West Coast sharpshooter Jack Darling has put the reason for his slow start to the 2022 season down to injury, not the pre-season stint that saw him banished from training due to his hesitancy to receive a COVID vaccine.
Under AFL's mandated vaccine requirements last year, Darling was unable to use the facilities at Lathlain Park as he opted to not receive the jab.
That decision was revealed in January last year, with Darling eventually accepting his initial vaccination for COVID midway through March on the eve of their season opener against the Gold Coast Suns.
The long lay-off was extended when Darling suffered a foot injury that kept him sidelined for Round 1, adding to an extensive casualty ward at the Eagles.
Self-described as "really underdone" heading into the match, Darling would still put his hand up to play for the undermanned Eagles to make his return following an interrupted pre-season.
Darling would record six disposals and kick no goals in the Round 2 loss, a vein of form that continued throughout the opening half of the season.
A rib injury would also hinder his maiden showing of the year, with Darling telling his club's website that the injury toll had a significant impact on the opening rounds of his 12th season in the blue and gold.
“I was really underdone coming back with the foot issue but I put my hand up to play. It took me a while to get into it,” Darling told Eagles media.
“The first game against North Melbourne I cracked a rib as well, so that wasn't nice. I tried wearing a rib guard for the next four-to-six weeks to help me deal with that.
"...With a rib guard on it protected it a fair bit but in the back of your head it plays on your mind a little bit."
Darling would end the year with 34 goals from 21 matches, his lowest goals tally since 2015 (not including shortened 2020 campaign) - when he was limited to just 15 matches for the year.
His struggles would align with West Coast's, with the Eagles enduring a two-win season to finish 17th on the ladder.
The club is now turning to youth, seeing veteran pair Josh Kennedy and Jack Redden hang up the boots at the end of last year.
Kennedy and Darling formed a lethal pair to currently sit first and third on the club's all-time goals leaderboard, with a significant void now open next to Darling in Adam Simpson's forward 50.
Darling said the loss of his parter-in-crime will be felt in 2023, but the veteran forward is backing young tall Oscar Allen to step up this year.
“JK and I worked really well together. It's going to definitely feel different,” Darling said.
“I was the one who would venture out to the wings whereas he would stay a bit deeper, especially the last few years.
“I'm looking forward to playing with Oscar. He's shown he can take a good mark and he's a pretty reliable set shot, so hopefully we get more delivery next year and he can try and open up the game for us a bit more out on the wings and kick some goals.
“JK was a very good, very smart forward as well with his leading patterns, so I learnt a lot off JK.
“He's going to be very missed around the club. He was the spiritual leader around the boys.”
Darling will have his eyes set on a Round 1 appearance in 2023 when the Eagles again travel to Marvel Stadium to face North Melbourne.