A golden era looms for West Coast if they play their cards right, but coach Adam Simpson isn’t counting his aces just yet.
A major case of stage fright cost the Eagles dearly in last year’s grand final loss to Hawthorn, with Jack Darling’s dropped sitter in the third term summing up the day.
But the Eagles shouldn’t be too demoralised.
Even getting to the decider was a massive achievement, especially after losing key defenders Eric Mackenzie and Mitch Brown earlier in the season.
With the team down on big-man stocks, Simpson devised what was quickly dubbed the ‘Weagles Web’ – a spatial defensive system that guards space and invites risky kicks from the opposition.
Once the kick leaves the boot, a web of Eagles players close in – often to devastating effect.
Under the system, Sharrod Wellingham, Brad Sheppard and Will Schofield enjoyed career-best seasons, while Jeremy McGovern announced himself as one of the best players in the league.
Now the challenge for West Coast will be to back it up.
Last year they were underdogs – the Cinderella story if you like.
There’ll be no flying under the radar this season, with the Eagles already rated among of the favourites for the flag.
The element of surprise is gone.
But West Coast now have the chance to turn stability into their strength.
Their list is packed with talent all across the park.
And importantly, most of the players in the best 22 are in the peak of their careers.
The addition of Lewis Jetta will add vital speed through the middle, while ex-Lion Jack Redden adds on-ball depth.
Mackenzie’s return will give West Coast the flexibility to swing McGovern into attack more often.
But Simpson is all too aware his team won’t be handed anything on a silver platter.
“If we don’t improve, we’ll go backwards. We understand that as a player group,” Simpson says.
“Are we ready to be a team that achieves sustained success?
“I’m the first one to say we’re not there yet. We’re not Fremantle, Hawthorn, Sydney. We’re still building towards that.
“There’s been teams that have gone down as quick as they’ve come up, so at the moment we’re still establishing our presence in the AFL.
“All the noise on the outside isn’t getting to the players. I don’t think they’re just assuming it’s going to happen. But time will tell.”
McGovern shapes as West Coast’s new-age Adam Hunter – but even better.
The 23-year-old is likely to play the bulk of his football in defence, but his ability to swing forward to kick quick goals is a major weapon.
The one player West Coast can’t afford to lose to injury is Nic Naitanui.
The 201cm ruckman doesn’t rack up big numbers, but his one per centers and deft tap work often create scoring opportunities for his teammates.
West Coast boast arguably the best key forward in the league in Coleman medallist Josh Kennedy, while Darling and Mark LeCras have the potential to kick 40-plus goals each.
The midfield was rated slow and one-dimensional two years ago.
Now, there’s plenty of X-factor oomph about it, especially when the likes of Andrew Gaff, Luke Shuey, Chris Masten, Jetta and Dom Sheed feed off Naitanui’s ruck brilliance.
All the ingredients are in place for West Coast to go all the way in 2016.
But as the Eagles found out on grand final day last year, dreams can turn into nightmares within the space of 120 minutes.
Coach: Adam Simpson
Captain: Shannon Hurn
Last five years: 4-5-13-9-2
Premierships: 3 (1992, 1994, 2006)
Key five: Nic Naitanui, Jeremy McGovern, Matt Priddis, Josh Kennedy, Eric Mackenzie
One to watch: Jeremy McGovern. The 23-year-old former rookie starred in defence last season, and don’t be surprised if he does the same in attack in 2016. With defender Eric Mackenzie back to full fitness, McGovern has the potential to play anywhere on the park. The pudge from a few years ago is now gone, making him a scary prospect for rival players.
Ins: Matthew Allen (Glenelg, SANFL), Tom Cole (Bendigo U18), Jonathan Giles (Essendon), Lewis Jetta (Sydney), Kurt Mutimer (Dandenong U18), Luke Partington (Norwood, SANFL), Jack Redden (Brisbane), Jordan Snadden (East Fremantle, WAFL).
Outs: Will Maginess (delisted), Dylan Main (delisted), Murray Newman (delisted), Rowen Powell (delisted), Matt Rosa (Gold Coast), Scott Selwood (Geelong), Callum Sinclair (Sydney), Beau Waters (retired).
B: Brad Sheppard, Eric Mackenzie, Jeremy McGovern
HB: Shannon Hurn, Will Schofield, Sharrod Wellingham
C: Lewis Jetta, Chris Masten, Andrew Gaff
HF: Elliot Yeo, Jack Darling, Mark LeCras
F: Jamie Cripps, Josh Kennedy, Josh Hill
R: Nic Naitanui, Matt Priddis, Luke Shuey
I: Liam Duggan, Sam Butler, Jack Redden, Scott Lycett
Predicted finish: 3rd
Betting (William Hill)
To win the flag: $5.50
To make the top eight: $1.20