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Rob Harding's season-ending reviews of West Coast and Western Bulldogs


After an incredible week one of the finals, the 2020 season is over for two recent premiership teams in West Coast Eagles and the Western Bulldogs.

Both teams came into the 2020 season with high expectations, having added important pieces over the off-season. Tim Kelly joined the Eagles from Geelong, and key position bookends Alex Keath and Josh Bruce joining the Dogs from Adelaide and St Kilda respectively.

The Eagles were one of the first teams to enter hub life and their performances fluctuated wildly between their home ground of Optus Stadium and their games in Queensland.

Their loss to the Pies was their first at home in 2020, and just their seventh at Optus Stadium in 35 games at the venue since it opened in 2018.

The Dogs were a genuine middle-of-the-road-team this year, losing to six of the other seven top eight teams and defeating nine of the bottom ten teams.

After being down as much as 26 points in the third quarter, the Dogs charged home late but fell just short against the Saints, in a wide open elimination final.

Let’s have a look at how the two teams would review their 2020 season:

7th: West Coast (5th after H+A, 12W-5L, 117.0%)

What worked

Tim Kelly cost the Eagles plenty to bring him home from Geelong, but after a few rounds of settling in to the Eagles midfield mix, he more than delivered.

Kelly finished the season ranking number one for inside 50s, number two for contested possession and number three for clearances, with only Andrew Gaff winning more of the ball for the Eagles in 2020.

The Pies saw fit to send Levi Greenwood to him in their elimination final, with Greenwood crucial in restricting Kelly to 12 disposals.

As his fellow midfielders Shuey, Yeo and Redden all missed games with injury, Kelly continued to develop his chemistry with Naitanui, and the Eagles still finished the season ranking top three for hit out and clearance differential. In their loss to the Pies, five of the Eagles 11 goals came from centre bounce alone.

Forward of the ball, the West Coast forward line was one of the most efficient in the AFL, recording the best goal kicking accuracy and the 2nd best percentage of goals per an Inside 50 entry.

Liam Ryan earnt his first All-Australian honour and his increased work rate was on display in the elimination final, where he was seen intercepting deep in defence as well as pushing forward to provide an ever-present threat both in the air and on the ground.

What didn't work

The Eagles openly struggled in the early days of the hubs, as their performances reflected.

On field, the Eagles were unable to play their controlled kick/mark game as easily in the slippery Queensland conditions. During the season they averaged 89 marks at Optus Stadium and just 70.7 at Metricon and the Gabba.

One of the big unknowns of the Covid shutdown after Round 1 was how teams would return physically, and the Eagles fitness appeared to be behind the eight-ball for the remainder of the season.

Soft tissues injuries hit a number of Eagles late in the season, most notably Premiership players McGovern, Shuey, Hutchings (all hamstrings), Jetta (calf) and Yeo (groin).

In addition, Jack Redden suffered a thumb injury and Jamie Cripps returned to Perth after Round 14 for the birth of his son, Reif.

Pre-season focus

Fitness and managing the training loads of the older players will be a key focus for the Eagles, to avoid the soft-tissue issues of late in 2020.

On field, Adam Simpson will be keen to see the Eagles transition game improve, particularly to help lock the ball in their forward half. For all their stoppage dominance, the Eagles were only 11th for time in forward half, unable to play a sustainable forward half game.

Way too early 2021 forecast


8th: Western Bulldogs (7th after H+A, 10W-7L, 106.7%)

What worked

The Dogs ability to swiftly move the ball in attack was their biggest weapon in 2020, continuing from 2019 where they were the best in the AFL at moving the ball from their D50 to their F50.

The Dogs deep collection of midfield runners found enormous amounts of the ball, led by Jack Macrae, who had the 2nd most disposals in the competition, behind Brownlow favourite Lachie Neale.

Marcus Bontempelli finished the season strongly, while Tom Liberatore returned to his clearance winning best and the Bulldogs have a future star in Bailey Smith, who was top five for disposals, clearances, tackles and inside 50s.

Caleb Daniel was the architect off half back, earning All-Australian honours, and combined with Bailey Williams and Jason Johannisen to provide run and creativity out of defence.

Mitch Wallis had a change in role in 2020, playing almost as a full forward, and winning the Dogs goalkicking.

What didn't work

While Wallis' form as a forward was a positive, it does not hide the fact that the Dogs forward line struggled to fire this season.

Josh Bruce joined from St Kilda to form a partnership with Aaron Naughton, however both struggled to find consistency.

Naughton kicked 14 goals (11 games) and Bruce 13 (16 games), though both kicked one bag of 6 goals each, and combined for only three more multiple goal performances.

The chaotic method of the Dogs ball movement does not help their forwards, but an improved system and more pressure in their forward 50 is required.

Tim English will grow into an excellent ruckman, but at this stage of his development, he is being monstered by bigger, stronger, opposing rucks.

The Dogs were smashed in the ruck this year, ranking 18th for hit out differential at -21.5 per game (17th was -9.9).

Dogs midfielders attempted to rove to the losing Ruck, at times to good effect, but they still ranked 11th for clearance differential.

Transition defence was also an issue for the Bulldogs, as shown in their final against the Saints, who kicked 6.4 of their 10.7 from turnovers out of their back-half.

Pre-season focus

Find an experienced ruck to partner English, the way the Saints have with Ryder and Marshall.

Settle the forward mix down, incorporating exciting draftee Jamarra Ugle-Hagen, and develop more predictability in ball movement going inside F50.

Defensive shape to prevent the opposition accessing the fat side space and sweeping the ball down field.

Way too early 2021 forecast


West Coast Eagles

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