For the West Coast Eagles, season 2018 could deliver a top eight spot or a wooden spoon
Eagles players celebrate after their win in the first elimination final match against Port Adelaide. (AAP: David Mariuz)
With the 2018 AFL season underway, many experts remain at odds over West Coast’s fortunes with some predicting the club will be challenging for the eight, while others see it as a serious contender for the wooden spoon.
The Eagles loaded-up at the start of last season — bringing in veterans Sam Mitchell and Drew Petrie — thinking they were in touching distance of a flag, but were eliminated in the semi-finals with one of the oldest lists in the AFL.
Now 2018 brings with it a new-look squad, but with that comes plenty of question marks surrounding Adam Simpson’s team.
What can we expect from Nic Naitanui?
Naitanui is undoubtedly the most talked about player in WA since Ben Cousins, and is set to play his first game in 581 days against Sydney on Sunday.
At his best he’s a match winner, but it will take him a while to get back to the Naitanui of old, so it’s unlikely he’ll be the Eagles much-needed silver bullet.
It has now been almost 18 months since he suffered a serious knee injury against Hawthorn at Subiaco, but the resulting surgery was more complicated than the usual reconstruction because of significant bone damage.
The man who performed the operation, leading orthopaedic surgeon Peter Annear, advised patience when he spoke with the ABC about the ruckman earlier this year.
“He certainly won’t be, in the first half of the season, the player he was before the injury,” Dr Annear said at the time.
West Coast fans would do well to take that medical advice on board when it comes to their expectations of Naitanui.
What does the midfield look like?
This appears to be the main area of concern for West Coast.
The club effectively lost 569 games of experience when Matt Priddis and Sam Mitchell retired last year.
Who will fill the void? Dom Sheed was good in the back half of 2017, and will need to step up significantly again.
Jack Redden is another who needs to produce more than he has in his first two seasons at the club since crossing from Brisbane.
We know what Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff are capable off. The key could be whether Elliot Yeo can make the transition from All-Australian defender to All-Australian midfielder.
Have we seen the best of Josh Kennedy?
Maybe. He’s a true champion who somehow remains underrated across the AFL despite winning the Coleman Medal twice, and nearly winning it again last year despite missing five games with a calf injury.
His ankle problem is a bit of a concern. After surgery in December the club tried to play it down as a “minor” injury, but a 12-16 week ankle problem is pretty significant in most people’s language.
The 30-year-old has also had a knee operation, so when he comes back — possibly in round four — he’s going to be underdone.
He proved last year it doesn’t take him long to find form after a lay-off, but Kennedy remains more of a question mark than an exclamation mark at this point.
The Eagles lost three of their five games without him last year, even though the now retired Drew Petrie stepped in admirably during that period.
It looks like Jake Waterman will attempt to fill the void left by Kennedy early in the season.
New Eagles, new fortunes?
Nobody has mentioned the world “rebuild” at West Coast, but there is a feeling of renewal in the air.
In the last couple of weeks Adam Simpson’s language has been very much like a man knowing his squad is in a state of transition.
“It is a new era for the club. We have got new stadium, new training base, new logo, new squad so we can’t wait to get into it,” he said.
Waterman, forwards Daniel Venables, Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli all look set to get a chance early in the season — but at this point none stand out as players capable of helping the club make significant inroads in 2018.