Have The WA Teams Regressed Away From Home?
There has been a consensus in the football world, one which seems logical enough, that in the modern AFL, travel and games away from home should be less problematic than they used to be.
That’s especially the case after last year, when the vast bulk of the competition, thanks to COVID, spent much of the season not only playing, but living permanently away from home for more than three months.
The obstacles were obvious, yet the grand final ended up contested by two teams in Richmond and Geelong, who by the time they played off for a premiership had played on their home grounds in just 4 of 21 games in the Tigers’ case, and for the Cats, 3 of 21.
When it comes to familiarity with life on the road then, you’d think no club would have the concept as down pat as West Coast. After all, the Eagles have been jumping on planes to play every fortnight for 35 seasons now since entering the still-VFL in 1987.
But it certainly doesn’t look the case at the moment for the Eagles, nor, for that matter, their Western Australian stablemate, Fremantle.
West Coast is 3-3 after six rounds, all its victories having come at home, all its losses away, and its performances in each of those defeats having declined swiftly.
After losing a nail-biter against the Western Bulldogs by only seven points in round two, the Eagles gave up a 33-point lead against St Kilda in round four, conceding the last eight goals of the game.
Last Saturday’s car crash against Geelong was far worse again, though, this time West Coast conceding a run of 13 consecutive goals to the Cats, who kicked 18 of the last 20 goals in the game. Horrendous stuff, and not surprising it prompted coach Adam Simpson to talk about being embarrassed and questioning his team’s effort.
The Dockers, meanwhile, until their ice-breaking win in Adelaide against the Crows, hadn’t looked a lot more capable in their road trips this season, two sloppy, error-riddled displays in Victoria against Melbourne and Carlton their only two defeats, Freo looking a completely different and far more confident outfit in four wins at home.
Have the Western Australian teams actually regressed in their ability to win on the road?
Supporters of both teams would argue this is a case where you can sometimes put two and two together and get 64.
Injuries to key players of both teams, particularly the Eagles, have loomed large over this season. Obviously, it’s harder to win when your best aren’t on the park regardless of where the game is.
West Coast was always going to be up against it at the most notoriously difficult to win venue in the competition without Luke Shuey, Josh Kennedy, Elliot Yeo, Liam Ryan or Shannon Hurn, then having Jeremy McGovern injured early in the piece.
The more difficult question to answer, though, is whether those absentees, coupled with an already tough challenge, make it easier for those players still out there to effectively throw up their hands and sub-consciously decide the task has become impossible. And those massive recent runs of goals conceded to opponents tend to suggest a side which has decided resistance is futile.
West Coast, remember, arguably struggled more with life in the hubs last year than any rival, awful in three straight losses to Gold Coast, Brisbane and Port Adelaide in Queensland before turning things around against a struggling Sydney and Adelaide, getting on a roll with the next six straight games at its own Optus Stadium and clocking up eight straight victories.
Back in the Queensland hub subsequently, its performance declined accordingly, the Eagles going 3-2 over the remaining five rounds, and its three wins all by just 15 points.
In Simpson’s six seasons as West Coast coach prior to last year, the Eagles had periods where they appeared to have a successful road routine nailed, most obviously in the premiership year of 2018, when they won 8 of 11 games outside Perth, including the grand final.
In their other grand final season of 2015, they won six and drew one of 11 away games, and in 2019 the scorecard was 6-5. With the exception of 2018, the figure has rarely been more than around a 50-50 split.
Fremantle’s travel record has been horrendous even in comparison to those barely adequate numbers. In four seasons from 2016-19, the Dockers won just seven of 39 games outside Perth.
Yes, it was a period in which the club had also undertaken a list rebuild under Ross Lyon. But the question for the Dockers is to what extent that sorry travel history plays on the mind of young, inexperienced players over the course of a four-hour plane trip.
It’s not an issue for either club this week, of course, another WA Derby looming at Optus Stadium. West Coast has won the last 10 of them. But Fremantle hasn’t had many better opportunities in recent times to end that sequence given the Eagles’ injury toll and its superior 4-2 win-loss tally.
A win for the Dockers would remove at least one psychological stumbling block as well as offer bragging rights. Equally, given the scale of West Coast’s capitulations in recent weeks and the depletion of its playing stocks, another Eagles derby win would be huge.
Yet you’d hope the joy of either at the win on Sunday will be tempered. Because unless they can make a far better fist of their games beyond Optus Stadium than they have been, big wins in front of adoring home crowds will be a moot point, and success beyond that arena, when it counts most in September, nigh on impossible.
*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au
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