How the West Coast Eagles got their list management so, so wrong

Where have all the taggers gone? (1:23)

Matt Walsh & Jake Michaels discuss the disappearance of tagging in the AFL, and if the role could limit recent dominant performances from midfielders. (1:23)

SOME AFL GAMES bring together two teams at such opposite ends of the spectrum it hardly seems fair. Saturday night's Brisbane-West Coast clash is one of them.

The Lions are second on the ladder with six wins and just one loss (by only 10 points at Geelong). The Eagles are last with a 1-6 record and a percentage of just 55. That's a reflection not just of defeat, but abject defeat, the Eagles' last three losses by 63 points, 84 points and 109 points.

This week the Eagles will be without head coach Adam Simpson, who has been placed in COVID-19 health and safety protocols, and are down to the bare minimum 22 available players. No wonder bookmakers are offering around $15 for what would be the most unlikely Eagles win.

Really, this game should come with a parental advisory. And at the Gabba, where the Lions (at least in the home and away rounds) reign supreme, it could get seriously ugly.

What's most intriguing about West Coast's appalling April is that until then, the Eagles' efforts had been pretty admirable. Only Fremantle had blown them away, and they'd managed a stirring win on the road against Collingwood.

There's a certain irony in the fact the drop-off appears to have coincided with the return of some of West Coast's most senior and highly-rated hands.

Luke Shuey, Tim Kelly, Elliot Yeo and Jamie Cripps all returned from periods out with injury for the Eagles' home clash against Sydney, coming off the back of that win over the Pies.

It seemed perfect timing. But the underdone quartet's failure to fire a shot became symptomatic of the whole 22, and the Eagles' efforts since have, frankly, been pathetic, their first-half tallies in three successive games now just two goals, one goal and two goals.

It's not the first time a side has battled away admirably thanks to the efforts of some lesser lights, then delivered less than what might have been expected when the big names returned.

But I struggle to remember a contrast as stark as these two versions West Coast have presented in 2022. And it's certainly focused more attention on the extent of the Eagles' current and likely future list problems.

It wasn't any great surprise Eagles coach Adam Simpson turned to the veterans as soon as he could a few weeks back. Who would you pick, that quartet mentioned above or a bunch of unproven kids and ragtag WAFL top-ups?

But West Coast's continued dependence upon those older types was always going to mean pain in the long-term.

Come the middle of next month, the Eagles will have no fewer than nine players aged 30 or older on their list. Tellingly, they're almost all still the club's so-called best players.

Geelong has an older list across the board; it has a dozen players 30 or older. But in the shape of Jack Henry, Brad Close and Brandan Parfitt, it also has three established key players (all prominent in last year's best and fairest) none of whom are older than 24.

Last year's West Coast best and fairest top 10 had one member who wasn't already in the camp when the Eagles won their last flag in 2018, former Cat Tim Kelly, who is nearly 28.

Where, exactly, are the emerging kids? Including the top-ups forced upon it by COVID-19 protocols, West Coast has fielded six AFL debutants - two of whom are 24 and one (Aaron Black) nearly 30.

"Rebuild, transition, call it what you need to - we need to look at our whole list this year and make some changes," Simpson said this week. "We've exposed 37 players this year and five WAFL players. There are going to be plenty of opportunities to get games into some of our younger players and see where they're at."

The problem is the Eagles need even more urgently than that a second tier of players beyond the veterans to step up and take over the reins in terms of both leadership and quality. And in that space, they're thin indeed.

West Coast currently has 13 players of 100 games-plus experience, Josh Kennedy and Shannon Hurn both to turn 35 before the end of the season. It has nine of between 50-99 games, Kelly, Liam Ryan and Oscar Allen the bona fide stars.

And in a list comprising 51 players (including top-ups) it has no fewer than 24 with less than 20 AFL games under their belts.

That is an enormous imbalance, and unless your list management has been as shrewd as, say, Sydney's, the consequence of thinking you are around the mark, in flag terms, for longer than you really are can be catastrophic.

Have the Eagles been since 2018? Well, they did miss a top four spot on percentage in both 2019 and 2020. But they also were bundled out in week two of the finals in 2019, then blew a home elimination final the following season.

And more ominously, last year, they won just two of their final nine games. Their performances at the pointy end of the season, for three years now, have been inadequate.

Beginning the transition at least a couple of years ago would have been the judicious call.

And what West Coast may well discover now is that the penalty for not making that call then is a lot longer and more far-reaching than the ego massage of a couple of token finals appearances ever was.

You can read more of Rohan Connolly's work at FOOTYOLOGY.com.au