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Footy Fix: Hawks host Eagles

Rohan Connolly is at Etihad Stadium to preview Friday night's clash between Hawthorn and West Coast, and all the rest of the round 13 action.

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To say that the footy pundits were "bullish" about West Coast’s prospects for 2013 would if anything be an understatement.

Just what has happened to the pre-season flag fancy, one enticing enough to have had no fewer than seven of 17 tipsters... nominate West Coast to win the flag? 

Despite Sydney’s premiership win, despite Hawthorn remaining the flag favourite for this season in the early markets and despite the fact that West Coast hadn’t finished in the top four, it was the Eagles who seemed to have the most people jumping on the bandwagon, this observer as enthusiastically as any.

Speculation surrounds the future of Eagles coach John Worsfold.

Speculation surrounds the future of Eagles coach John Worsfold. Photo: Getty Images

In real terms, West Coast had fallen from fourth in 2011 to fifth last year, yet the "buts" were significant. They’d managed to hang in there in the face of a horror injury run, denied the services of Mark LeCras and Mark Nicoski all season, and Josh Kennedy, Andrew Embley and Matt Rosa for considerable periods.

There was a deep midfield and with significant parts of it seemingly still on the improve – particularly Luke Shuey, Scott Selwood, Chris Masten and Andrew Gaff, the latter so much so I was happy to nominate him as my "emerging star" in The Age’s Footy 2013 magazine.

All reasoning which looks more than a little sick right now. Indeed, come Friday night’s game against Hawthorn at Etihad Stadium, the Eagles won’t just be jousting with another top team, but doing so from outside the top eight, desperate merely to maintain any chance of appearing in September at all, let alone the final Saturday.

Storied veteran Andrew Embley, left, and feted youngster Andrew Gaff, right, have been below their best in an underperforming Eagles midfield.

Storied veteran Andrew Embley, left, and feted youngster Andrew Gaff, right, have been below their best in an underperforming Eagles midfield. Photo: Pat Scala

Just what has happened to the pre-season flag fancy, one enticing enough to have had no fewer than seven of 17 tipsters in that magazine nominate West Coast to win the flag, and 10 have them at least playing off on grand final day?

Injuries have again been a factor, with critical big man Nic Naitanui absent until round six, team leader Beau Waters only managing four games, likewise Collingwood recruit Sharrod Wellingham, while Nicoski is still to appear at all.

But perhaps the injuries have also become something of a psychological crutch for some still on the park, particularly around the ball. For while West Coast’s forward line and defence have managed to at least hold the fort, its much-vaunted midfield depth has been found sadly wanting.

The Eagles’ ball players simply haven’t been able to get their hands on the footy nearly enough, the team currently ranked second-last in the competition for average disposals. Just as, if not more significantly, when they do get their hands on the pill, it’s under a lot more pressure and not being nearly as damaging.

That’s reflected clearly in the numbers for uncontested possession and disposal efficiency. At this stage last season, West Coast ranked sixth for percentage of uncontested possession. It’s currently dead last. Its disposal efficiency to the same stage of 2012 was 74.6 per cent, second-best in the AFL. Currently, it’s 17th.

It appears opponents have learned to apply much better pressure to the Eagles’ runners, but also that those same West Coast culprits haven’t been prepared to work hard enough to find the necessary space to receive and use the ball without too much heat upon them.

On an individual level, wingman Gaff is perhaps the best example. He’s been watched far more closely in 2013, the likes of Carlton’s Ed Curnow and even low-profile Saint Sam Dunnell managing to shut him down.
This time last year, Gaff was averaging 26 disposals, 20 of them uncontested, with disposal efficiency of 77 per cent. Those respective figures now are 18, 12 and 71 per cent, a dramatic decline.

Shuey and Scott Selwood, winner of the Eagles’ best and fairest last year, have also come back to the field. Shuey is actually winning more football this season, but using it far worse, his disposal efficiency having fallen from 79 to 70 per cent. Ditto for Selwood, who efficiency percentage has slipped from 81 to just 69.

What we’re watching at the moment is arguably the competition’s biggest "flat-track bully", all of the Eagles’ six victories to date coming against the bottom six teams on the ladder, the most recent a lucky four-point win over the hardly intimidating St Kilda.

And the fortress which their Subiaco home used to be has become more of a liability in 2013, four of their five losses on that allegedly most difficult turf for opponents from interstate.

A mere glance at West Coast’s draw indicates it’s going to be an uphill battle, not only against the Hawks, but to avoid having their season wind up in August. After Friday's clash with the Hawks come games against Essendon, Adelaide (away), better-performed local rival Fremantle, then Sydney.

There’s only a short and slight easing of that pressure before three of their four final games against Essendon again, Geelong and Collingwood. And hardly a record thus far to offer much hope of a dramatic revival.

The pre-season optimism about the Eagles came against a backdrop of a distinctly unimpressive summer campaign, in which West Coast looked lethargic. What few sceptics there were saw the danger signs, most of us preferring instead to see a team pacing itself until the serious stuff began.

Right now, it appears the doubters had it right, and if the maxim you play as well as you train continues to hold, there’s a lot of us football pundits out there standing to look pretty silly only a couple of months from now.