THERE'S a lot of scepticism around AFL football these days. How else do you account for the fact that a team that is two games clear on top of the ladder and has lost only three of 20 matches this season is not even outright favourite for the premiership?
West Coast has done virtually everything right in 2005, yet for the past two weeks has lagged behind St Kilda in the flag market, paying $3.10 against the $3 on offer for the third-placed Saints, who have lost four more games and all season battled a tide of misfortune.
If you dig hard enough, you will find flaws in any team and, after several months of fruitless toil, the surprising number of people in the football world prepared to discount the Eagles as potential premiers think they have found a major Achilles heel.
For some it's a forward set-up not big on names or height, its leading goalkicker Phil Matera standing just 171 centimetres. Others believe West Coast's defence is fragile and does not generate enough rebound. Some more simply point to an alleged vulnerability in Melbourne.
All are perceptions about which the Eagles can offer compelling counter-arguments, particularly on the last point. If their inferior performances were simply an issue of distance or travel, how have they won six out of nine on the road this season, including wins on the longer road trips to Brisbane and Launceston?
"We've had a pretty good record on the road so far this year," West Coast assistant coach Robert Wiley, asked about the Melbourne question for the umpteenth time, said after the Eagles had a light training run at Geelong's Skilled Stadium yesterday.
"I suppose we're always under the scrutiny of the critics saying that we can't play interstate. But we've been challenged before on the road and we've succeeded, so there's no reason why we can't."
It's not about plane trips, unfamiliar beds and lots of waiting around. In the end, what looms as perhaps the most significant factor in the drift of support for West Coast's premiership chances is a mere 16-metre strip of grass.
That's the difference between the length of Subiaco Oval, where the Eagles have won all 11 games they have played in 2005, and that of the shorter MCG, where they have lost two, and won the others by just two and 15 points.
West Coast's strongest suit remains very much in midfield and the star class of Ben Cousins, Chris Judd, Chad Fletcher, Daniel Kerr and co. Its defence, while capable, does not set up a lot of attack, preferring a slower and more measured approach by foot rather than linking up with handball.
That's fine at Subiaco, where there's plenty of space in which potential free targets can lead, more midfield space in which the classy runners can rip opponents open with chains of possession and too much space for opponents to be able to flood back in numbers quickly enough.
It's not so effective on the wider, shorter MCG. The free targets are easier to man up, making the Eagles' midfielders work harder to provide defensive options and keeping them away from the thick of the action longer. The ball takes longer to arrive in scoring territory, allowing defences to fill the holes — and, for the likes of Matera, that could be fatal.
If there's one pattern about West Coast's performances in nearly four full seasons under the coaching of John Worsfold, it's been the Eagles' phenomenal strike rate on the AFL's longest ground and their repeated struggles on the shorter, wider grounds.
West Coast has played 47 games at Subiaco under Worsfold and won 39 of them, with another a draw. At the MCG and Telstra Dome, both only 160 metres, the equal third-shortest grounds in the competition, they have played a total of 18 for only six wins. They're also 0-2 at the SCG, the league's shortest goal-to-goal line.
So the punters continue to have St Kilda as official premiership favourite despite the Saints facing a first-up away final and perhaps a preliminary final, too, in Perth or Adelaide.
West Coast could well play two of three finals on a ground no team has ever played better. It's the venue for the possible third that keeps playing on the minds of the doubters.
And, if the Eagles do stumble at the final hurdle, there's a mounting case that they will have lost not by any number of points, but by less than the length of a cricket pitch.
SHORTEST TO LONGEST
(AFL ground dimensions)
Subiaco 122m by 176m
Marrara 135m by 175m
Aurora 140m by 170m
Skilled 115m by 170m
AAMI 133m by 168m
Manuka 138m by 163m
MCG 141m by 160m
Optus Oval 139m by 160m
Telstra Dome 129m by 160m
Telstra Stadium 118m by 160m
Gabba 138m by 156m
SCG 136m by 149m
WHERE THE EAGLES WIN
(Under John Worsfold, 2002-05)
Ground W L D %
Subiaco 39 7 1 84
Gabba 3 1 0 75
Aurora 2 1 0 67
Manuka 1 1 0 50
MCG 3 5 0 38
Telstra Dome 3 7 0 30
Optus Oval 1 3 0 25
AAMI 1 5 0 17
SCG 0 2 0 0
Skilled 0 1 1 0
Telstra Stad 0 1 0 0