Round 10 – Adelaide v West Coast: Winning ugly, or just winning – can West Coast go back-to-back?


There are a number of things that make it hard for the reigning AFL premier to back up for another shot at the title the next year.


Firstly, you start pre-season training later than anyone else. Some teams have had their break and are rolling into the next season as you are lifting the cup in front of the local town hall the Monday after the Grand Final. Even the team you beat on Grand Final day is back a few days earlier having missed the week of celebrations enjoyed by the victor. So you are not as ready as your competition when the new season commences and are playing catch-up in fitness regimes as the season unfolds.


Next, the AFL tries to make your next season fixture the hardest of any team in the league. You are scheduled to play the top eight sides twice in the next season, so, theoretically, the chances of winning enough games to readily get back to the grand final are meaningfully diminished.


Then there is the fact that the premiership team will never play together again. It is not the team which can aspire to repeat premierships, but the club. There will inevitably be retirements and players leaving the club for a variety of reasons. For example, the Western Bulldogs premiership team of 2016 immediately lost Joel Hamling to a trade home. Whether the team will be as good without the players it loses will depend to a great extent on the replacements already on the club list, or any significant trades received to replace those lost. And then the “new” team has to gel the same way as the old one – to show the same character.


There is the old idea that it is “hard to win back-to back”. This is a state of mind issue that probably includes the three matters above, but also includes the idea of the “premiership hangover”. This concept encompasses the notion that the drive, the sacrifices, the hunger or the motivation to be a premiership player are diminished by actually winning one. Therefore, a player will consciously or sub-consciously not work as hard at training, be less assiduous in preparation or not commit to a physically threatening contest as readily as when they were still hunting for a first flag. The prize – becoming a premiership player – will never be as great, having already been won. Or else, you might have become complacent with victory and consider that the win has earnt you the right to expect success without the same effort.


Whether this mental effect is real or not, it is a convenient label as, for one reason or another, success rarely comes twice in a row. The premiers of 2016 (Western Bulldogs) and 2017 (Richmond) on sheer talent and form would have been entitled to expect a real chance at a consecutive flag, and even a dynasty of success. Neither did. However, the previous winner, Hawthorn, had just pulled off a three-peat back to back to back in 2013, 2014 and 2015. This was the second time in just over a decade that this had happened (remember the Brisbane Lions of 2001-03).


And then there is just dumb luck. The best way of keeping a champion team together is to remain injury-free. There is a reasonable argument that a couple of crucial injuries cruelled Richmond’s shot at a second title. Losing key players the year after a premiership will always test the depth of a list and the extent of a team’s ability to cover for the quality and consistency of the premiership players lost. Sometimes it just can’t be done.


So they are the obstacles. And all of them faced the West Coast Eagles after their stirring win in 2018.
They started late and had players – including Josh Kennedy – going in for necessary surgery much later than other teams. They were duly served up a tough schedule involving the best teams from 2018. They lost Le Cras and Lycett and then, as 2019 unfolded sustained injuries to key players from the 2018 win – Tom Barrass, Willie Rioli and Will Schofield. The team’s form had the commentators, especially the ‘wise men from the east’ freely bandying about the “H” word as the team stumbled to 3 losses in its first six games, to Brisbane and Geelong away, and to Port Adelaide at home.


The upshot was that West Coast, who hadn’t even started as premiership favourites (a position occupied by Richmond, then Collingwood after their round two win over the Tigers, with Melbourne not far behind), were being written off by all but one or two. One who hadn’t was Dermott Brereton who had argued that they were entitled to regard themselves as a back to back chance.


There had, after all, also been stunning wins against two other top four teams – GWS at home, and then, back at the MCG, over premiership favourites Collingwood. The latter occurred when Collingwood had all the incentive that could be expected to make reparations for what must have been burning within them since their last meeting.


But along with the losses, the critics pointed to a sloppy win against Fremantle, a come from behind win against St Kilda and a win against Melbourne who had held sway for most of the match at Optus Stadium, as evidence that this was no premiership contender. They were winning ugly, or just winning. It was the quality of the wins that was being mostly pointed to as evidence that this was not the same team that won the flag. Except that they were.


They were just winning.


It may be hard to look back at the Eagles in 2018 through the prism of what happened in September that year, but in light of the current judgments, let’s take a quick look.


Having lost the first game of the season to Sydney in Perth, the Eagles were also behind at three quarter time in the round three clash with the Cats, also at Optus, before putting the foot down to win by 15 points. Does that sound familiar in light of recent events?


