During the 2015 season, one team ran hotter than any other. It wasn’t the two-time premiers (soon to become threepeaters) Hawthorn, nor eventual runners up West Coast. Sydney, with Lance Franklin, were the most recent non-Hawthorn premier, but were a little hot and cold.
Coming off a competitive loss in the 2014 Grand Final, fielding the best player in the game at the time, no other club had higher fortunes on paper than the minor premier Dockers. While there were some old stagers like Luke McPharlin, Aaron Sandilands, Matthew Pavlich, and Michael Johnson carrying formidable loads, on paper few sides had more promising young contingents than the Dockers. Down back, Alex Pearce emerged as a solid defensive option, while up forward names like Walters and Taberner provided solid contributions.
But it was the middle of the ground where they looked especially good, with Fyfe, Hill, Neale leading the way. It was plausible that as Hawthorn aged, Freo would be battling it out with sides like GWS for the spoils over the next 3-5 years.
That did not happen. Put bluntly, 2016 was a disaster, finishing just a game away from the wooden spoon, with most (if not all) of the players mentioned above either spending significant time hurt or regressing badly. Where there had been optimism 12 months ago, at the end of 2016 hope was definitely gone.
Any anticipated “bounce-back” from a recently successful didn’t happen in 2017. Or 2018. By now, the vast majority of that 2015 side has moved on.
But, thanks to plenty of shrewd trading, the resurgence of some of the promising younger players from the 2015 team, and some decent success with the high draft picks that tend to accompany a couple of years at the bottom, Fremantle look like they have quietly put together a workable team with plenty of upside.
Like in a lot of rebuilds, sometimes it makes more sense to stop the bleeding before treating the wound. After conceding goals by the bucketloads over the past three years, the Dockers have managed to install (at least temporarily) the most effective defence in the league.
|Team||Opponent goals per inside 50||Opponent scoring shots per inside 50||Opponent marks inside 50 per inside 50||Opponent points per inside 50||Opponent points per disposal|
|Greater Western Sydney||22.22%||41.67%||21.67%||1.5278||0.217|
The Dockers lead the league in three of these measures of defence – they hacve conceded the least goals, marks inside 50 and points scored per opponent inside 50, while they and points conceded per opposition inside 50. In the other two categories above, they sit second.
Ross Lyon has a reputation as a stagnant defensive coach, but it doesn’t appear that the Dockers are pulling any exceptional tricks – occasionally running a spare defender in the hole between forwards, which isn’t unusual. From afar, it appears that instead the roles that each player takes are clear, with everyone knowing what they need to do to support the side.
Currently, the Dockers have three players sitting inside the top 10 for intercepts per game (min two games) in Nyhuis, Pearce and Ryan. If you take away Nyhuis’s performance in his two games, it is clear that Freo has two players with a license to come off their players and attack the high ball. A little further down the list sit Hughes and Hamling, the latter of which has flourished as a stay at home defender who sits 7th for one percenters per game this year.
Pearce is putting in performances that he has teased across his stop-start career to date, and a package of work that puts him in the conversation as one of the top tall defenders of this young 2019 season. Once he gets the ball, however, he almost never takes it out of defence himself.
That job is instead mostly trusted to both Luke Ryan and Nathan Wilson, with Langdon, Hamling and Conca occasionally given the reins to chip in. Wilson has contributed 13.7% of Freo’s rebound 50s, much lower than other sides that just rely on one outlet. For example, James Sicily contributes 22% of Hawthorn’s rebounds. With players sharing the rebounding role, that should make the Dockers more flexible.
The forward line
The area of the ground that most thought would be the catalyst for the Dockers’ improvement this year was not the defence, but instead their forward line. After all, they recruited fringe All Australian Jesse Hogan from Melbourne and were able to nab the very underrated GWS big Rory Lobb. The two came at a decent cost, but promised to breathe life into a stagnant forward line.
Instead, Freo have treaded water in offensive output per inside 50 entry, which might not be the worst thing considering the development of their defence. The forward line is generally scoring just enough to capitalise on their defensive stranglehold, which (if our research is right) is enough to win football games.
