West Coast coach Adam Simpson expects the next block of matches to sort the contenders from the pretenders, and has labelled the 51st RAC Derby a “massive game” for both clubs.
With six rounds down, only two wins separates second on the ladder from 17th in one of the most even and unpredictable campaigns in recent memory.
Both the Eagles (3-3) and Fremantle (2-4) are coming off back-to-back victories and within striking distance of the top eight entering their sole clash for 2020 this Sunday.
Fremantle will host the contest in front of 30,000 fans, with former West Coast assistant Justin Longmuir set to take on Simpson in the coaches box for the first time.
“It’s a whole new side since we played them last. Obviously a new coach, they’re playing with lots of spirit and they would have bonded and connected on their trip (to Queensland) as well,” Simpson told Channel Seven.
“Massive game for both clubs winning a couple in a row each of us. The season will really sort itself out in the next few weeks, so this game is huge.”
Star midfielder Luke Shuey (hamstring) is racing the clock to return from one week on the sidelines and lead the side in champion forward Josh Kennedy’s 250th career match.
Shuey is one of five current Eagles – including former captain Shannon Hurn, Brad Sheppard, Andrew Gaff and Jack Darling – who has played in each of the past nine victories over Fremantle.
“I’m not going to write him off just yet. He might be able to run around on main training on Thursday, see how we go,” Simpson said.
After more than a month away from home, the Eagles returned to Perth just before midnight on Saturday and will take on the Dockers while under strict 14-day quarantine conditions.
West Coast’s travelling party formed strong bonds in Queensland and are now faced with a new challenge of continuing their momentum while adhering to WA government and AFL protocols.
“The club is a little bit different with the isolation and the quarantining but good to be home,” Simpson said.
“Obviously we didn’t have our families (in Queensland) but we had each other and staff, it was a very tight group by the end of the trip.
“We had five weeks together where we pretty much lived and trained and played together, now we’ve come home and we are spending a lot more time with our families but we’re isolated at the club.
“We can only be in groups of eight and probably don’t get that connection we had. We give and get, I suppose, and that’s what it’s going to be like all year.”