When the Eagles travelled to the `G in round 5 they faced Carlton who had not won a game in 2018 and only 6 in 2017. Although West Coast had not won at the ground since 2016, they were unbackable favourites. Carlton bravely stormed home in the last quarter but ultimately fell short by 10 points. Literally 10 points, as the Eagles kicked 10.19 to the Blues’ 10.9. The Eagles had just done enough. It was a shaky and unconvincing win. Also familiar?


There followed a run of fine wins on the back of a gold vein of form from Andrew Gaff and ruck dominance supplied by Nick Naitanui, who was improving every week in his come back from his knee reconstruction. They then lowered their colours to Sydney a second time, in round 13 at the SCG, before getting completely pantsed by Essendon on a wet Thursday night at Optus. Another loss to the Crows at the Adelaide Oval followed. With three consecutive losses, the Eagles stood third with 10 wins and four losses, and virtually no-one east of Esperance rated them any chance of making the 2018 Grand Final.


But the Eagles lost only twice more for the season – once in Hobart to the Roos and then to a highly motivated Demons in Perth, when the Eagles were without Gaff (season), Naitanui (season), Kennedy, and with Jack Darling knocked out in the first quarter. In round 21, the Eagles did not lead at any time in the game against Port at Adelaide (and in fact were as much as 4 goals down), until McGovern’s kick after the siren put them in front for the first time. That kick inevitably sparked memories of the win against the same team at the same place in the elimination final in 2017, when Eric Mackenzie made the save of the century and Luke Shuey stepped up to kick the after-siren winner. That had followed a game where the team got up to win a game against Adelaide by just enough to scrape into the finals by decimal points of percentage. Those who were watching closely couldn’t help noticing something about this team that their statistics and their wins and losses didn’t necessarily reflect; they had resilience. A heart. A will to win.


The rest, as they say, is history. In the grand final, it should be recalled, the Eagles didn’t show up for the first quarter and were five goals down to the storming Magpies on their home patch. After a stirring fightback, they even slipped two goals down early in the last quarter, until they finally prevailed after Luke Shuey’s heroics and that legendary McGovern to Vardy to Ryan to Sheed final goal.


The point is, I think, that there is not a lot that is different between the Eagles’ form of 2018 and the Eagles’ form of 2019. They are inconsistent, they play bad quarters and they lose games at unfamiliar grounds like Hobart and Geelong. But when there is a game to be won, usually the same players step up to do what it takes to win; Shuey, Yeo, Hurn, McGovern, Shepherd, Kennedy and a new bloke named Andrew Gaff.


The Le Cras spot seems to be taken by a young speedster named Petrucelle who already has one five goal haul and a Rising Star nomination in his very fast moving bag. And the Lycett replacements have been St Kilda big man Tom Hickey and, perhaps after the bye, a bloke named Naitanui. The Tom Barrass spot will hopefully be filled by Tom Barrass.


The Eagles went to Adelaide on the weekend of the marvellous Sir Doug Nicholls Indigenous round and played in the obscure late afternoon Saturday time slot, on the same day as the Dreamtime at the `G game. Brad Scott, it emerged in the morning, was coaching the Kangaroos for the last time in the early afternoon game. Only Eagles and Crows fans would have been paying close attention.


The Crows turned it on in the second quarter, winning all five centre clearances, and early in the third were up by 33 points. They were entitled to consider themselves home. But up stepped those familiar faces for the visitors, along with the Jacks in Redden and Darling, and by the time the final siren sounded the Eagles had stolen the game by two goals.


The question that was hanging over the Eagles was asked of Adam Simpson in the post-match Q & A: “The feeling is that you’ve been winning games without playing at your best. Was that a turning point?” Simpson pointed out that his team had just won four in a row and had “found a way tonight”. “Was that better than the last three?” Simpson responded that he didn’t look at it that way: “A win’s a win…I’m as proud and pleased as I am every time we win”. Asked what the 33 point come back said about the character of his players, Simpson replied that there was “evidence there that we have pretty good resilience amongst our players over the last 18 months.” He conceded that the team’s best was as good as anyone, but their worst was as bad as anyone’s.


And that is as honest an appraisal as you could get. Really, it said it all about this team, not just in 2019, but over the 18 months back to the last game of 2017 and that elimination final against Port. Resilience, finding a way, not ever being the best for four quarters or every week, but doing it when it counted, and knowing that when it counts, it could be done by sheer force of will, and heart.


