MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JULY 15: Andrew Gaff (L) Brad Sheppard, Mark Hutchings and Jack Darling of the Eagles (R) during the round 17 AFL match between the Collingwood Magpies and the West Coast Eagles at Melbourne Cricket Ground on July 15, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

It’s been a torrid two years for West Coast midfielder Mark Hutchings

Hampered by injuries, the Eagles premiership tagger has played only three matches in the last 18 months after succumbing to an iliotibial band injury in his knee at the end of the 2019 season.

Hutchings had to wait until Round 14 of last year until he could play again, but was sidelined soon after with another soft tissue injury that put an end to his 2020 season. 

Making his return to football this season with a stint of matches in the WAFL, the 30-year-old midfielder will finally make his return to the first team in this Saturday’s high-stakes match against his former club St Kilda

The fact is he’s worked really hard,” Eagles Head Coach Adam Simpson said in a press conference on Friday.

His body has been a bit disrupted this year with his continuity, but he’s had some good WAFL form.

“He’s been building; it’s just taken a while to get to the point where he was going to be available. He’s back in the side, and the boys are pretty happy about that.”

Known for his exceptional work rate and selflessness with the football in hand, Hutchings is one of the best shutdown midfield options in the League. His resume speaks for itself, having nullified multiple A-grade players throughout his career, including Joel Selwood and Marcus Bontempelli

And he’s continued to dominate in the WAFL this season, averaging 26 disposals per match, while making 25 tackles, 36 marks and scoring five goals over the course of only seven matches. 

He has certainly earned his place in the side this weekend. But is he what the Eagles need right now? 

After a tough year of inconsistent form, the Eagles have a chance to put more space between them and the chasing pack of clubs on the cusp of breaking into the top eight. 

A loss for the West Coast could see either Essendon, St Kilda, Richmond, or Fremantle catch them on 36 points and further jeopardise their chances of making finals this season. 

Although, taking four points from an in-form St Kilda side will not be an easy task for the Eagles. 

In recent weeks, Brett Ratten’s side have comfortably torn through all of Richmond, Collingwood and Brisbane, playing some fast and attractive football along the way. 

It’s a worrying time to take on the Saints, especially since St Kilda gallantly fought back to kick seven straight goals past the Eagles in Round 4 - utterly blowing the Eagles off the park in the second half. 

As that match progressed, the Saints built up more momentum leading into the fourth quarter. Turning the ball over in the centre of the park, Brett Ratten’s side broke in numbers and overran the dishevelled Eagles midfield, who were quite simply left dead in the water. 

That’s where the Eagles have struggled to gain a foothold in games this season and arrest momentum away from sides who attack at pace and efficiently distribute the ball through their hands.

The issue for the Eagles is that this has been a recurring problem this season, particularly after the mid-season bye.

The Eagles failed to disrupt the run of play against the Western Bulldogs and Sydney in rounds 15 and 16 and then also failed to get numbers to the contest against North Melbourne one week later.

When it comes to defending, the Eagles are the worst team in the competition, being ranked bottom of the league for total tackles while also conceding a score from 83.9% of turnovers inside their defensive 50 - the highest in the League. 

But Mark Hutchings might be the answer to those defensive problems.

Clogging up the midfield, his defensive skill sets could provide the Eagles with much greater stability across the centre of the park.

Adam Simpson admitted during his press conference that Hutchings' defensive presence was a "definite" reason to bring him back into the side. 

It’s his ability to lock someone down, he’s fit, he’s a good runner, he’s mature as well,” the Eagles boss said.

All the things that are pretty predictable with him he needs to bring. That’s our expectation.”

Having a specialist defensive-midfielder like Hutchings plugging the corridor, the  West Coast will be better placed to win more turnovers higher up the field and spin the tide of momentum back onto other sides coming towards them at pace.

Hutchings can also operate to inhibit sides from providing their forward lines with good service inside 50.

On Saturday, it's likely we'll see him try to smother Saints midfielder Jack Steele. Steele currently sits 13th in the AFL rankings for most inside 50s and there's no doubt he'll be looking to supply gun forward Max King at the top of the goal square.

For that reason, I think Mark Hutchings could be the missing piece of the puzzle for the West Coast heading into the back-end of the season.