Jack Darling poses for a photo during West Coast's official team photo day on January 30, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

IF WEST Coast delivered on its first selection test after round one when it opted for youth in a decision between Andrew Gaff and Campbell Chesser, the call looming with premiership forward Jack Darling shapes as a far more complicated one. 

Sending Gaff to the WAFL to build form and allowing Chesser more opportunities at AFL level after an impressive cameo as the substitute in round one was a clear-cut decision for the Eagles that was vindicated in the second half against Greater Western Sydney, with the 20-year-old finishing the day with 16 disposals.

After Darling's return of 1.2 and just one mark inside 50 across his first two games, the club's third all-time leading goalkicker looks like being the next veteran to come under pressure to hold his spot during the club's rebuild. 

Right now, however, the Eagles have little option but to back Darling in and hope the 31-year-old can turn his form around in the absence of co-captain Oscar Allen. Coach Adam Simpson indicated as much on Sunday night. 

"We know what his best looks like and we'll do everything we can to get him there," Simpson said, expressing confidence that the forward's work rate remained, if not his form. "We need him to play well."

To add context to Darling's performance against GWS, the key forward was targeted seven times by the Eagles (behind Jake Waterman's eight), with the veteran winning one of the six one-on-one contests he was involved in and drawing three. 

Jack Darling and Sam Taylor are pictured during West Coast's clash against Greater Western Sydney in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

His task was made all the more difficult by the Eagles' delivery inside 50 as well as arguably the toughest match-ups in the AFL right now, with Darling spending 53 minutes on each of Sam Taylor (who didn't concede a single one-on-one contest all game) and Jack Buckley.  

If the Eagles' three preferred tall forwards coming into the season were Allen, ruck/forward Bailey Williams and Darling, it is likely only Darling remains as a permanent option this week against the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium

Regardless of whether the Eagles back 20-year-old ruckman Harry Barnett again after giving him exposure against the Giants, Williams will be required to spend time up the ground against Tim English, and his own form in attack on Sunday was not as the Eagles would have hoped. 

And with Ryan Maric and Waterman ideally suited as third tall targets, it leaves the Eagles reliant on Darling until a younger option forces a 50-50 selection call, as Chesser did with Gaff.  

Jake Waterman kicks the ball during West Coast's clash against Greater Western Sydney in round two, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Darling has booted 511 goals for West Coast, behind only Josh Kennedy and Peter Sumich, and played 279 games in 14 seasons, which also ranks him third at the Eagles. At his best, he was a powerful and durable forward with supreme fitness and athleticism for a big man, as shown by the 59 goals he kicked in his career-best 2019 season. 

But the question for the Eagles is what does his best look like now as a veteran and, if he doesn't get closer to it soon, can a younger player match it?

The most obvious contender to force a selection call on Darling is 198cm key forward Jack Williams, who is in his third AFL season and has shown glimpses of his contested marking strength and athleticism.

The 20-year-old was impressive as a marking target inside 50 in a WAFL practice match against Subiaco at the weekend, taking several strong grabs and kicking three goals, suggesting a youth versus experience call might not be too far away. 

Jack Williams celebrates a goal during West Coast's clash against Adelaide in round 24, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

But can Williams really be expected to take on the opposition's biggest key defender, like Darling did with Taylor on Sunday, so early in his career?  

The option of sending Jeremy McGovern or Tom Barrass forward as the pair are finding continuity and form alongside each other is more dramatic and appears highly unlikely, despite it being raised in the past. 

So, the opportunity for Darling to turn his form around should be there. The question is; can he find it and sustain it until the Eagles are faced with another 50-50 call between experience and the future?