It’s impossible to talk about the 2020 West Coast Eagles without talking about the hub. The club’s stint at Royal Pines on the Gold Coast inevitably colours the context of any discussion about the Eagles at the minute.
After last week’s loss to Gold Coast, Adam Simpson refused to use the hub situation as an excuse, but still the discussion about the Eagles’ temporary living arrangements dominated the discourse.
How could it not? The club is on the verge of a political battle with the WA Government and a PR one with the AFL, who surely won’t be keen to find any new spanners in its fixturing works.
Simpson seems justifiably concerned for the welfare of his players and staff. Defender Will Schofield went on radio during the week and expressed his frustration at the delay in learning when the club will be able to head home.
Right now, everything is just a little uncomfortable for the Eagles and their rival hubmates from Fremantle, and both Port and Adelaide are soon to have similar problems.
But Simpson was right the first time. Forget the hub for a moment, the Eagles have bigger problems than their current accommodation.
On-field issues that first reared their heads during the team’s unsuccessful premiership defence in 2019 have reappeared, exacerbated by the aging of some key players and the loss of some others.
Opposition teams have successfully navigated and nullified the 2018 game plan and West Coast’s ball movement has yet to recover, and a midfield that is loaded with headliners is showing very few signs of synergy.
Much was made last year of West Coast’s deficiency in a few key stats — things like ground ball gets and post-stoppage contested possessions — which painted a picture of a team that played a unique and somewhat unconventional way.
The Eagles prefer to possess the ball with kick and mark, and when in doubt have been able to rely on excellent contested markers on every line. They don’t really want the ball to hit the deck, and have been able to avoid that by either winning the aerial battles or turning them into a stoppage.
It worked brilliantly for a while, to the tune of one flag. But teams seem to have figured it out — opposition teams that can defend the switch, put an extra or two behind the ball once the Eagles are slowed, force a long kick down the line and bring it to ground will then inevitably win that contest and outpace West Coast on the counter.
Then there’s the forward line, whose efficiency was once to a level that it could drag West Coast through just about any game. Granted it is at the mercy of the quality of the ball coming into it, but the Eagles’ forward line is clearly imbalanced and is malfunctioning.
The loss of Willie Rioli is crucial. He’s West Coast’s best ground level player, best crumber, best kick inside 50, and one of the best suppliers of forward pressure. Small forwards are in vogue right now, and he is the Eagles’ best — evidently, there is no natural replacement.
There’s also concern for Josh Kennedy, who is approaching the end of an excellent career but is no longer physically capable to do what he once could. In his pomp, no key forward covered the ground better and few defenders would outmuscle him. Those days, it seems, are gone.
That’s not to say Kennedy can’t still perform a role and kick goals, but at the moment, in a forward line that also currently includes Jack Darling, Brendon Ah Chee, Liam Ryan and occasionally Oscar Allen, there are a lot of players flying for the same balls and not many stopping it from exiting.
Shannon Hurn’s start to the season has also been poor, the former captain showing his age for the first time — the sight of him being chased down by young bull Cam Rayner in a crucial stage of the last quarter felt significant.
Glaringly, something is also amiss in the midfield. Nic Naitanui had a dominant night against Brisbane in the absence of big Lion Stefan Martin, but the Eagles were soundly beaten in the clearances. Andrew Gaff had 30 touches, but the next best was Tim Kelly’s 17.
Trying to solve that riddle is difficult. Some will argue it’s simply a mindset issue, that they are being outhunted by the opposition and turning up the heat would solve most of the issues, but it feels like the problem is deeper than that.
It’s too simplistic to say that the loss of former midfield coach Sam Mitchell after the 2018 flag is the root cause, but there has to be more than just coincidence there. So far this season, all of Luke Shuey, Elliot Yeo, Kelly, Dom Sheed and Jack Redden have been off the pace. Structurally, something isn’t quite right.
Obvious solutions are difficult to come by, because there’s clearly more talent in team than is currently on show. It is completely true to say current conditions don’t suit them, but the fact that a bit of dew on the ground renders the game plan null and void is a concern in itself.
Coming up next in sunny, slippery Queensland are Port Adelaide and Richmond, two teams that play the perfect style of game to counter the Eagles and who both beat West Coast in 2019.
The Eagles don’t want to use the hub as an excuse, but it was always going to be a challenge. Before the team boarded the heavily sanitised plane east, the mission would have been to do enough in Queensland to set them up for a premiership assault back on familiar turf.
That assault may now be dead before re-arrival.