West shaping as best in AFL flag race

West Australian footy is the cool kid on the block at the moment, and it’s going to get a whole lot more popular in 2018 when it hosts an epic $1.2 billion housewarming party.

With Fremantle and West Coast occupying the top two spots on the AFL ladder, life is good in the west.

Eagles forward Josh Kennedy won the Coleman Medal after booting 75 goals during the home-and-away season.

And another West Australian – star Dockers midfielder Nat Fyfe – is a raging favourite to win the Brownlow medal.

If Fyfe doesn’t win it, Eagles midfielder and reigning Brownlow medallist Matt Priddis probably will.

Even the young Sandgropers are making their mark on the AFL world, with emerging Demons gun Jesse Hogan and Carlton midfielder Patrick Cripps the favourites to win the Rising Star award.

There really must be some truth to the claim that “West is Best”.

But in many ways, WA footy is still a sleeping giant.

Without a world-class venue to accommodate the State’s favourite game, footy has been somewhat stifled in Perth for the past decade.

Nothing beats seeing footy live.

But the limited capacity of Domain Stadium (43,500) has meant a whole new generation of Fremantle and West Coast fans haven’t been able to sign up for match memberships.

That will all change when the new $1.2 billion, 60,000-seat stadium opens in Burswood in early 2018.

The new Perth Stadium will encourage a football growth spurt that will start at the top and flow all the way down to grass roots level.

To put it simply, it will be a game changer.

“It’s going to be terrific for football and the sport generally,” WAFC chairman Murray McHenry says.

“If in 2018 we had the same situation with West Coast and Fremantle hosting finals, I’m sure we’d fill the 60,000 seats, and also have a waiting list.”

Finally, WA footy will have a new home.

And West Coast and Fremantle are also moving into shiny new pads.

The Dockers have already started construction on their new $109 million headquarters in Cockburn.

And West Coast are closer to getting the funding they need to redevelop Lathlain Park into a $60 million state-of-the-art training base.

The world-class facilities will give Fremantle and West Coast players the best chance of reaching their potential.

The future looks very bright for the two WA clubs.

And the present is uber exciting as well.

The four finals scheduled for Perth this September are set to reap the WA economy around $100 million, while West Coast and Fremantle merchandise sales are expected to go through the roof.

A western derby grand final isn’t just possible, it’s shaping as probable.

Footy mania has well and truly gripped WA, but the two local teams know they are by no means guaranteed success.

West Coast will start as slight underdogs against Hawthorn in Friday night’s qualifying final at Domain Stadium.

The Dockers are expected to sweep aside the injury-hit Swans on Saturday, but their patchy form of late remains a concern.

Victoria and South Australia are two of WA’s most bitter footy rivals.

So it’s somewhat ironic that the people driving West Coast and Fremantle are from these rival States.

Ross Lyon (Victoria) is coach of the Dockers, while Matthew Pavlich (South Australia) is skipper.

It’s a similar situation at West Coast, who are coached by Victorian Adam Simpson, and captained by South Australian Shannon Hurn.

Lyon says it’s great for WA football to be in such a strong position.

But it’s clear where his focus lies.

“If you play the percentages you’d like to be a WA football supporter, wouldn’t you,” Lyon says.

“There’s an opportunity for both clubs. But Fremantle is the only team that interests me. The Eagles could be on the moon – they don’t interest me at all.”

Simpson, in his second year as coach, is well aware of how special this year has been for WA football.

“Everyone should enjoy the ride, because it doesn’t happen very often,” Simpson says.

“We are taking a deep breath and are going to hit it with all we’ve got.

“We’re really pleased we’ve finished where we have. And for Freo to do the same thing, it’s great for the State.”

Adding to the riches in the West is the presence of Nic Naitanui and Nat Fyfe – two of the most marketable players in the AFL.

“Kids fall in love with footy stars, and they get attracted to do what they do,” says McHenry, a former director and chairman at West Coast.

“Kids out in the park try to emulate what Nic Nat does, or what Nat Fyfe does.

“The more publicity these players get, the more they have a huge group of kids wanting to follow them and do what they do.”

Financially, West Coast and Fremantle are now AFL powerhouses – a far cry from their early days.

But ultimately it’s premierships that define footy clubs.

The Eagles already have three; Fremantle none.

Hawthorn remain the favourites to win this year’s premiership.

But they are going to have to conquer the West if they are to secure their hat-trick of flags.

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