WHEN Jason Johannisen was left out of the Western Bulldogs' AAMI Community Series pre-season game, and then again for their round one blockbuster with Collingwood, a sense of surprise echoed around the competition. But not for Johannisen himself.
The 2016 premiership star and Norm Smith medallist had known his form was awry and had sensed in the build-up to this season his place was in jeopardy. By the time the team was picked, the 28-year-old had come to terms with having to win back his spot.
"Last year and probably a bit at the start of this year I'd lost that belief and confidence in my ability and whether I was playing to the ability I knew I could," he told AFL.com.au.
"'Bevo' (coach Luke Beveridge) has always been so supportive and always backed me in but we got to a point there where it was the right time to go back to the VFL and have that circuit breaker. It was about going back and doing what I do best and use my strengths.
"There was definitely a bit of fresh air going back to the VFL and I wasn't putting that pressure on myself to perform."
Johannisen watched on as the Bulldogs beat the Magpies, and the next week was the unused medical substitute for his side. By round three, he had edged his way back into the in-form Dogs' line-up.
"I accepted it pretty quick. In this industry everything moves so fast I kept a positive outlook because if you dwell and think negatively it can just keep rolling and you probably won't find your form. I just accepted it as quickly as possible and looked at the positives of getting back to playing some good footy and was well supported by the coaches and all my teammates," he said.
"I feel like I'm back to playing some good footy and having an influence in a new role."
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Behind the scenes, Johannisen was working on transforming himself as a new player when he returned. On the eve of this season, Beveridge spoke to the flying half-back about a change of position, saying there would be opportunities as a speedy medium forward who finished his work around goal and applied pressure.
With the club's group of half-backs impressing – Bailey Dale, Caleb Daniel and Bailey Williams have all been huge – the Dogs spotted a way to use Johannisen in attack.
"They've always been really big on having speed in the front half and obviously our defenders are playing really well," he said. "It hasn't been a lot of time preparing for the role but I do think I'm growing in confidence and belief in that position."
Johannisen's best game since his return came on Saturday night, when he kicked two goals from 12 disposals in the Dogs' tough win over Port Adelaide. Coach Luke Beveridge said Johannisen had to adjust his approach.
"It's difficult for those small to medium forward role players as far as the statistical game goes. People say the key forwards have got the most challenging position on the ground but at least we kick it to the key forwards," Beveridge said.
"The small to mediums have got to crumb, get out in space, put pressure on and are really sensitive to what their teammates are doing up the ground. We've been rapt with how hard he's worked. He's using his speed, the pressure he's put on for us, without accumulating a lot of the Sherrin and then against Port Adelaide we thought he had a pretty complete small-to-medium game.
"That's going to fluctuate week to week, we've seen that with all the teams and as long as they're doing their best, especially defensively the guys who are playing there, it really helps us."
Johannisen, who played his 150th game in round eight, was one of seven members of the Dogs' 2016 premiership side to face the Power last week, with his line-breaking run and carry out of defence a key facet of their rise to the breakthrough flag.
The club, which sits second on the ladder this season after an 8-1 start to the year, hasn't won a final since then, having lost back-to-back elimination finals, including last year's defeat to Saturday night's opponent St Kilda.
"It's definitely felt like it's been a while and it's definitely in the past. This football club has always been about the now and in the present. I probably won't reflect on that year until I'm retired and outside the game," he said.
"It's all about how we can win the next one and as a team how we can keep improving to be the best again."
Johannisen's performance in the Grand Final will live on in Bulldogs' minds forever, and the fans regularly want to discuss the magical premiership run. But Johannisen has his eye on the next one, and in a new part of the ground.
"You do find here and there people do thank you for your efforts in 2016 because it was such a long time and such a long drought since we'd won one as a football club so there was that appreciation there from the supporters which is nice. Hopefully we're not far away from another one and we can put more smiles on our supporters' faces," he said.