Let’s start with Lobb. Used as a ruck over parts of the last two years for GWS, most pundits thought that he was be the second key position forward in the Freo setup. Instead, early injuries to Sean Darcy and Aaron Sandilands forced him into ruck duty early on, where he has flourished. Despite his size (he stands at 206cm), Lobb often gets outbodied in ruck battles, but when he wins them he is able to tap to advantage at a better than average rate. More importantly, he is able to provide a presence around the ground, sitting fourth among rucks in contested marks. This tall general contested marking presence is something that Fremantle have struggled with since Sandilands left his prime, and is something that Darcy or others have yet to show.
Instead of Lobb up forward, a surprise name has emerged – Matt Taberner. Taberner has been one of the most improved players so far this year, and most outsiders tabbed him as being behind Hogan, Lobb, McCarthy and probably Cox in the quest for games as a tall forward this year. Five into two or three does not go, and it was only due to Lobb’s move to the ruck and Cox’s early season injuries that he likely got a run early this year. He has more than repaid the Dockers faith to date, and this weekend Cox instead pushed McCarthy out.
Around the cornerstones of Hogan, Taberner and McCarthy, a variety of other players have popped up and kicked goals. Michael Walters, who is having an amazing year, actually leads the Dockers with 14 goals (two ahead of Taberner). Brandon Matera, long forgotten about on the Gold Coast, also has 10 goals to his name. Fyfe, Mundy and the long list of promising mids haven’t needed to chip in as much because the forward line has been largely doing their job.
With the departure of Lachie Neale to Brisbane, it was thought that Freo’s ability in the middle would suffer. Instead, due to the near-competence of their forward line and the continued development of their young high draftees, they have been able to win a better balance from the middle. After losing the territory battle by about six inside 50s per game last year, this year the Dockers have had about one extra I50 per game, slightly more than breaking even..
This is important because it has provided the defence the necessary room to operate, and given the forward line room to grow around the new cornerstones. Subjectively, the delivery of the ball forward, and inside 50, has improved, with less bomb and hope options being used.
Where did the recovery come from?
Fremantle’s reemergence is a case study in gradual list overhaul. If we compare their preliminary finalist 2015 squad to the 2019 edition, there’s only a small amount in common. Everything else has changed.
Nathan Fyfe, David Mundy and Michael Walters were the established players who remain as contributors to this year’s team, and Matthew Taberner was also there. Sandilands, Stephen Hill, Ballantyne are still on the list but have been rarely sighted this year.
The seeds of renewal were already at Fremantle in 2015. Alex Pearce played regular footy in his first senior season, and Connor Blakely (so far absent in 2019), Ed Langdon and Ethan Hughes also made their debuts that year. Matt Taberner was politely described as a good prospect in his third season.
They’re the first part of the development story of the Dockers in the last few tears, which has basically seen the Dockers steadily produce useful players by drafting, without necessarily hitting any great jackpots along the way. Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra, at picks 2 and 5 in 2017, were the jewels for the Dockers, both have played every game this year and been useful second-tier contributors in just their second seasons of football.
Later picks along the way have netted current regulars Luke Ryan and Darcy Tucker, along with sometime contributors Brennan Cox and Bailey Banfield and the perhaps more fringe (at this stage) Ryan Nyhuis, Sean Darcy, and Taylin Duman. The jury is still out on several of these guys, but right now the Dockers don’t actually need many of them to step up right away, because the load is being borne elsewhere.
The predominant part of that load is falling on the Dockers’ external recruits. Nearly 40% (59 of 154) games by Dockers player this year have been played by those from other clubs, a collection of players accrued over the last few years. The 9 players in the senior team so far have been defenders Joel Hamling, Nathan Wilson and Reece Conca, midfielder Brad Hill, ruck/forward Rory Lobb, forwards Jesse Hogan, Cam McCarthy, Brandon Matera, and whatever position we’re assigning to Travis Colyer.
There hasn’t been a particular pattern to these recruits, they’re different ages and cover all parts of the ground. There has, however, been a high hit rate seen onfield this year. Excluding the cheaply acquired Shane Kersten and the problem case of Harley Bennell, every player traded in since 2015 is has played plenty of senior football. They’re evenly spread across the ground, balancing out their contributions.
The 9 recruits may have been acquired according to a pre-planned blueprint to cover all parts of the ground and strengthen different roles. They may have just been a product of flexibility and opportunism. Either way, this activity at the trade table and a seeming high hit rate is what has allowed Fremantle’s established players and key younger players to have lighter loads, while the younger and more fringe draftees are allowed to gradually grow into bigger roles.