EAST Fremantle and Claremont were both not too far out of the WAFL finals in 2017 and with two experienced and well-regarded coaches at the helm, it shapes as a terrific contest at East Fremantle Oval on Saturday.
The Sharks were playing their first season under Rob Wiley in 2016 and things started encouragingly as they won six of their opening nine games including emphatic wins over the top two teams at the end of the season, Subiaco and South Fremantle.
However, they went on to win just three of their last 11 games to miss out on finals but they still weren’t far off the mark. East Fremantle could still have made the finals with a final round win over East Perth.
Now entering 2017, the Sharks will be looking to build on that and in his second season, Wiley will be eyeing off a finals appearance with a first up win over the Tigers to give them a perfect start.
Claremont might have won just seven games in 2016 to miss the finals but of the Tigers 13 losses, eight of them were by eight points or less.
Things could so easily have turned out differently in what turned out to be Michael Broadbridge's last season in charge as coach.
Darren Harris has now been given the task of leading the Tigers forward in his first time at the helm of a WAFL club since he left West Perth at the end of 2005. His coaching stint there included the 2003 premiership.
The Sharks and Tigers played one another three times in 2016 and it was the away team winning on each occasion. Claremont won at East Fremantle Oval by 39 points in Round 5 and 99 in Round 22. East Fremantle won in between at the Showground by five points in horrible conditions in Round 10.
East Fremantle has managed to do a good job over the pre-season minimising the disruption to their playing group as well.
Versatile big man James Bristow is really the only regular player from their league team last year to have departed. The role of No. 1 ruckman for Round 1 will go to the returning Cameron Symonds.
While the Sharks haven’t seen too many players depart, some of their most important members in the form of George Hampson and Brock O'Brien both will miss the early part of the season through injury.
The Sharks do welcome back Jonathon Marsh from Collingwood who will settle into the back-line alongside key defenders Dylan Winton, Sam Read and Matthew Jupp, and Ryan Lester-Smith and Jayden Schofield who set up play well.
The midfield again looks strong made up of Cameron Eardley, Liam Anthony, Jesse Crichton, Sean Henson, Dion Anthony and at times captain Jamie McNamara.
It's the forward-line that the Sharks need the biggest improvement from but the makings of plenty of goals is there with the likes of Matthew Watson, Brett Peake, Jack Perham and Andrew Howson.
Claremont, too, has managed to consolidate much of its playing group from last year despite big man Darcy Cameron being drafted into the AFL by the Sydney Swans, and Francis Watson and Jake Waterman both joining West Coast.
Tom Lee is a significant return from St Kilda but is unlikely to play in Round 1 due to a shoulder injury. Fellow recruits Charlie Le Fanu (Subiaco), Anthony Morabito (Fremantle) and Nick Winmar (returning) won't be there against the Sharks either.
Premiership defender Jesse Laurie is back, though, and Claremont also gets Aaron Holt and Ryan Neates after they finished 2016 injured on the sidelines.
Claremont will also be blooding plenty of young talent this year and Morgan Davies, Bailey Banfield, Matt Guelfi and Ryan Murphy are all in the squad for Round 1.
With two squads that didn’t miss finals by much last year and have maintained their groups quite well over summer, it will be a terrific battle to see who gets off to a winning start.
EAST FREMANTLE v CLAREMONT – EAST FREMANTLE OVAL, SATURDAY 2.15PM
Selected teams, live stats
Broadcast – HFM 107.3FM