FOR A team built for the now, 2020 was a failure for West Coast. With Nic Naitanui in career-best form, recruit Tim Kelly peaking and an early hub horror show behind them, exiting via an elimination final was an underachievement after holding flag favouritism in August. Despite two Queensland hub stints, the Eagles finished in fifth spot with 12 wins and, although they had late-season injuries, still had a near full-strength squad to tackle Collingwood.
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Up and firing during a six-week unbeaten run at Optus Stadium, West Coast's slick ball movement made it look untouchable. Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley even compared them to the Harlem Globetrotters in July. Kelly finished strongly (outside of the final), Liam Ryan improved out of sight, Brad Sheppard rose to All-Australian and veterans Josh Kennedy and Shannon Hurn were still big contributors. Plus, middle-tier players including Liam Duggan, Jackson Nelson, Dom Sheed and Brendon Ah Chee increased their output markedly.
The first hub stint in Queensland was a disaster. An embarrassing loss to Gold Coast was followed by defeats to Brisbane and Port Adelaide. Although both are now locked into preliminary finals, the Eagles even conceded the first visit put their whole season on the back foot. Injuries across the season forced the club to debut six players, but it was the toll late in the year that hurt continuity most. Luke Shuey (hamstrings), Jeremy McGovern (hamstring) and Jack Redden (thumb) missed key games but still made it back for a final where Elliot Yeo (groin) was the only walk-up player to miss.
Nic Naitanui exploded off his first full pre-season since 2016 and few players enjoyed the reduced quarters more this season. Was named All-Australian starting ruck and serviced his midfielders brilliantly, highlighted by his tap work in the round eight win over Collingwood. He then backed it up in the elimination final, a performance that relegated Brodie Grundy to the bench at key moments and was deemed best-on-ground by both coaches.
Liam Ryan's career trajectory suggests he could be absolutely anything. The high-flyer has always had the highlights, but his third season delivered true consistency as a double threat in the air and on the ground. Was named an All-Australian forward pocket after a stellar end to the year that included a four-goal showing against Essendon in round 15. Ryan has since signed on for two more years in a further headache for rival defenders.
Former No.13 pick Jarrod Brander was again unable to nail down a spot in his third season at the club. The Eagles tried the 195cm prospect as a key forward and back across his first two years, but opted to use him as a wingman in 2020. He played the opening four games before struggling with a hip injury and form, featuring just four more times. With the key pillars at both ends looking settled, Brander's best hope appears to be on the wing for next season.
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The demolition of Collingwood in round eight was superb, but the back-against-the-wall win over St Kilda in round 17 was even sweeter. With seven first-choice players missing and McGovern injured at half-time, Kelly (30 disposals) put on his Superman cape to inspire victory in his best game as an Eagle.
Remember when second-gamer Matt Rowell made a bunch of gun midfielders look second-rate? The first-year Suns sensation upstaged Shuey, Kelly, Yeo, Sheed and Redden to drive Gold Coast to a 44-point victory in round two. McGovern also copped a one-match ban after being sucked into whacking Sun Alex Sexton.
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Once they knock over new deals for Kennedy and Hurn, then it's all chips in for 2021. That pair, plus Naitanui and Shuey (both 31 next year), may not get another chance. With uncertainty over Willie Rioli, another pressure forward may be useful to lock the ball in the forward 50 given they were ranked No.11 for time in the front half this year. But with a tight cap and no first-round pick there's little wriggle room.
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Early call for 2021
Pass mark has got to be a Grand Final. Kelly will be settled in the midfield, Kennedy and Hurn running out of time and how many more years can they count on Naitanui being at his absolute peak? Finding avenues to goal when their ball movement is choked up will be another key focus.
C- From flag favourites in August to being sent packing (to home quarantine) in an elimination final on their home patch in October.