Why finals-bound Eagles are deserved favourites
THE IPSWICH Eagles are flying high atop the QFA Division 3 ladder, and appear primed to break a premiership hoodoo as the clear-cut favourites after 13 rounds.
After being outclassed by Division 2-bound Victoria Point in the grand final last year, coach Kym Mansell cast his net far and wide in search of the talent required to push the Eagles over the hump in 2018.
And the early signs point to a successful recruiting drive by the man moving the magnets at Limestone Park.
Drafting in a state league midfielder from Tasmania, a regular 100-goal key forward from Gladstone and two QAFL regulars out of Broadbeach was always going to boost the talent profile of the Eagles.
But how Mansell has managed to fit those players seamlessly into the 22, while still keeping the core of the Eagles' 2017 squad intact has been the key recipe for success.
"It's not easy," Mansell said following the Eagles' 143-point drubbing of Redcliffe on Saturday.
"People look at Div 3 footy and may say whatever, but there's a lot of stress that comes with (coaching).
"Me and the coaching staff don't just wait for people to walk in off the street. We go and chase players.
"It comes down to hard work."
Former Devonport ball-winner Trent McCrossen joined the Eagles late in pre-season, and has only managed a handful of games to this point of the year. But when he does pull on the blue and yellow strip, the already potent Ipswich midfield finds another gear.
The starting midfield trio of McCrossen, reigning best and fairest winner Keith Brick, and classy mover Matt Sheridan is without peer in the Eagles' division.
But as Geelong AFL fans have become acutely aware, a midfield is only as good as the big man providing them service.
And Mansell is spoilt for choice with former Geelong Falcon Nick Barling and first-year skipper Adam Irwin.
"Adzy (Irwin) is probably a bit stronger around the ground, and Barling better in the middle. They're two different types of ruckmen," Mansell said.
"(Barling) is very smart about the way he plays. He knows where to run and how to use his body, he just has good skills.
"It was hard to con him into playing, but once he made that decision to give it his all, you could see the change in his footy.
"Adam is just constantly consistent."
Broadbeach duo Jack Boston and Hayden Carthew-Zimmer dominated in transition against Redcliffe at the weekend, "absolutely owning the wings" according to their happy coach.
But it is the acquisition of former Gladtone Mudcrab Zachary Jahn which has undoubtedly provided the biggest boost.
The full forward is without peer inside 50 this season, boasting a staggering 90 goals from just 12 matches to lead the competition by 22 majors from the next-best player.
Jahn will almost certainly become the first-ever Eagles player to kick 100 goals in a season, needing (just) 10 goals from the final three rounds to secure the rare feat.
But it is not just Jahn's penchant for kicking bags of goals which has impressed his coach.
"He's made a huge difference," Mansell said.
"He kicks the goals yes, but he also draws two, three opposition players into his space which ideally leaves us another one or two players spare.
"They're so focused on Zach now, the other forwards are getting more opportunities.
"That's why (against Redcliffe) Zach Lawrence kicked three goals, and Cam Viney kicked four goals.
"The other thing about Jahn is he's very unselfish. He's probably handed off about 30 goals this year when he could have kicked them himself."
Going at 7.5 goals per game, Jahn is the focal point of the competition's most prodigious attack.
Despite leading the competition in scoring by more than 200 points, Mansell, ever the perfectionist, is adamant the Eagles forward line still room to improve ahead of the finals.
"I wouldn't say it's a well-oiled machine. It's at about 80%," he said.
"There's probably little moments where we get too excited and blaze away. But by the time finals come around, it will be just right."
Against an undefeated Redcliffe Reserves on Saturday, the Eagles Reserves led by six points at the final change before eventually falling by 12 points.
It was the Reserves' first loss since they last faced Redcliffe back in May, and they are tracking nicely for a top-two finish.
All signs are pointing to positive finals performances from both sides, with playing depth all of a sudden an obvious strength down at Limestone Park.
And it is making Mansell's life at the selection table that much trickier.
"It's getting harder. It's getting really hard actually," he said.
"We still had five players out this week (in seniors). And the Reserves had to name six emergencies. Which means it will get harder in the next few weeks."
With a bye this weekend before a blockbuster away trip to face finals rivals Kedron, Mansell predicted the tempo would tip at training as players push to secure their place in the 22.
"I reckon there will be a bit more urgency after this week," he said.
"If I had five players out (on Saturday), that means five may have to go down, and another five out of the Reserves.
T-1st - Wins (11 from 13)
1st - Points scored (1637 at 125.9 p/g)
1st - Points against (697 at 53.6 p/g)
1st - Goals scored (250 at 19.2 p/g)
1st - Scoring accuracy (250.137 at 64.5%)