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Lighter, fitter, wiser Darling eyeing 2018 repeat

Jack Darling believes he’s on track to repeat his career-best form of 2018

STAR West Coast forward Jack Darling is fitter and lighter than last season, and intent on reclaiming the career-best form which saw him dominate the competition in the first half of 2018.

Darling returned to training earlier than required after the Grand Final triumph, keen to get a head start on preparations for the premiership defence.

The 26-year-old, who admitted he still gets nervous watching the decider against the Pies, stepped out of Josh Kennedy’s shadow in 2018 and emerged as the main man in the Eagles’ forward line before suffering a serious ankle injury in round 11.

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Darling booted 28 goals in the opening nine games and finished the season with 48 majors – five shy of his personal-best tally from 2012.

While he struggled to recapture his peak form in the back half of last year, the 191cm big man’s self-belief has skyrocketed.

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“It helps confidence, yeah. For me personally, I’d like to get back into form and that will certainly help the team,” Darling said.

“Just knowing my role (helps). The confidence in my body and chemistry with teammates and stuff like that.

“Getting a bit older now so I’ve been in those situations a few times and know where I need to be and stuff like that. Hopefully I can regain that form this year.

“I think my results in the 2km and skinfolds are probably a little bit better than last year, so might be on to something with a bit of a longer break.”

“I think my results in the 2km (time trial) and skinfolds are probably a little bit better than last year, so might be onto something with a bit of a longer break.”

More than three months since the Grand Final, Darling still struggles to watch the epic comeback against the Pies and asked family to switch the replay off on Christmas Day.

“It was a pretty intense game,” Darling said.

“It didn’t really feel like our day. Collingwood, I felt like we’d kick one, then they’d kick one or two. Their start was obviously great. I just feel like it was a great game to be part of, really.

“I get nervous if I watch it again. I don’t really like it.

“It was on Christmas day and my brothers-in-law were trying to watch it and I told them to turn it off, just because I want to enjoy the day.”

Darling’s third quarter heroics – when he clunked six marks, including four contested, and booted a crucial goal – helped drag the Eagles back into Grand Final.

But the sitter he dropped on the edge of the goalsquare in the dying stages could have cost West Coast dearly.

“I just turned around to see if I could play on and kick the goal, but I just turned my head a bit too early and that caused me to fumble the ball. It was a bit of a mistake and I was glad it didn’t cost us,” he said.

“They had a kick out and (Luke) Shuey marked it and I felt fairly safe then when he marked that.

“I think I heard the crowd rise a little bit before the siren, and once the siren went it was one of the best feelings.”

The Eagles’ new Lathlain nest looking very impressive. Footy dept should be settled in before rd1.

— Travis King (@TravisKing) January 14, 2019

Darling, whose second child is due any day, has noticed pre-season training intensity lift with those outside the Grand Final side pushing hard for spots.

Several senior players remain on restricted programs, but Darling was confident Kennedy would be ready to go by round one after off-season shoulder surgery.

The dual Coleman medallist tested himself in one-on-one marking work against former teammate Drew Petrie at Lathlain Park on Monday, however small Jamie Cripps (foot) was absent again.

“It’s going to be a little bit different with (retired forward) Mark LeCras (not) out there, and I think Jamie Cripps might be struggling to get to round one, but we’ll wait and see with that,” Darling said.

“He’s (LeCras) usually driving the standards and his education to the young guys, so blokes like Willie (Rioli) and Liam Ryan they’ve got to step up with their communication and pass on knowledge to the newcomers.”

Key defender Tom Barrass (foot) and Daniel Venables (knee) remain sidelined from training, however dual club champion Elliot Yeo (toe) joined Nic Naitanui (knee) and Brayden Ainsworth (finger) in a power of running work.

The Eagles were put through their paces in confined space ball movement exercises on Monday as they plot how to stay ahead of the chasing pack, with coach Adam Simpson back from holidays overseeing training for the first time in 2019.