It’s not uncommon for AFL coaches and players to trot out lines about treating every game like a final, especially as the end of the regular season approaches, and teams battle for a spot in the eight.
- West Coast has won the past 11 Western Derbies, last losing in 2015
- Only two Fremantle players have won a Derby, and just one has won a final
- Both teams need to win to keep their AFL finals hopes alive
It’s a cliche, but it rings especially true for today’s Western Derby.
For the West Coast Eagles, it’s a chance to almost cement a finals spot and arrest its recent poor form, while Fremantle cannot lose if it hopes to break its five-year drought from September action.
“It’s a final,” Eagles coach Adam Simpson declared on Thursday.
“We understand that, and I’m sure Longy [Justin Longmuir] and Fremantle understand that as well.
“It’s high stakes this week.”
Derbies are always a big deal, regardless of whether clubs publicly play down their significance.
For the supporters, there is a huge amount on the line. Winning a rivalry game can make or break someone’s week.
In this case, the two sides hold not only their own destiny, but that of their cross-town rival, in their hands.
For the Eagles and Dockers, winning or losing will make or break their seasons.
Going into round 22, West Coast sit just a game and percentage ahead of Fremantle, and could find itself outside the eight if they lose and other results go against them.
The Dockers know a loss ends any chance of playing finals, and condemns them to a sixth consecutive year of missing the top eight.
Let’s start with West Coast
The Eagles have managed just two wins from their past seven matches, including a 45-point loss to Collingwood, a 55-point defeat by the Western Bulldogs, and a 92-point humiliation at the hands of Sydney.
After round 14 they looked all but assured a spot in the eight, with a percentage of 102.6 and 32 points in the bag.
Since then, their percentage has collapsed to 95.5, and they’ve lost to two sides in the bottom three, and only just got home against St Kilda.
Their scoring has fallen off a cliff as well.
92.1 points per game
68.0 points per game
They have had three totals below 50 points, including kicking the club’s lowest score since 1992 – 26 points against Sydney in round 16 – and haven’t kicked a score of more than 100 points since round nine, something they did four times in the first half of the season.
All of this combined has led to strong criticism of Simpson’s game plan, something that was highlighted when the Eagles released the shackles late against Melbourne, almost running over top of the ladder leaders.
It would likely be a whole lot worse if not for the remarkable efficiency with which West Coast score when they do go inside attacking 50.
But it’s not just scoring that would be concerning to the Eagles and the coaching staff.
Defensively, West Coast has been off the boil this season.
The 2018 premiers are the lowest tackling side in the AFL, averaging 47 per game.
In contrast, Melbourne sit top of the AFL ladder, and still lay more than 60 tackles per game. That’s despite winning the disposal count in 14 of their 21 matches so far this year.
The Eagles have won the disposal count just six times, which adds credence to the suggestion that when things aren’t going their way, they have no way of arresting momentum.
“Hopefully it’s rectified.
“The issue we’ve got is that it’s round 22, and it’s getting a bit late in the year to be ironing out these challenges.
“We saw the contrast (against Melbourne) when the game was perhaps out of reach, there was a little bit more freedom in their eyes.”
Dockers not faring much better
In recent weeks, Fremantle has demonstrated its enormous upside, but also the gulf between it and the top sides.
A spirited win over Richmond, without captain Nat Fyfe and led by the club’s young stars, suggested they aren’t far off.
But they followed that effort with an abysmal showing against Brisbane, crashing to a 64-point loss and losing Andrew Brayshaw to suspension for today’s derby.
The Dockers’ scoring has also dried up, but not to the extent of the Eagles. The problem for Fremantle is it wasn’t coming off a high base.
77.9 points per game
67.1 points per game
The Dockers actually average more inside 50s than the Eagles, but have kicked the third-lowest amount of goals this season, and the third-highest number of behinds.
They have the ninth most scoring shots in the AFL, so it’s a simple case of not taking their chances.
Fremantle has only kicked more goals than behinds six times this year.
In fact, just swapping their goals and behinds this season would change their percentage to more than 100.
As for when they don’t have the football, well, the Dockers lay more tackles than just one other side – West Coast.
They have also completed the lowest amount of tackles in their attacking 50 this season, which has made it hard to convert territory into scores.
What does it all mean?
West Coast are favourites, according to the bookmakers, and rightly so.
They welcome back a host of gun players, including captain Luke Shuey, forward Liam Ryan and key defender Tom Barrass.
The Dockers, on the other hand, are without Nat Fyfe, Michael Walters, Rory Lobb and Brayshaw.
While the Eagles’ form in the past months demonstrates that big names are no guarantee of results, they are players who can change a game.
And with this expected to be a high-pressure match, those inclusions swing the balance the Eagles’ way.
West Coast boasts a squad in which 17 players have won a final, and 12 of those are premiership winners.
In stark contrast, Fremantle have just one player in their side who has won a final, and just two who have experienced Western Derby success.
That doesn’t mean Fremantle can’t pull off an upset.
“Our players know what’s on the line,” Longmuir said.
In what will be a farewell to club stalwart Stephen Hill, they might overcome the odds to stun the favourites.
One thing is certain — whatever happens, this game will shape the final eight.