The Kangaroos will be rueing their performance against Greater Western Sydney in Round 23, as it has set the stage for one of the toughest trips in football – the West Coast Eagles at Patersons Stadium.
Not only do they have to go and face a powerful side at their fortress, they have to do so when the stakes could not be higher. This is an elimination final, and the loser of this game will have a full stop put on their 2012 campaign.
But the Roos, and their coach Brad Scott, have belief. It’s not without cause. While they’ve lost to the Eagles on both occasions this season, North Melbourne have pushed them close both times – especially coming agonisingly close in round 15, when they went down to West Coast by 2 points.
On top of that, the Kangaroos have lost only 2 of their last 12 games. One was the aforementioned loss to the Eagles, the other a bad loss to the then rampaging Fremantle Dockers. So while they may not yet know how the West was won, they have a fair chance of finding out.
There have been accusations of the Kangaroos’ form tapering off after that loss to Fremantle, with last week’s game against the Giants a similarly flat performance. Their coach was obviously not pleased and has been in the news this week after giving veteran GWS recruit James McDonald a spray at quarter-time in their game. But during the week he has affirmed that the Kangaroos will not be backing down, talking up their chances of an upset victory.
Meanwhile, the Eagles have been steadily chugging along. While they haven’t hit the heights of their top of the ladder sittings in the first half of the season, they defeated fellow finalists Geelong, belted the top 4 Magpies, did the job against a lowly Port and weren’t embarrassed by a titanic Hawks outfit. The atmosphere against Collingwood and, after quarter-time, against Hawthorn was that of finals matches, leaving the Eagles well prepared to do battle in the higher intensity that is sure to be on display.
Make no mistake, this game will be a battle of the bigs. While both teams have good midfields, their talls are absolutely daunting. The Eagles recently welcomed back forward Josh Kennedy, who has only managed to play 7 games this year after receiving a serious injury in round 5 against Richmond. He has been rusty since his return – gathering only 16 possessions and 1 goal in the two games he has played, but he started the season in fine fashion, kicking 11 in his first four games. If he can get back to that form then it makes the Eagles all the more dangerous.
Even if he doesn’t, the combination of Quentin Lynch, Jack Darling and Dean Cox has been extremely effective without Kennedy in the frame. In their close win against the Kangaroos in their last outing, the trio kicked 80% of their teams goals. North Melbourne may have to go with 3 tall defenders to combat the firepower West Coast have up forward.
The Roos are no slouches either. Drew Petrie nearly won the Coleman medal and has kicked a few bags of 7 this season. He has been ably supported by Robbie Tarrant and Lachie Hansen, who is finally starting to show some of his immense potential. Even with defenders Darren Glass, Eric Mackenzie and Will Schofield in great form, it is no easy task.
The nightmare for North comes in the ruck though, as it does with most teams. Dean Cox, quite possibly the best ruckman in the competition, plays his 250th game on Sunday. His partner in crime Nic Naitanui is capable of the freakish at will and his leap and tap work are outstanding. Todd Goldstein will most likely have to go it alone for North – he might get the occasional chop-out from Drew Petrie, but will shoulder the majority of the load.
The midfields are a mix of young and old, with the likes of Andrew Gaff and Luke Shuey coupled with premiership players Daniel Kerr and Andrew Embley for the Eagles, while North has captain Andrew Swallow, Jack Ziebell and Ryan Bastinac mixed with the likes of Brent Harvey and Daniel Wells. Both sides have a good mix of in and under players along with outside runners and the battle will be close, but the Eagles edge in experience and class may tip the scales slightly.
North know they can match West Coast, but the roar of the Subiaco crowd may prove too much for them come Sunday. The Eagles will be fuming after losing a top 4 spot and their tough run and strong performances leading into the finals should be enough to get them over the line. The stage is set, both teams are ravenous and it should be a hell of a contest.
Eagles by 16.