West Coast couldn’t win this year’s flag.
When the Eagles took a pasting from Greater Western Sydney in last year’s semi-final, it was supposed to be the start of a long, slow slide into a dreaded rebuild.
They couldn’t challenge without retired pair Sam Mitchell and Matt Priddis, they were told, and they certainly couldn’t win in Melbourne.
And even though the wins kept coming in 2018, the doubts never stopped.
If Nic Naitanui’s season-ending knee injury in Round 17 was a major blow to West Coast’s premiership chances, then Andrew Gaff’s brain fade and eight-week suspension, ending his 2018 campaign, was catastrophic.
But the Eagles, as resilient as they are tough, just kept on finding a way.
That resilience was on full display in Saturday’s grand final as Collingwood surged to a 29-point lead on the back of five successive first quarter goals.
There would be no shame in being blown away by the Magpies, given the plight of Richmond just one week earlier.
After all, the Eagles had no Naitanui, no Gaff, no Mitchell, no Priddis, no Brad Sheppard and Eric Mackenzie – the defensive pair also suffered season-ending injuries – and were playing at the MCG.
But Adam Simpson’s side, once branded ‘flat track bullies’, stood up to the Magpies, producing one of the finest comebacks in VFL/AFL grand final history.
Norm Smith Medallist Luke Shuey and match-winner Dom Sheed will get most of the credit for helping the Eagles turn the match, combining for 66 disposals and two goals in the midfield.
But defenders Tom Barrass, Jeremy McGovern, Liam Duggan and Shannon Hurn deserve at least as much kudos, given the quartet’s aerial dominance.
Once that group, who took 32 grabs between them, lifted, the Eagles could keep the Magpies at bay, routinely taking intercepting marks and thwarting Collingwood attacks.
And that ensured that the Eagles were within striking distance when they eventually got on top, as they booted 11 of the last 17 goals to seal a nail-biting victory.
West Coast legend Dean Kemp presented Simpson and Hurn with the premiership cup and was later asked what he was most proud about.
“Their spirit, their fight, they never gave up,” Kemp told The New Daily.
“They’ve lost a lot of good players this season and Adam Simpson has been able to bring in a few players that have been able to play their role.
“It has been amazing … incredible how they’ve been able to do it. They lost Naitanui and [Scott] Lycett and [Nathan] Vardy really stepped up.
“We lost Gaff and Dom Sheed really stepped up … the guys that were missing really stepped up.
“It was absolutely amazing. To be behind all day and snatch it at the end – it was a true testament to the team spirit.”
The Eagles almost entered the grand final without another key player in McGovern.
The big man said after the final siren that he was “very close” to missing out with a badly corked hip that caused “dangerous” internal bleeding.
McGovern not only played, but played a key role, including taking the mark that led to Sheed’s crucial late goal.
And he said that the club’s work on adversity and how to respond resiliently bore fruit on the biggest day of the year.
“It is a great test of character [trailing by so much early],” he said, according to the AFL website.
“We’ve done a bit of stuff on the mental side of things and the way we view things and we’ve been in those situations before and crumbled. We were pretty gallant, a lot our KPIs we hit [in the first quarter].
“They took more opportunities. We didn’t think they were dominating that much. On the scoreboard they definitely were. We just stayed calm.”
If adversity and reliance have been key themes of West Coast’s season, calmness under pressure and a dollop of fate have also featured.
Kemp credits Simpson for giving the Eagles a sense of self-belief that does not waiver.
“’Simmo’ has instilled a really strong self-belief in the group,” he added.
“We travel every fortnight so that self-belief has to be there … the resilience in the group is something I’m sure Simmo is very, very proud of.
“Simmo is a great, great coach, great people person, really down to earth and the amount of confidence he has been able to portray has really filtered throughout to the side.
“They just seem like they play with a lot of fun, lot of exuberance, lot of happiness and I think it shows when they play.”
And the fate? Consider this. Had Gaff not been suspended, Sheed would likely have watched from the stands.
The 23-year-old, surely dubbed ‘The King of Kalgoorlie’ for the rest of time, was dropped three times this year before Gaff’s moment of madness.
But with Gaff sidelined, Sheed seized his chance, making the most of more midfield time to become a ball magnet.
And as good a player as Gaff is, he would have a hard time kicking truly from the same position that Sheed nailed his match-winner from.
The Eagles could win it without Gaff. They could win it without Naitanui. They could win it in Melbourne. It makes for a scary proposition in 2019.
– with reporting from Zac Standish