John Worsfold of the West Coast Eagles addresses the team at half time during the 2013 NAB Cup round 01, week 01 match between the Geelong Cats and the West Coast Eagles at Patersons Stadium, Perth. (Photo: Daniel Carson/AFL Media)
The playing group is as close knit as I have seen it for a long time. They have a really strong affinity for one another that has built up over the last few years
John Worsfold has seen it all as coach of the West Coast Eagles. From the 2006 premiership to the wooden spoon just four years later and everything in between. Now, with many experts predicting a premiership charge from the Eagles in 2013, he chats exclusively to AFL.com.au's Nathan Schmook about the list before him and why his returning forwards may just be the X-factor that delivers a flag.
How are you feeling ahead of the new season?
I'm excited again. You always get a bit nervous. You've done the work and you just don't know what the season's going to throw up at you. This time last year Mark LeCras got hurt, so you can be feeling brilliant and then you get hit with a sledgehammer with something, or something goes well – you don't know.
Our preparation's been very good. We've done a lot of work as a coaching group on how we wanted to prepare the players for the season and our work with the players has been great. The players' attitude has been spot on, so they're tracking along really well.
This group has been building to a point of strength now. Do you feel like you have a premiership profile list?
We're certainly getting close to it. We've got a lot of players in our squad that will improve again over the next one, two and three seasons. Guys like Gaff and Darling aren't going to reach their best [this year]. Even Shuey and Scott Selwood, they're going to be better again when they're 23, 24 and 25. Naitanui is the same.
We've still got a relatively young core group, with some really good experience around them.
We want to have a real dip at being one of the top teams in the comp this year. You've just got to make every post a winner and finish high up the ladder. Every position you finish higher up the ladder gives you a better chance at winning a premiership, so the challenge for us is to finish as high as possible and we can talk about that because we think that's where our squad's at.
Three years ago we couldn't really say that. At that stage we were talking about building for the future. We've done that and that's why we want to look at how high we can go.
If you're getting close to that premiership profile, what is the last piece?
I think the only thing is the unknown of what a season throws up.
If a couple of the other top-rated teams lose key players to long-term injuries, the weight of where you sit is always changing suddenly.
But our planning has to be around having our best squad available against every other team's best squad, and we believe we're up there with them all.
What are the big strengths of this list?
I think we're starting to build that pretty even spread now. Our midfield's been pretty young compared to most other midfields, so Naitanui, Shuey, Selwood in the middle is young compared to Pendlebury, Swan, Ball and those guys. But they're developing.
Our backline has really come along well, still led by Daren Glass, but with Beau Waters, Shannon Hurn and some other young players that have developed.
Our forward line with LeCras and Kennedy back in it, our forward line held up well without them, so we think we've got a forward line that can be as potent as any.
Is this the year your young midfielders could step up and compete equally with the game's best?
That's the challenge for them. They've competed really well and we've been a pretty good midfield team. But I still think they can get better. None of them are really rated in that elite group yet. They're rated as very good midfielders.
Priddis is the one consistently over the last three to four years who has rated consistently up there.
Shuey and Scott Selwood, Masten, the challenge for those guys is to consistently get up there.
I expect that they'll show improvement still for another two to three years, but they're getting close to it.
How do you rate the depth of your list?
I think the depth is good with the way we have built the quad over the last few years.
We're two players down from last year, but overall I think our list has got very good depth across all areas.
How important is that depth, given what happened to you last year with injuries to key players?
You look at Hams and Hill playing all last year when potentially they weren't in our best team before LeCras and Nicoski got injured. They got the job done for us until Hams got injured late in the year.
We've got Nicoski back and we've got LeCras back and we've still got Hill and Hams, who have actually had a really good season of footy under their belt. Plus Brad Dick now on the list. That's where we believe that strength is coming from
Can you quantify how big a boost LeCras and Kennedy back in the team from round one is?
No you can't, other than to say, the more often you've got your best 22 players out on the field, the more likely you are to perform at your best. It's great just to have those guys back and ready to go.
