West Coast forward Willie Rioli is officially back in the AFL fold, allowed to train with the Eagles for the next two months ahead of the end of his two-year ban for tampering with a drug sample.
The club’s decision to retain the troubled forward on its playing list will divide opinion amongst supporters and general observers of sport.
There will be those who will be pleased to see the club wrap its arms around a talented player who made mistakes, while the opposing side would point to the past and say the club should have cut ties and moved on.
The debate hinges on a differing of opinion around the question of whether the Eagles should be protecting and supporting a player who attempted to take drugs through an airport while serving a two-year ban for tampering with a urine sample.
‘We’re a pretty empathetic industry’
The Eagles have been consistent in their messaging around Rioli over the past two years.
In the aftermath of his initial suspension in 2019, West Coast chairman Russell Gibbs said Rioli’s welfare was the club’s priority.
“He’s one of our players and he’s very much an important part of the list,” Gibbs said in September of that year.
“Our priority, therefore, is making sure Willie’s welfare is looked after.”
It’s important to note that he had not been found guilty of substituting a urine sample during ASADA drug testing at that stage.
The language from the Eagles in recent weeks has suggested Rioli’s welfare remains the club’s priority, despite his recent indiscretion.
Again, it’s important to note he escaped conviction in court, instead receiving a 12-month good behaviour bond.
“We think we’ve got a really strong culture. And it’s not built off one person and one person’s mistakes.”
‘I think our culture’s shifted’
The Eagles have gone to lengths to separate the current issues surrounding Rioli from the dark days of the middle of last decade.
“I see them as two completely different situations,” Simpson said.
“I don’t think Willie Rioli is connected to the past and I think our culture’s shifted.”
It’s hard to argue with that. The club has fostered a mantra of ‘friends, family and flags’ under Simpson and delivered a premiership while playing in another decider.
But the events of the mid-2000s — and the subsequent issues surrounding fallen star Ben Cousins — is a blight on a club that otherwise has rarely put a foot wrong.
How the club manages Rioli’s reintegration into the playing squad — and how it helps rehabilitate him — will be evidence of whether the club has actually learnt from the past.
Depending on what relationships he still needs to repair within the playing squad, there is every chance Rioli will play at AFL level this season if the Eagles consider themselves a genuine chance of a premiership.
That is something Eagles fans should be excited about. Rioli is probably in the side’s best 22 players and is a genuine X-factor — something West Coast has been missing.
His ability on the football field would have played into the Eagles’ decision, and so it should.
AFL teams are in the business of winning — although not at any cost — and one consideration from West Coast would have been whether other clubs would have considered taking Rioli.
It’s safe to say there would have been.
That fear of coming up against Rioli at some point would have scared the Eagles’ football department, but as things have turned out, it’s other sides who will be casting a wary eye to the fixtures beyond August 20, when he is eligible to take the field.