The man from Bunbury in the row in front wasn’t there (he was probably watching the South Bunbury Tigers). Nor were my brother-in-law and nephew, as he was lining up for Dandaragan Saints this Saturday arvo. The Italian nonna behind has had season-ending surgery like Beau Waters. But her daughter and son-in-law have not sent leave applications.
Doubtless the wheat farmer from Corrigin to my left will claim that the recent dry spell meant he had ploughing or spraying to do. But his kids are on notice. Funny how the Eagles poor form has meant that 10,000 members suddenly find their dance card is full on a brisk, sunny winter afternoon.
The Avenging Eagle and I struck a defiant pose in our unusually empty row at the city end of the ground. Darren Glass joined us in a grey suit, and Dean Cox sauntered across the ground carrying a clipboard instead of our rucks. Its 8 years since at least one of them wasn’t on the ground in a blue and gold jumper. Scott Selwood is out for the rest of the season needing ankle surgery. Luke Shuey was a late withdrawal requiring a heart transplant.
I had the calm acceptance of a man walking to the gallows knowing that his fate was sealed for this season of life. Buddhist reincarnation would see us reborn as slug (still?) or soaring bird of prey (please….) next season. We are now on the road to becoming Simpson’s team instead of Woosha’s residue, but there are still skins to be shed.
Opportunities abound. Midfielders required. Two arms and legs preferred. Apply within. I resolved to focus on Yeo, Hutchings, McGovern, Sheppard and Lycett in the hope that they might prove worthy of permanent residency.
The question on most minds was who would tag the Little Master given Selwood’s injury? Simpson pulled a masterstroke. Sharrod Wellingham redeemed from torturing Les Everett at East Perth due to our late withdrawals would be given the choice of man up or piss off. To his credit he grasped the challenge and obliterated Ablett to half time (only 11 disposals) while being the driving creative force in our own midfield.
The game was open, enjoyable and flowing. Gold Coast have no defensive structures at all. Hawthorn or the Dockers would make mincemeat of them. Being totally outbodied in the clearances by the Eagles for the first two quarters is no recommendation for a finals candidate. Nic Naitanui in his 100th game was best afield, and his body seems to be rediscovering the spring, speed and athleticism that had deserted him for the last 18 months.
Josh Kennedy was elevated to captain in Glass/Cox/Selwood’s absence (sort of like awarding baggy green honours to Watto) and the responsibility brought out the best in him. In truth he is a confidence player and when he clunked the first mark and kicked truly from 50 you knew the portents were good. Quicker midfield movement and better delivery given the Suns’ absence of any tackling pressure certainly helped. At half time we were 21 points ahead and well on top in general play.
At half time Darren Glass WALKED (no fancy motorcade) a lap of the ground with his wife and 3 children. His 6 year old daughter waving enthusiastically to HER 32,000 adoring fans. Priceless.
All was right in the world and 3 quick goals to start the second half confirmed that we were on the way to an easy win. Josh Kennedy had kicked 7 without a miss. We were 40 points up after 10 minutes and nothing could stop us now. Except ourselves.
The clearances that we had dominated suddenly evaporated. Ablett joined Prestia as a dominant midfielder, and suddenly there was lots of ‘run and gun’ ball for the outside runners. 3 quick goals to the Suns and I muttered “don’t like the look of this” to the Avenging Eagle. But McGovern and Kennedy clunked strong marks and goaled to leave us a ‘comfortable’ 35 points ahead at orange time.
False security. Our midfield can’t lift their legs. The Suns are on the rampage with 6 goals in 15 minutes and we are a point behind. Our players are rabbits in the spotlight. The best clearance hope we have is Naitanui roving his own taps. And he does (if only he could kick – back to this level of fitness he would be a genuine star). We steady and lock it down for 10 minutes, culminating in a scrambled goal over the back to McGovern. We are 5 points in front with 4 minutes to play – not enough.
