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Best in the nest

TALK of doping will be eclipsed by hoping over the next few weeks, as fans dream of a better world in which youngsters mature, veterans regenerate and recruits redress collective failings.

In 2013, we appear to have a competition that will be closely fought among a dozen clubs, at least half of which will nurse serious premiership ambitions.

Five teams can be dismissed from finals calculations - the two expansion clubs, plus the Dogs, Dees and Port Adelaide. Brisbane Lions are improving, but still some distance from finals. Carlton, Richmond and Essendon all have the top eight as a pass mark. Is there room for all three? The Saints are striving to emulate Sydney and rebuild from a respectable, middle-class station, avoiding an undignified stint in the cellar. North is aiming higher.

The Victorian hegemony that coincided with Geelong's Ling dynasty of 2007-11 ended in September last year, when the Swans upset the Hawks, Adelaide unexpectedly challenged and the luckless Perth teams bowed out in week two of the finals. While we may not have the interstate domination of 2001-2006, there has been a power shift westward that seems likely to repeat.

This time last year, brown and gold was the new black; Hawthorn was widely viewed as the logical team to beat, because it was regaining Jarryd Roughead, had improved depth and greater scope for improvement than Collingwood, Geelong or the Eagles. The team to beat was beaten only by inaccuracy and Sydney's superior team defence.

This year, gold and blue wears the ''new black'' label. The Eagles are the team most likely to win the premiership, deserving of the No. 1 saddlecloth in the race. They should be the best backed, albeit not by the club doorman or timekeeper in these probity-conscious times.

West Coast is a feather ahead of the other avian contenders from 2012 - the Hawks, Swans, Magpies and Crows - plus the Dockers, Cats and whichever upstart emerges from outside the eight (Carlton the most probable).

Last year, the Eagles were far closer to the flag than the usual fifth-placed team. They were without premier key forward Josh Kennedy for much of the season and Mark LeCras for all of it.

This year, all bar one of the top seven sides from 2012 have topped up with seasoned recruits. Sydney had Kurt Tippett in its sights before it won the flag, thinking it was a key forward short.

The Hawks grabbed Brian Lake to shore up the defence, the Pies lost Sharrod Wellingham, but gained Clinton Young's left boot and Quinten Lynch.

The Dockers paid plenty for Danyle Pearce's pace, the Cats were aggressive in recruiting youngster Josh Caddy, Jared Rivers and injury-prone ruck Hamish McIntosh.

Only Adelaide - handcuffed by the Tippett fiasco - and North were quiet on the free agency and trading front.

The Eagles gave up their first pick for Wellingham, who will bolster a steadily improving midfield that still lacks the A-graders owned by most rivals at the pointy end of the ladder.

West Coast's rucks are about as the same distance above the pack as a leaping Nic Naitanui. The Dean Cox-Naitanui combination is unique.

Last year, they contributed an astonishing aggregate of 52 goals and their ruckwork compensates for any deficit of established superstars in the midfield.

Darren Glass, Beau Waters, Eric Mackenzie, Will Schofield and Shannon Hurn are five-sixths of an outstanding defence. The Eagles also have Mitch Brown - whom the Saints offered a fortune - as back-up tall back. At the other end, Kennedy and LeCras are recovered, while the exceptional Jack Darling booted 53 goals in his second season. When the rucks are added, the West Coast forward division is probably the AFL's best; only Hawthorn's is close. Lynch left in part because he was not assured of a game.

Hawthorn seemed to be peaking, in terms of demographics and hunger, in 2012. This year, the Hawks have a midfield that has just struck midnight on Mick Malthouse's premiership clock. Sam Mitchell (30), Shaun Burgoyne (30), Brad Sewell (29) and Luke Hodge (a banged up 28) will not become pumpkins, but they are a tad older than the ideal, and the Hawks aren't the best spreaders or defensive runners. It was the latter weakness, not the undersized back line, that the Swans exploited.

