queensland and in Western Australia, the Eagles form fluctuated wildly depending which side of the country they were playing in. As the season began, West Coast were based on the east coast and boy did they struggle. Though losses to strong Lions and Power sides aren’t catastrophic in and of themselves, losing both plus going down to the upstart Suns put the Eagles on the back foot.

Returning home to Perth saw the side reel off an eight game winning streak. However, upon returning to the East, they once again floundered, poor losses costing the team the double chance that comes with a top four position on the ladder.

Missing the top four would prove costly, as the Eagles suffered a heartbreaking 1 point loss to the Magpies in the opening weekend of the finals.

Key Ins: Zac Langdon (Giants), Alex Witherden (Lions), Isiah Winder, Zane Trew, Luke Edwards (all draft)

Key Outs: Tom Hickey (Swans), Will Schofield (retired), Hamish Brayshaw, Lewis Jetta, Mitch O’Neill, Nic Reid (all released)

The Eagles playing list is starting to look old. There is a phalanx of key players that are in the tail end of their primes. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, in addition, the selection of their truly elite players are all well and truly in the autumn of their careers.

The team’s bookends in key defender Shannon Hurn and champion goal scorer Josh Kennedy each turn 34 this campaign. Both are ironmen, but all those miles on the track must add up at some point. Hardnosed midfielder Luke Shuey (already injured) and the do-it-all Jack Redden are both 30 and have started to show signs of wear and tear. Superstar ruck Nic Naitanui – also 30 – has been playing on a minutes restriction for the past few seasons. He’s only ever a moment away from an eight week injury layoff.

For those keeping score at home, that’s: your best forward, best defender, best midfielder, star (and only) ruckman, and best utility. Whilst the Eagles list is deep, it’s not deep enough to lose that sort of firepower.

Letting Hickey walk was a perplexing move, given Naitanui’s fragile body. Bailey Williams has talent but is far too green for regular AFL level footy at this stage of his development. That leaves the injury prone Nathan Vardy, or utility types like Oscar Allen and Harry Edwards to shoulder the load if/when big Nic Nat needs to rest his aching body.

The Eagles midfield remains elite. In Shuey’s absence, Redden and Andrew Gaff will assume the mantle of leading midfielders. Tim Kelly, rugged 2018 grand Final hero Dom Sheed and Liam Duggan are all capable of turning a match on their own.

Defensively, Witherden has apparently been brought in to learn from and eventually replace Hurn. Whilst they both possess penetrating kicks, Witherden is half the player Hurn was at his peak. Still, Jeremy McGovern, Brad Sheppard and Tom Barrass are all wonderful, dour defenders, able to shut down just about any forward line.

Up front, the Eagles hold an unhealthy reliance on Kennedy and half forward Jack Darling. Kennedy is still a monster who seemingly never drops a mark, but he is ageing and at this point in a players’ career the drop off can be both steep and sudden. Darling is somewhat of a feast or famine type. He’ll singlehandedly win you a couple of games every season, but he’s prone to disappearing, as well. Smaller forwards in Jamie Cripps and Liam Ryan provide a spectacular edge to the metronomic brilliance of Kennedy. Coming across from the Giants, Langdon will add another creative type to the forward line. In addition, the recent announcements around Willie Rioli’s PED suspension give some certainty as to his mid-season return.

West Coast are undoubtedly a strong unit. But there’s a niggling doubt about them this season. Each and every year in the AFL, there is at least one team that unexpectedly slips down the ladder. In 2020 it was the Giants; in 2019 the Demons and Swans; 2018 was Adelaide’s turn.

Given the age profile of so many of the Eagles most impactful players, as well as the injury histories of their stars, is it fair to suggest that 2021’s team to plummet is West Coast?

Prediction: 10th

For this writer, the Eagles season depends as much who’s on the physio’s table as anything else.

Whilst, their on-paper quality suggests they should be thereabouts for another premiership tilt, the clubs age profile and injury history suggest that 2021 could be the year that it all starts to fall apart.

The flipside is that this is the last, glorious run for a group of premiership winning heroes. Unfortunately for the Eagles, the AFL isn’t a Disney movie.