Chris Kowald reporting for AFANA from Optus Stadium, Perth
Optus Stadium became an over sized pressure cooker as the temperature rose to 87 degrees Fahrenheit and the Eagles used sizzling ball movement to overcome a wounded but resolute Fremantle Dockers. A record Perth crowd of 56,521 witnessed scintillating football with several dashes of spice, which forced umpires to extinguish spot fires, as tempers rose and passions boiled over.
The much anticipated battle between Aaron Sandilands and Nic Naitanui delivered everything it promised as they traded tap outs to give their respective midfielders an edge. When both players headed to the benches for a breather, the Eagles had back-up with Scott Lycett who, against veteran defender Michael Johnson, set up West Coast to win the ruck clearances. The Dockers felt the absence of developing big man, Matt Taberner, up forward and as spare ruckman and then had salt rubbed in the wound when star forward Michael Walters injured a knee in the first quarter.
The Dockers started nervously as the Eagles midfield chased and tackled. A bumbled attack led to a turnover to the Eagles’ and Chris Masten delivered to Josh Kennedy who marked (caught the ball) and kicked truly to score the first goal; and become the highest ever goal scorer for West Coast. The Dockers responded by repelling Eagle attacks and running the ball out of defense and weaving through the Eagles’ defensive mid-field web. West Coast relied on bombing the ball long to their tall forwards, Jack Darling and Kennedy, thus giving Docker defenders, Joel Hamling and Alex Pearce, invitations to spoil marks (by punching the ball away). By the end of the quarter the tactic had gained the Dockers four consecutive goals as Walters (two score involvements) Ed Langdon, Brandon Matera and David Mundy all found the big opening.
In the second quarter the Eagles matched and then bettered the Dockers with contested possessions. They used cleaner ball handling to work free of packs and shoot the ball to players in open space, who then pinpointed either Darling or Kennedy with silver service. Darling picked up three goals for the quarter and threatened to break the game open. The Dockers then slowed the tempo of the game, partly to stop the Eagles’ run and partly to conserve energy as they were a man down for bench rotations. With less run, and the sparkle of Walters missing, the Dockers butchered their forward entries and Shannon Hurn and Jeremy McGovern ruled the air by taking intercept marks from long kicks. The Dockers only goal for the term came early, when Cameron McCarthy marked after Nat Fyfe had muscled the ball from a center bounce.
Fremantle lifted their appetite for the ball in the third quarter and the teams traded goals as the respective midfielders fought for space at the table. Lachie Neale was as ravenous as ever for the Dockers and the Eagles’ Andrew Gaff and Jack Redden showed an almost unhealthy of appetite for leather. The Dockers closed midfield spaces forcing the Eagles to kick high to their big forwards who were unable to mark when mobbed by defenders. A missed set shot after the siren by the normally reliable Docker veteran, David Mundy, set the recipe for an engrossing final course with the Dockers just one goal behind.
The final stanza had the crowd at fever pitch as the teams, again, traded goals. The Dockers pressed the ball into their forward line for long periods, but with fatigue creeping in, they again butchered opportunities and the Eagles feasted on rare crumbs with consecutive majors to Elliot Yeo and Josh Kennedy. With five minutes to go Nat Fyfe missed a goal he should have kicked but still the Dockers did not give concede. Their young players Adam Cerra, Andrew Brayshaw, Connor Blakely and Mitchell Crowden continued to push the ball into attack, with Hayden Ballantyne and Darcy Tucker scoring majors. The siren sounded as Tucker was preparing to ice the Dockers’ final attack.
The Eagles had added grit to their game to stamp themselves as final contenders. The Dockers’ resolve suggests sweeter results will be coming their way as their young players mature. Next week the Eagles welcome Port Adelaide Power to Optus Stadium in what should be another crucial test of strength. Fremantle travel to the MCG to test the rampaging Richmond Tigers' appetite for another Premiership cup.
Scores Fremantle Dockers: 4.3 5.4 9.7 12.9 (81) West Coast Eagles: 1.1 6.6 10.7 13.11 (89) Best Fremantle Dockers: Neale, Blakely, A Pearce, Langdon, Fyfe West Coast Eagles: Hurn, Redden, Gaff, Shuey, McGovern
Article last changed on Monday, April 30, 2018 - 1:22 PM EDT