WITH A glut of top-end talent comes high expectations, and the Eagles entered 2021 as a flag contender. But injuries to several stars and an inability to both cover them and then reintroduce them effectively led to a horror campaign in which everything from effort to game style was found wanting. They lost seven of their last nine games and will be forced to undertake a searching post-mortem.
The fortnight that will benefit the Eagles most came in rounds 12 and 13 when a group of young players showed there is some talent ready to emerge in back-to-back wins against Carlton and Richmond. Defenders Harry Edwards and Luke Foley and midfielders Luke Edwards and Xavier O'Neill featured in both games and collectively gave the Eagles an energy and spirit that lacked for long periods of the season. Midfielder Connor West did likewise when he debuted in the round 18 win against Adelaide. Defender Josh Rotham also improved and performed consistently.
The gameplan was exposed in 2021, with the Eagles picked apart when they didn't have the ball and ranking bottom four for conceding opposition disposals and marks. Their pressure was poor and broken tackles were a theme of the season. When they did have the ball, they couldn't execute the precision kick-mark style of years past. Their ability to work into space for each other was questioned and a star-studded forward line didn't get the supply to thrive. Injuries robbed the midfield of continuity, but when the senior stars reassembled later in the season they didn't click.
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Ruckman Nic Naitanui was a force in the centre bounce and at around-the-ground stoppages and will surely be rewarded with a second straight John Worsfold Medal. The 31-year-old played every game and, despite his lower time on ground, he carried a significant workload given the injuries to ground-level teammates. He averaged 7.0 clearances and 11.9 contested possessions – both career-highs – to go with his 30.2 hitouts a game, leading the AFL for taps to advantage (12.3).
Tall defender Harry Edwards emerged as one of the best young talents on the list, but opportunities restricted him to 10 games as cover for Jeremy McGovern and Tom Barrass. The 20-year-old looks ready to play senior football and the challenge for the Eagles will be finding him those opportunities so he can continue to improve.
Whether it was through a lack of opportunities or a failure to take them is debatable, but third-year midfielder Xavier O'Neill was capable of more than the eight games he finished with in 2021, with limited midfield minutes. The midfield collectively disappointed, meaning the season was an opportunity missed for O'Neill to really emerge. He was never given more than two consecutive games at AFL level to do that.
The Eagles might have dared to dream their luck was turning and a remarkable premiership run was possible in round 13 when champion forward Josh Kennedy converted a brilliant set shot from the pocket to seal a four-point win against Richmond in the final minute. They entered the bye 8-5, were in the top-four race, and received key performances from both their available stars and their young players.
There was the thrashing to Geelong (97 points), back-to-back losses to the Western Bulldogs (55) and Sydney (92), and then a failure to atone against last-placed North Melbourne at home (10) the week after. But all were arguably shaded by the 45-point loss to Collingwood in premiership captain Shannon Hurn's 300th game. Chief executive Trevor Nisbett was moved to write to members in the wake of that loss and assure them the club was working to get to the root of its issues on-field.
How should they approach list management?
Replenishing the list at the NAB AFL Draft is the priority after three straight years without using a first-round selection. A bumper WA draft crop and the availability of Next Generation Academy prospect Ethan Regan should see the Eagles try and improve their draft hand. Contract talks with Jarrod Brander haven't started, while some salary cap relief might be welcomed if the opportunity emerges. Champion pair Josh Kennedy and Shannon Hurn are keen to play on but need to become less prominent as youngsters emerge.
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Early call for 2022
Rather than cut deep and take one step back in 2022, the Eagles are tipped to reload and attempt to strike with their 2018 premiership heroes. There is definitely an opportunity to return to finals if they get their off-season planning right and have a ruthless pre-season that results in better availability during the year. But how they build for the future in that scenario will be intriguing.
4 out of 10. A third straight season of underperforming and their first out of finals since 2014 has the Eagles at a critical juncture.