Gold Coast is still coming. Rischitelli misses and Ablett hits the post with a banana from the right pocket. We hold our nerve. Young players McGovern and Lycett take strong saving marks (dodgy disposal but) and the siren rings with the ball in our forward line, still 3 desperate points clear.
After a lot of close losses we are finally on the happiness side of the ledger. Reward for the players, coaches and supporters who have kept the faith. The Avenging Eagle in particular. Last night I told her and her Eagle friend Jenny that I would eat my hat if the Eagles beat the Suns.
Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.
Gold Coast are very talented, but not a serious finals contender until they can develop some defensive structures. Zac Smith got smashed in ruck, and they had to sacrifice Charlie Dixon to ruck in the second half to fill the void. Tom Lynch looks a fine player with good hands and great mobility for a tall man. Dion Prestia was their best and the only Suns midfielder to play 4 quarters. To my eye they still look a year or two of hardness and toughness away from troubling top sides.
The best thing from my Eagles was that they showed plenty of desire and heart after the disappointments of the last month. Nic Naitanui is back to 90% of his best, because his body looks right for the first time in 18 months. He will always be confusing to casual watchers because he is uniquely a 201cm ruck rover who takes the taps. His best work is on the ground – running, tackling and making space – not in the air despite his height and occasional ‘hangers’ It was a joy to see his body finally able to make the commitments that his heart has always entered into.
Jeremy McGovern is a tall skinny key position player in his second game, who really showed a touch of class with telling marks up forward for 3 quarters and when pushed back late in the game. Will be a player when he muscles up. Josh Kennedy was great until delivery dried up in the last quarter. Leadership obviously suits him. My much maligned Sharrod Wellingham played his best game for the club, and was our best midfielder both offensively and defensively. Hurn, Priddis, Ellis, Gaff, Hutchings and Jamie Bennell all worked hard and won their contests. Darling and LeCras were both played mostly in the midfield and both were disappointing. McGovern’s development gives more opportunity to play Darling up the field, and he is still learning the craft of working in tight spaces. LeCras will only ever be a forward because his light frame does not relish in-close.
The Eagles are clearly not fit enough or aerobically talented enough for this level of elite sport. Adam Simpson is smart enough to be questioning his conditioning staff, and a new approach is needed over pre-season for us to be able to run out games better.
The umpiring was awful, but had no effect on the result. 23 free kicks in 120 minutes of football – one every 5 minutes! The incorrect disposal overlooked and lack of reward for good tackles was staggering. The umpires seem determined to reward rugby over footy. The centre bounces were notably scrappy, with most recalled, and 2 in the last quarter that should have been. I think the umpire just got too embarrassed to draw attention to his own ineptness. I see them bouncing perfectly during the breaks, but they seem to get the yips when it means something. We may as well throw it up everywhere than continue repeating this weekly farce.
I enjoyed the game. More because I had no expectations than because of the result. The game was more open than most because of the defensive limitations of both sides. The last quarter was tense and exciting and the good guys won. More please.
WEST COAST 4.3 9.7 14.10 15.13 (103)
GOLD COAST 3.3 6.4 9.5 15.10 (100)
West Coast: J Kennedy 7 J McGovern 3 J Cripps M Hutchings M LeCras S Lycett S Wellingham.
Gold Coast: C Dixon 3 T Lynch 3 B Matera 2 M Rischitelli 2 A Hall D Prestia H Bennell J Harbrow J O’Meara.
BEST West Coast: N Naitanui, J Kennedy, S Wellingham, J McGovern, M Priddis, S Hurn.
Gold Coast: D Prestia, G Ablett, J O’Meara, T Lynch, D Swallow, B Matera.
Umpires: Larry, Moe and Curly
Official Crowd: 32,942 at Patersons Stadium
(3) Nic Naitanui (WCE); (2) Dion Prestia (GCS); (1) Josh Kennedy (WCE)