The West Coast Eagles were one of footy’s feel-good stories of 2015.
They were expected to miss the finals for the second straight year under Adam Simpson – and that was before the season-long losses of key defenders Eric MacKenzie and Mitch Brown.
Forced into a re-jig of his back six, Simpson cobbled together a makeshift defence centred on mid-sized defenders – namely Shannon Hurn, Sharrod Wellingham and Brad Sheppard – playing on towering key forwards.
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It was a strategy that relied less on one-on-one contests and one that forced the smaller defenders to intercept and rebound.
Not only did it work – it took the league by storm.
That, in addition to an improving midfield, a star-studded forward line and an imposing home ground advantage, made the Eagles mighty tough to beat.
They stormed into the Grand Final as a result, only to falter on footy’s biggest day against a seriously well-drilled Hawthorn.
As the 2016 season dawns, the Eagles and their conquerors are the favourites for the flag.
But expectation will weigh heavily on West Coast on the eve of its 30th year.
This decade, the Eagles have performed at their best when expectation is at its lowest.
Their emergence in 2011 is the perfect example.
They not only rebounded from a wooden spoon and into the top eight, but reached the preliminary final – a leap not seen since Melbourne’s stunning 1998 season.
Injuries to Mark LeCras and Josh Kennedy hurt the Eagles in 2012 but with a healthy list in 2013, they were tipped by many as premiership fancies.
And the rhetoric surrounding West Coast has been very similar over the last few months.
With MacKenzie – the 2014 club champion – fit again, and new recruits Jack Redden and Lewis Jetta on board, the Eagles are tipped to improve.
But season 2013 is a cautionary tale for the Eagles.
Their game plan was worked out and they struggled from the outset, with John Worsfold ultimately resigning at the end of the season citing a lack of energy.
At least most of the Eagles players will be familiar with the expectation that comes with the tag of being a premiership fancy.
It is a concept that Simpson has drummed into his troops over the off-season.
“How to manage expectations is one of the challenges that we’ve got,” Simpson said earlier this month. “We get it’s a tough competition and there’s a lot of good teams who didn’t play finals last year.
“And even looking at some of the (NAB Challenge) games in the last few weeks — if we don’t improve, we’ll go backwards.”
West Coast’s list is the second-strongest in the league given its age and elite qualities, according to Champion Data.
And the Eagles have been blessed with a soft draw, ranked 10th hardest.
Things are looking good for the boys from the West.
Managing internal and external expectations appears to be their toughest challenge.
Cracking that code won’t be easy – but if Simpson can do it, West Coast’s first flag in a decade appears a very real chance.
Alex Paull also writes for footyprophet.com – football and fantasy analysis unravelled.