While the Pies are formidable in the midfield and defence, their attack is heavily reliant on Travis Cloke. Alan Didak's output has dwindled. Certainly, their forward line has lost punch since 2011, hence the Lynch acquisition. The Swans should be thereabouts again. It is no slight on them that their rival of 2005-2006 has a small edge in talent.

West Coast's midfield is the only division where the Eagles aren't ranked top three. What the Eagles have, however, is a depth of runners that can close the gap. Luke Shuey, 22, has the class of an All-Australian player. Andrew Gaff, 20, is likewise on the rise. Scott Selwood (22) and Chris Masten (23) have turned into valuable cogs, Andrew Embley and Matt Rosa provide run. Matt Priddis is an effective extractor. When Daniel Kerr and Wellingham are added, there's sufficient competent quantity to match most teams, even if there isn't one Scott Pendlebury or Joel Selwood in his prime.

The big ''if'' on the Eagles is whether their men of a certain age - Glass, Cox and Kerr - can withstand injury. Naitanui is recovering from groin surgery, Kerr from a knee operation. The club says that pair won't be far away from selection for round one. The Eagles' depth, increased by the arrival of Jamie Cripps (St Kilda) and Cale Morton (Melbourne) plus the improved fitness of Brad Sheppard and Ash Smith, affords them the opportunity to be conservative in selection of sore players.

The Eagles have not played in a grand final since the 2006 flag, which triggered the ''breaking bad'' phase from which they did not recuperate until 2011. In 2013, their recovery can be completed.

6 comments so far

  • I watched the Eagles quite a bit last year, and they certainly have plenty of talent at both ends, and their midfield is getting better and better. But at times, they looked totally lost on the MCG. Sure, Sydney couldn't crack a win out there until the final Saturday of September, but at times the Eagles went missing. In the Semi final against the Pies, only Daniel Kerr stood up. Cox and Naitanui weren't gigantic the way they are in Perth. Nor could they orchestrate any decent forward line setup. It's one thing to dominate at Subiaco, but you need to win on the G. If they finish top 2 and nail a home final, all of that accounts for squat of course. Until the grand final, in which case they'll need to fluke it.

    The same applies to Docklands based teams. North are in this category. Apart from Essendon in 2000, no Docklands based team has won a flag. The Dogs and Saints were found out in the finals.

    Commenter
    Alosondro Alegre
    Date and time
    March 03, 2013, 4:08PM
    • booooooorrrrrrring

      Commenter
      robby
      Location
      melb
      Date and time
      March 03, 2013, 8:45PM
      • Agree that the Eagles are probably the number #1 challengers in 2013, but as reigning premiers the Swans have shown they are not to be underestimated. The Magpies are surely not far far behind, and must be hungry.
        As for the Hawks, this is probably their last shot (and it's probably Buddy's last year in brown & gold). Are they hurting enough from 2012? Can they finally beat their nemesis Geelong? If so then MAYBE the self-belief will be sufficient. We'll soon see!

        Commenter
        Russell
        Location
        Melbourne
        Date and time
        March 03, 2013, 9:55PM
        • Agree that the Eagles are probably the number #1 challengers in 2013, but as reigning premiers the Swans have shown they are not to be underestimated. The Magpies are surely not far far behind, and must be hungry.
          As for the Hawks, this is probably their last shot (and it's probably Buddy's last year in brown & gold). Are they hurting enough from 2012? Can they finally beat their nemesis Geelong? If so then MAYBE the self-belief will be sufficient. We'll soon see!

          Commenter
          Russell
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          March 03, 2013, 9:59PM
          • May the richest club win

            Commenter
            Getting pointless
            Location
            victoria
            Date and time
            March 03, 2013, 10:39PM
            • well written article.

              as an eagles supporter i agree with you that all our hopes are reliant on our midfield, however while i think they will step it up this year i'm not convinced we will be premiership material.

              our first two games are massive. win them both and we could easily go through the first half of the season undefeated.

              Commenter
              ryan
              Location
              perth
              Date and time
              March 04, 2013, 4:35AM

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