With the mix of young players and then some senior premiership players from 2006 still at the club, what is the relationship like between the two groups?
The playing group is as close knit as I have seen it for a long time. They have a really strong affinity for one another that has built up over the last few years. Really tight knit right across the board.
Having your young players moving into their prime years, is that inspiring your senior players?
No doubt. Glass, Embley and Adam Selwood all ran their best 2km time trials this year, so they are setting a great example. At this stage of their careers that's a remarkable effort and you can only do that if you're motivated.
They're getting drawn along by the talent in the group and they don't want to miss out.
Then with what they're showing, the young guys go, 'Well look at these guys still leading the way, let's make sure we're right up there with them'.
How important are your senior players still to this team?
They're critical to it. They're our leaders and they're educating our younger group, both on and off the field, about what it means to be a part of the club.
Does their importance to the team reinforce pushing for a premiership this year while they're still influential players?
Nothing reinforces pushing for a premiership this year – that's what we all want, and if senior players retire at the end of this year we believe we're in a position where it won't diminish our push going forward. We've built that coverage and we'll keep it ticking over.
Is planning for a team without Glass, Cox, Kerr and Embley something you consider and plan for this season?
That's something you plan for ongoing with the way you build your squad for the future. Our drafting this year was a little bit for this year, but also looking for if Kerr and Embley aren't available, well we've got Cripps and Morton who we think are AFL quality players, which they've shown already.
We've already got that planning happening.
How do you see the competition at the top?
I think it's even.
What does that mean for West Coast in a year you're hoping to strike?
It means focusing on what you're trying to do at your best and what the competition throws at you will dictate your opportunities in the finals.
The No.1 thing is play our best footy consistently. Keep our best players on the park, that's always an aim. And then where we finish at the end of the home and away gives you a fair idea what your form's like.
Are you expecting any big shifts in how the game is going to be played?
Not really. There's a couple of rule changes that we're going to go through with the umpires. For this year they're not massive things, but there's a couple of things around tackling and ending up on someone's back. So if you haven't pushed someone in the back but you end up on their back it could be a free kick. What in the past looks like a perfect tackle may now end up a free kick.
That'll be an interesting one because we've had the umpires out a couple of times at training and we've seen that one paid and the players ask, 'How? I thought that was a perfect tackle?'
They adapt pretty quick, but we need to know exactly what it means. Is it when you really press them into the ground? We'll find all that out.
There's a slight change with throwing the ball up around the ground and I think trying to keep the ball moving even quicker than it has been.
Do you think that's good for the game?
I don't mind it. To me, those things go hand in hand with the interchange. When they made the game more in motion and non-stop, that's when players started wanting more rest.
When the ball was kicked straight back in from behinds, players were saying it's really noticeable, we're not getting that rest in every time there's a point kicked.
So throwing the ball up could continue to force interchanges upward?
That's right, and the bigger impact of that will happen the following year if they cap rotations or change how many subs you have and how many you have on the bench.
One of the changes this year, just throwing the ball up when you still have unlimited rotations, it won't have a massive impact. It'll just make sure the game is really fast.
Is the new ruck rule one that will have a big impact?
Not really. You just won't see the extended wrestling. I don’t think that'll do a lot, but we'll see how it goes.
Is there any advantage for Nic?
I don't think there'll be a disadvantage for Nic. Nic's got a great leap, so if that means he's got that one step to jump the that will help him. We'll see whether he still gets that or not, because once it leaves the umpire's hand the other ruckmen can move pretty quickly.
With your game plan this year, how well drilled do you think your players are coming into the season?
I think they're pretty well drilled. We've been building on our style of play for three or four years. We've worked on that again and made some minor alterations, but generally we've just been consolidating on everything we've been doing.
The amount of football you've been able to get into your young players the last three to four seasons under this game plan, do you think there is a pay off coming for that?
Definitely. I made the call three years ago that I believe in the talent we had within our squad and it was just a matter of getting some time and experience into them.
They're working their butts off and they're the ones that are going to earn the rewards. They become premiership players if they win the flag, so I think the reward is there for them to want to go after it.