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Magic number no small task for Eagles forwards

Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski (left) are gone so West Coast needs Josh Hill - a whipping boy at times at the Western Bulldogs - to supply much-needed small forward goals.

Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski (left) are gone so West Coast needs Josh Hill - a whipping boy at times at the Western Bulldogs - to supply much-needed small forward goals.

If you had to guess West Coast's magic number for this year, what would you come up with?

"Nine" might be a popular choice - it's the number on the back of excitement machine Nic Naitanui's jumper, as well as the amount of games needed by John Worsfold to pass Mick Malthouse as the Eagles' longest-serving coach.

But a better guess might actually be "67".

In the past five AFL seasons, with increasing importance placed on forward line pressure and ground level goals, 67 is the fewest number of majors combined for by the two highest-scoring small forwards on any grand final team.

Against that backdrop, West Coast will try to better its preliminary final appearance of 2011 entirely without the services of Mark LeCras (knee reconstruction - 47 goals last year) and, for at least half the season, minus any contribution from Mark Nicoski (hamstring tear - 41 goals last year).

The two Marks' 88 combined goals last year ranked second for all AFL small forward pairings, behind only the 106 accumulated by Carlton's Andrew Walker and Eddie Betts.

So how does West Coast cover for the absence of LeCras and Nicoski?

The simplest answer is to throw your hands up and say "with a great deal of difficulty". A more useful exercise is to examine the wares of the potential replacements for the pair.

Off-season addition Josh Hill is the most obvious candidate. He had eight shots on goal in Saturday night's NAB Cup final loss (albeit converting only two) and kicked 33 goals (almost half the magic number) in his best AFL season for the Western Bulldogs in 2009.

The public knock on Hill in past two seasons, when he played only 24 of a possible 47 games for the Bulldogs, was that he wasn't physical enough, was prone to lapses in concentration and didn't pay enough attention to the defensive side of the game.

Former Bulldogs assistant coach and two-time Carlton premiership player Peter Dean says the 23-year-old probably earned each of those tags at times. But he still believes Hill can shine with a change of environment.

"I've got a lot of time for Josh. The past couple of years his confidence was down, he was in and out of the (Bulldogs) side and had a couple of pretty frank conversations with coaches that probably knocked him around a bit," Dean said.

"But I think you'll see him thrive over there. Being in a different system under a different coach will really help him and half-way through the year he should really emerge.

"He's got a big tank, reads the player very well, can take a mark and his ability to be in the right place to get the handball receive is pretty special I think.

"Because of his running ability, I always thought he'd be best on the wing or as a high half-forward. But if he gets a shot as the number one [small forward], yeah, I think he can make something of it."

Beyond Hill, the options are less clear. One of them is former rookie Ashton Hams, a low-to-the-ground type who has played 15 games in the past two seasons for 11 goals - the best of them a brilliant banana from the pocket last year against Brisbane at the Gabba.

With Brad Dick out with a knee injury until mid-season, the other potential "Mark II" replacement - Gerrick Weedon- is even more of an unknown quantity. The 20-year-old from Claremont has played just one AFL game (in round seven of last year) and only a few years ago was playing centre-half-back in junior football.

In physicality, Weedon offers one dimension that even the Marks don't provide. At 182cm and 86kg, he's strongly built and can take an overhead mark, as attested to by his last quarter grab and goal in the NAB Cup grand final.

Weedon played in Claremont's WAFL premiership side last year and Tigers football manager Dean Horsington believes the Broome product has clearly made strides in his readiness for AFL football.

"It's amazing what a couple of pre-seasons can do. He's big, strong, tackles hard and is good overhead. He's very physical," Horsington said.

Of course, there is also the option that the Eagles will look to get their "small forward" goals from elsewhere - and there is a close-to-home historical precedent for that too.

In 2006, West Coast won the premiership despite getting only a combined 22 goals for the season from their two most "prolific" small forwards in Steven Armstrong and Ashley Sampi.

Midfielders Chris Judd, Ben Cousins and Andrew Embley kicked 80 goals between them that season and switch-hitting centre-half-back Adam Hunter provided 29 majors.

Judd and Cousins are long gone but Embley is still around - he kicked 17 goals in his 2011 rejuvenation - and emerging midfield star Luke Shuey contributed 24 goals last year.

The Eagles also have the promising Jack Darling, who can play both tall and small, and the luxury of resting ruckmen Natanui and Cox in the forward line.

But whether they can find enough goals to cover for the absence of LeCras and Nicoski remains the proverbial $64,000 question.

Or, in this case, more like the 67-goal question.

Grand finalists since 2005 - small forwards pairings and goals:
2011 - Collingwood (Dane Swan, Andy Krakouer - 67*), Geelong (Steve Johnson, Travis Varcoe - 81)
2010 - Collingwood (Alan Didak/Leon Davis - 68), St Kilda (Stephen Milne/Adam Schneider 96)
2009 - Geelong (Paul Chapman/Steve Johnson - 77), St Kilda (Milne/Schneider 80)
2008 - Geelong (Johnson/Matthew Stokes - 91), Hawthorn (Mark Williams/Michael Osborne 73)
2007 - Geelong (Johnson/Stokes - 81), Port Adelaide (Brett Ebert/Daniel Motlop - 100)
2006 - Sydney (Ryan O'Keefe/Michael O'Loughlin 79), West Coast (Steven Armstrong, Ashley Sampi 22)

Lowest-producing small forward pairings in 2011 (with team finishing positions):
Gold Coast - (Danny Stanley, Brandon Matera 35 goals), 17th.
Adelaide - (Patrick Dangerfield, Matthew Wright 41), 14th.
Port Adelaide - (Robbie Gray, Daniel Motlop 48), 16th.
Fremantle - (Chris Mayne, Hayden Ballantyne 48), 11th.
Brisbane Lions - (Ash McGrath, Todd Banfield 50), 15th
Sydney Swans - (Ben McGlynn, Ryan O'Keefe 50), 6th.
North Melbourne - (Brent Harvey, Lindsay Thomas 52), 9th.

* Midfielder Swan was "rested" in the forward line last year and kicked 32 goals. Still, he gathered only 17 per cent of his possessions inside the forward 50 metres. Taking that into account, Collingwood's next most prolific small forward was Jarry Blair (26 goals), which would then make West Coast's magic number 61.

WA Today

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