MORE than just excitement machines, West Coast’s Liam Ryan and Willie Rioli have helped solve a problem that plagued the Eagles for years.
And the club’s bold recruitment of the duo could provide the ultimate reward when West Coast face Collingwood in Saturday’s AFL grand final.
Not since the mercurial Ashley Sampi racked up highlights in the early-mid 2000s has West Coast had a genuine crumbing forward with the ability of Ryan or Rioli.
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Quinten Lynch led the Eagles’ goalkicking in their 2006 premiership season, Mark LeCras was the main man in the late-2000s and twin towers Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling, along with LeCras and Jamie Cripps, have anchored the Eagles attack since.
But in the modern game, the need for speedy small forwards who can win the ball at ground level and apply defensive pressure has never been greater. Finally the Eagles have found the right mix.
Rioli had to lose 16kg before West Coast rolled the dice at pick No.52 in the 2016 national draft, and his first year was ruined by hamstring issues. But Rioli has thrived this season, booting 27 goals and quickly becoming a fan favourite with his freakish skills and clever ball use.
Ryan has only played 10 games in his debut season because of a serious ankle injury and then a club-imposed suspension but has similarly added a new dimension to the Eagles’ forward line with his high-flying marks and blistering pace.
The 21-year-old’s credentials were obvious. He was the leading goalkicker in the WAFL in 2017, booting 73 majors from 23 games for Subiaco.
Questions had been raised about his professionalism but the decision to select him at pick No.26 in last year’s draft has paid off handsomely for the Eagles.
Another debutant, 2016’s No.13 draft pick Daniel Venables, had been recruited as an onballer but has impressed up forward with his toughness and speed.
Together the trio have perfectly complemented key forwards Kennedy and Darling and the medium-sized LeCras and Cripps in the AFL’s most potent forward line.
A key factor in the Eagles’ success this season has been coach Adam Simpson’s willingness to take risks, blooding eight debutants and appearing to put more of his own stamp on the team.
Ryan, Venables and Jake Waterman were all selected to face Sydney in round one and a week later, Rioli became the fourth debutant in the new-look forward line.
“There’s not a heap of experience there but it’s exciting,” Simpson said at the time.
“We’ve gone past the nervous part. We’ll embrace the transition we’re in. Those guys … they’re going to get better with games.
“They’re going to have ups and downs – we’re OK with that.”