Nic-Naitanui

Story Of The Summer

38-year-old Adam Simpson is ushering in a new era at West Coast after he was appointed senior coach in October last year, ending the 12-year reign of John Worsfold. Adding to the sense of transition at the Eagles were the retirements of premiership heroes Andrew Embley, Daniel Kerr and Adam Selwood, as well as long-time servant Mark Nicoski. It left the club with the second-youngest list in the competition going into 2014 and with lots of potential for Simpson to work with.

Simpson, a 306-game legend at North Melbourne, brings with him four years of experience as an assistant coach at Hawthorn, where he earned his stripes under strict task-masker Alastair Clarkson. Along with former Hawk Xavier Ellis, who was recruited to the Eagles as an unrestricted free agent over the summer, Simpson has also taken his Hawthorn influence to Subiaco.

The new man is handed the task of repairing what was a failed 2013 season under Worsfold. With many tipping the Eagles for premiership glory, what followed was a year in which they won just nine games, finishing the year 13th on the ladder. However, significant injuries to Nic Naitanui, Scott Selwood, Luke Shuey, Mark LeCras and Beau Waters – among others – certainly didn’t help their cause. With a relatively clean bill of health over pre-season, barring setbacks to Waters’ shoulder problem, West Coast should strengthen this season.

Further cuts to West Coast’s list saw Simpson has rid the club of what he believed to be deadwood over the summer, with Bradd Dalziell and Cale Morton delisted and Brad Dick and Ashton Hams retiring.

Where They Excel

West Coast has always been a side at the forefront of adapting variations of full-ground presses under Worsfold. However, under Simpson, the Eagles can expect a more Hawthorn-centric approach that bases its style on man-on-man football and with a solid defensive system. Encouragingly, West Coast do have the players to suit that model. Captain Darren Glass was ever-present again in 2013, while Eric Mackenzie finished second in best-and-fairest voting and earned a place in the 40-man All Australian squad.

Through the midfield, West Coast’s period of transition is highlighted the most. Although the Eagles excelled in getting the ball out of the middle in 2013, averaging the fourth most clearances and the sixth most contested possessions per game, the bulk of responsibility fell on the shoulders of best-and-fairest winner Matt Priddis. He ranked third in clearances and fourth in contested possessions league wide last year. West Coast were smart in the draft, recruiting a variety of talent including big-bodied midfielder Dom Sheed (pick 11) and pacey outside midfielder Malcolm Karpany (pick 31).

With Dean Cox and Naitanui still setting the benchmark in terms of ruckwork, any improvement in West Coast’s midfield is bound to make a sizeable difference.

Tackling pressure remained exceptional last season, averaging the second most tackles-per-game in the competition, while their key position players are among the best in the competition, particularly going forward. Josh Kennedy finished fourth in the Coleman Medal with 60 goals, while Jack Darling (42) also contributed. The return of a fully fit Mark LeCras should also bolster their forward strength.

Hiccups On The Horizon

Simpson will be licking his lips at the prospect of a squad with some of the finest key position players in the competition. However, in order to maximise their effectiveness, West Coast need to be cleaner with the ball.

The Eagles went at just 70.4% by foot throughout 2013, the second worst in the competition, and were ranked 15th in the AFL in effective disposals per game. Both were well down in comparison to their previous two seasons in which they reached the semi and preliminary finals respectively. If Simpson is to try and adopt Hawthorn’s blueprint, effective kicking from half-back is a necessity. Hawthorn’s entire system, which Simpson helped structure during his time as assistant coach, is based around possession retention through short, pinpoint and accurate kicks, building from the backline. With the likes of Shannon Hurn and Waters returning from injury to compliment their defence in 2014, both reliable by foot, these numbers should increase.

West Coast could bemoan injury problems last season and will be hoping for more luck on the treatment table this year. Ultimately, keeping players fit and on the park could be the difference to the Eagles playing finals or not. Only two players (Dean Cox and Andrew Gaff) played all 22 games for West Coast in 2013. That simply is not enough stability within a side to mount a premiership charge.

The Skinny

West Coast have been handed a reasonably good fixture list and Simpson has the opportunity to get his troops up and running early. Aside from playing rivals Fremantle in round seven, West Coast don’t host a top-six side at Patersons Stadium until playing Sydney in round 16. Therefore if the Eagles are able to capitalise on a tough away journey against lower-level sides, they should be well placed heading into the final  months of the year.

The Eagles open their campaign at home to the Bulldogs and face Melbourne and St Kilda in their ensuing matches. That’s three of last year’s bottom four to begin the year, two of which are at home. Wins in all three could build some vital early-season confidence and make the initial transition period under Simpson a whole lot easier.

Also working in West Coast’s favour is that throughout the year, they will hardly ever face a cluster of difficult games, based on last year’s form. The only difficult period perhaps lies in April, where they play Geelong, Port Adelaide, Carlton and Fremantle in consecutive matches. If they can navigate their way through that month, potentially with a few wins, they should come out the other end looking finals bound.

Ladder Range

7-12

Best 22

B: Beau Waters, Darren Glass, Mitch Brown

HB: Elliot Yeo, Eric MacKenzie, Shannon Hurn

C: Andrew Gaff, Matt Priddis, Sharrod Wellingham

HF: Chris Masten, Jack Darling, Mark LeCras

F: Dean Cox, Josh Kennedy, Josh Hill

Foll: Nic Naitanui, Scott Selwood, Luke Shuey

Int: Matt Rosa, Will Schofield, Xavier Ellis

S: Dom Sheed