West Coast held off a gallant North Melbourne challenge last night to eventually book their place in the 2015 grand final, their first in nearly 10 years.
North Melbourne began the game hot and were quicker to settle into the high pressure environment, spurred on by the pain of their 2014 humbling at the hands of Sydney.
They ramped up the pressure in a inspired first term. Their game plan was to stifle the free flowing Eagles, by suffocating their outside runners, and they did that to great effect with numbers at the contest and 22 opening quarter tackles.
West Coast’s fleet of runners were well held in the opening term. Andrew Gaff managed only three touches, well held by Sam Gibson, perennial tagger Ben Jacobs kept Luke Shuey to just two disposals and the return of Chris Masten didn’t go according to plan as he managed only the solitary handball in the opening term.
Todd Goldstein won the early battle between two of the AFL’s ruck behemoths, and had already amassed 10 hit outs in the first 13 minutes of the game.
Much had been questioned about whether Goldstein would be able to go with versatile big man Nic Natanui, but his early dominance in the ruck was rewarded after North Melbourne kicked the first three goals of the game and held an unlikely 20-point advantage going into quarter time.
The Eagles were stunned, and needed a spark. Enter Coleman Medallist Josh Kennedy. He courageously ran back with the flight with no regard for his own well being, and managed to hold on to a strong mark despite being crunched by North’s Scott Thompson.
Kennedy played on and nailed the ensuing goal from 35, sending a nervy Eagles crowd into raptures. When he goaled again from 40 out at the 14 minute mark of the second term, you sensed the Eagles juggernaut had finally begun to tick into gear.
Naitanui began to wrestle back the ascendancy in the ruck, and started to give his midfielders first use of the ball. The game was still well and truly on the line at half time when the Kangaroos lead by five points, but you sensed a big second half was coming up for the Eagles, whose running game started to exploit the vast open space of Domain Stadium.
Matt Priddis started the third term in vintage form, the epitome of which was his baulk and composed snap from 40 metres in the third minute. Priddis was clearly pumped, and the boisterous Perth crowd began to take full effect. West Coast’s fleet-footed midfielders Gaff, Luke Shuey and Dom Sheed started to work their way into the game and the Kangaroos’ lack of explosiveness was exposed.
Sharrod Wellingham, who was an unlikely hero on the night with a game high 27 disposals off half back, kicked a team lifting goal midway through the third quarter to cancel Shaun Higgins’ earlier goal, which put the Eagles back in front. There pressure began to lift even further and they began to run all over North.
Goals to Jack Darling, Sheed and Shuey gave West Coast a commanding 22-point lead at three quarter time in a low scoring affair. Although North Melbourne fought gallantly in the last they never really found themselves back in the contest, eventually being beaten by 25 points.
How about that umpire?
The game was again marred by a number of contentious umpiring decisions the height of which was a controversial and extremely contentious free kick paid against Robbie Tarrant on Jack Darling in the third quarter for a seemingly innocuous hold. Darling converted the goal and although the game was already turning favourably for West Coast, the wind was well and truly taken out of North’s sails and they never managed to get back into the game.
As they desperately needed to force their way back into the game in the last quarter, North were again on the wrong end of the contentious free kick kick when a call that easily could have, and probably should have been called a trip, ended in them being pinged for holding the ball. North’s back was finally broken when Mark LeCras goaled the resulting play from the goal square.
Waite the barometer
Jarrad Waite, North Melbourne’s barometer in the first two victorious finals needed to pull another rabbit from his hat if North Melbourne were to stand any chance. He made a series of errors in his 11 disposals, six clangers – a game high – and zero goals. So often has been the case in a frustrating career from a fans perspective, Waite has the ability to do the unthinkable, or do the unthinkable. Unfortunately for Roos fans, it was another frustrating night from the big man.
Will inaccuracy haunt the Eagles
So potent is the Eagles’ formidable attack that their inaccuracy in front of goal this year has slipped under the radar. If not for their ability to pepper the goals on a consistent basis, they may have dropped numerous games this year that they should have won. In the regular season, they have returned negative goal to behind ratios on six occasions.
Much was the case again last night when they finished with 10.20 in front of goal. Grand finals are a different kettle of fish and we have seen in the past how badly the yips in front of goal can haunt a side, and if the Eagles don’t get it right against Hawthorn next week they could find themselves behind the eight ball early on in the contest. Despite North’s gallant effort, they don’t quite possess the talent of a side like Hawthorn, and the difference between that could be a ultimately decide who takes home the premiership cup next week.
Brad Scott should be commended
When Brad Scott was hospitalised for back surgery earlier this year. The Kangaroos were floundering, their grip on finals loosening. He came back a different man, swung the axe and let his players know that mediocrity will not be tolerated. North will be understandably disappointed but the fact they have made their second straight preliminary final against the odds deserves due credit. The challenge now will be to overcome that disappointment and take this ageing list one step further.
3: Sharrod Wellingham (WCE)
2: Matt Priddis (WCE)
1: Josh Kennedy (WCE)