That is not to say that this team will go back to back, or are even likely to play off in the Grand Final. That is too far away and too much can happen; see the first few paras of this piece. The Eagles need their best players on the park and if there are enough injuries, that might not happen. They do need to be more consistent – no matter where they play – as, with a season of travelling, they can really only expect to mount their most propitious challenge if they secure enough wins (and percentage) to earn finals at Optus stadium.


The Eagles are playing like they did last year; not better, but not really worse. They are dropping games but finding something to win when they need to. With Gaff and Shepherd back, and if Nic-Nat endures and comes even close to his best, on paper, this team will be better than the one which played off last year. But that guarantees nothing except hope. It will be the will to just win that was on show in the Adelaide twilight that will matter most.


I guess the body that carries it will be different. But the heart, it seems, is pretty much the same.


ADELAIDE             2.2   7.8   9.10  10.13 (73)
WEST COAST        3.3    3.4    8.6   13.7 (85)

Adelaide: Millera 3, Betts 2, Atkins, Ellis-Yolmen, Sloane, Murphy, Seedsman,
West Coast: Cripps 3, Kennedy 3, Darling 3, Sheed, Petruccelle, Rioli, Allen

Adelaide: Ellis-Yolmen, Sloane, Greenwood, B.Crouch, Milera, O’Brien
West Coast: Yeo, Gaff, Redden, Sheed, Shuey, Sheppard, Kennedy

Adelaide: David Mackay (illness) replaced in selected side by Riley Knight
West Coast: TBC

Reports: Nil

Umpires: Stevic, Stephens, Harris

Official crowd: 41,630 at Adelaide Oval


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  1. Stephen Alomes says

    A great article about generalities and WCE specifics of winning back to back.
    BUT.. a big BUT…and I speak for the 7/Fox/MCG etc- People’s Alliance…an unholy alliance many would say.
    Hands up who turns the TV or the phone screen off when footy becomes ugly.
    Or won’t go to see some teams.
    Except for very close matches….lots.
    Ugly sport is just ugly…with one possible exception for me, the Cats ahead in a Grand Final…(add your club, OK).
    I want to watch good footy as well as watch my team win.

    And re losing ugly, the sun also rises tomorrow, in Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Prague.

  2. West Coast were way better than the Crows in all but the second quarter and deserved their win. However, after a really good second term you could be excused for believing the Crows said, “My goodness, maybe we can win this – we’d better stop trying”..Result, they went home at half time, turning on an error ridden last half.

    The turning point came when Talia’s ill directed kick was mopped up and a goal resulted. From that point on it was virtually all Eagles. Suddenly Adelaide was smashed in the clearances, notably in the centre square and the ball was continually in Eagles forward area. To me, the big mystery was why the Eagles only managed to win by 2 goals for they appeared at least a 6 goal better side. Big problems loom for Adelaide unless their rucks and mids lift their game.

    In conclusion, although I wasn’t particularly impressed with the umpiring, that wasn’t the reason Adelaide lost. The Crows made far more errors than the umps. Many skill errors, both under pressure and just poor decision making, were common place

    Eagles are certainly back in contention this year whereas Adelaide (and probably Port Adelaide) will struggle to make the finals unless a miracle happens

  3. Terrific analysis John. I agree with everything you say. The Eagles are a very good footy team in an era where they are no great teams. Without a bad run of injury I expect us to finish top 4 – make a Prelim – and have a 25% chance of repeating. All of the 5 serious contenders have structural strengths and weaknesses, including us, but the resilience and experience of the Eagles group is a big plus. They play for Simmo and play for each other. In the last GF we beat Collingwood by holding our nerve better and longer in a contest between even sides.
    Simmo does a good job of blooding kids. Allen will be a beauty in time, but is still the young giraffe. Suspect he and Vardy both miss for Nic Nait and Hickey (who has pleasantly surprised) if all are fit. Petrucelle stays for his pace. Rioli and Ryan are improving every week. Rioli with smarts and skill. Ryan will always be miracles and madness mingled, but his passion for the contest continues to grow. No longer just a flash in the pan.
    Yeo is captain material and his “follow me” intensity in the midfield the last 2 games has lifted those around him. Player we could least afford to lose. JK is a big game/moments player and I dunno how long the body can hang together, but no big forward (including Buddy) has his physical presence and ability to crash packs.
    I suspect it is no accident we “win ugly” by finishing strongly. Reckon Simpson knows we don’t have the cattle for 4 quarters of high intensity run and gun footy. “Rope a dope” to wear opponents down with possession and hard tackling, then surge at the end.
    Might and Power footy – there are no Makybe Diva’s going around.



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