Nic Nat has his mojo back … the Eagles ruckman is back to his dominating best after a long absence through injury. (AAP: Travis Anderson)
The AFL’s confusing, topsy-turvy early season has seen plenty of teams post surprise results.
Who would have picked Gold Coast or Fremantle to be 3-2 after five rounds? Or Melbourne at 2-3, or the Bulldogs at 1-4?
But there are two definite standouts who have taken us by surprise — the ladder-leading West Coast Eagles, and Brad Scott’s North Melbourne side in third.
Last season the Eagles finished eighth before sneaking a last-second victory over Port Adelaide in the elimination final, then hitting the wall in a 67-point loss to the Giants in the first semi-final.
Some improvement might have been expected, but after an opening-round loss to the Sydney Swans at Perth Stadium, those expectations receded somewhat.
The four weeks since then, however, have been nothing short of spectacular, as wins over the Bulldogs, Geelong, Gold Coast and Carlton have seen West Coast rise to top spot on the ladder.
Adam Simpson has imposed a straightforward game plan on his team — less handball, more kicking, more attacking and putting opposing defences under the pump.
The clearest signal of intent comes with the lack of handball. The Eagles are averaging 123.4 a game in 2018, nearly 40 a game down on last season, while the call has gone out to kick more often (232.4 per game, up 18.6).
West Coast’s forward entries last year were below league average, racking up 49.6 a game (13th). This year so far, the Eagles have boosted that number to 57.6, second behind only Melbourne.
West Coast midfielder Luke Shuey is driving the Eagles’ more attacking approach in 2018, with his average of six inside 50s a game. (AAP: Travis Anderson)
The man leading the way is Luke Shuey, who is second in the league with inside 50s, averaging six a game. He is also getting 5.6 clearances a game, and is just outside the top 10 in the AFL for stoppage clearances.
The Eagles number 13 hit the headlines with his match-winning goal after the siren in extra-time against Port Adelaide, and the 27-year-old looks like he has kicked on in 2018.
Because the Eagles are going forward more, they are also taking advantage of their range of marking options — West Coast leads the AFL in marks inside 50, despite the absence of spearhead Josh Kennedy for three of the five rounds.
Jack Darling has stepped up, along with Jamie Cripps and a rejuvenated Mark le Cras.
The Eagles average 14.4 marks inside 50 a game, and the combination of more inside 50s and more set shots has kickstarted West Coast’s scoring.
The team is averaging a league-leading 15.2 goals a game this year, compared to 12.9 in 2017 — and the Eagles’ total scoring average is up from 89.3 points a game last year to 104 now.
Amid all this focus on attack, it is hard to overestimate what Nic Naitanui’s return means to West Coast, not just in numbers but in his sheer presence.
There’s no doubt that West Coast is a far better team with the Eagles’ number nine in the line-up.
The Eagles have improved by 15.5 hitouts a game on 2017, but Naitanui’s physical game is as important. He also averages nearly four tackles a game, often delivered at key times for his team, and even when he isn’t effecting a tackle, he is putting big pressure on opposition players around the ball.
It could be argued that the Eagles have not had that tough a schedule so far, but the next month will tell us a lot more about the strength of their challenge.
A fierce Western Derby against Fremantle — with an expected crowd of 60,000 — will be followed by matches against Port Adelaide, GWS and Richmond.
Flying Kangaroos ground opposition scorers
As for the Kangaroos, they were well out of contention long before the 2017 finals, finishing in 15th spot with just four wins for the season.
North was seen as still in rebuild mode after their controversial axing of four veterans — Drew Petrie, Nick Dal Santo, Michael Firrito and AFL games record holder Brent Harvey — at the end of 2016.
Not much was expected externally for 2018, but five rounds in the Kangas are flying, and if the Hawks hadn’t hit back hard after half-time on Sunday, North’s percentage could have been considerably higher than its currently healthy 135.2.
So where has this come from? There is one very simple answer, and a chain of related ones.
The simple take is the Kangaroos have stopped their opposition’s scoring better than anyone in the league.
From last season — when Brad Scott’s men conceded an average of 102.9 points a game (16th in the league) — to now, when the average score of teams facing North has been just 64.2 points a game, the difference is profound.
The defence — with the likes of Robbie Tarrant and Scott Thompson — is much harder to break through.
North Melbourne tweet: That’s what the Shinboner spirit is all about! #AFLNorthHawks #BeAShinboner
Another cog in the wheel is Ben Jacobs, who has had a brilliant start to the year, shutting down the best midfielders on opposition teams.
St Kilda’s Sebastian Ross was kept to 16 disposals, Melbourne’s Clayton Oliver managed just 11, Carlton’s Patrick Cripps was held to 16, and then Jacobs rubber-stamped his form as a tagger by keeping the Hawks’ Tom Mitchell to 19 disposals, his lowest tally since moving from Sydney.
The Kangaroos are also winning more stoppages, thanks to the improved play of Todd Goldstein, who went from a dominating all-Australian ruckman to a player struggling for form who was dropped to the VFL for two weeks late last year.
The old Goldstein looks to be back, and that can only be good for North.
The Kangaroos are not suddenly turning into a free-scoring attacking team, in fact they are scoring more than three points a game fewer than in 2017.
However, he may not be as high-profile as Buddy Franklin, but Ben Brown (19 majors) leads the AFL goalkicking charts at this point — barring a huge bag from Dustin Martin, Jesse Hogan or the Bombers’ James Stewart, he will hold that lead after round five.
Jack Ziebell’s move forward has paid dividends for the Kangaroos, as he has provided defensive pressure and a handy goalkicking option. (AAP: Julian Smith)
But it’s not just the spearhead who’s doing the damage, as North builds a more cohesive attack.
Jack Ziebell, the hard-hitting midfielder who has been criticised at times for his bull-at-a-gate approach, has been switched up forward with good success.
His tackling is adding to the Kangaroos’ forward pressure — he ranks ninth in the AFL for tackles inside 50 — and he also leads his team with 37 score involvements in five games, and at this early stage of the season he is on track for a handy total in excess of 30 goals.
Ok, time for a reality check — if the first five rounds (well, four rounds and seven games actually) have taught us anything, it is not to jump too far ahead of ourselves.
For example, a week or two back Port Adelaide was looking like the real deal, but now after losses to Essendon and Geelong, the Power are back in the mix with about 10 other sides.
It all can change very, very quickly. But right now, both North Melbourne and the Eagles are doing all they can to convince us they are well on the upswing in 2018.