Fremantle’s fall from ladder leaders after the 2015 home-and-away season, to 16th after 22 rounds in 2016 was the biggest drop in the history of the game.
After four straight years of finals under Ross Lyon, they descended into disgrace.
The speed of the decline was remarkable. This wasn’t a side that gradually fell off the pace, or had periods of momentum but could never quite put it all together. Bang, right out of the gate they were seven goals down to the Bulldogs at quarter time in Round 1, and there was plenty more where that came from.
Gold Coast dominated them in Round 2, they lost a hometown Derby in Round 3, and before we knew it, 0-3 was 0-5 with the season gone, on the way to a 0-10 start to the year.
They certainly had their injury troubles, but those early losses weren’t marred by them. Something was deeply troubled and wrong at the Dockers in 2016. Can they bounce back this year?
Fremantle Dockers’ best 22
|B||Lee Spurr||Joel Hamling||Alex Pearce|
|HB||David Mundy||Michael Johnson||Tommy Sheridan|
|C||Stephen Hill||Lachie Neale||Brad Hill|
|HF||Harley Bennell||Shane Kersten||Michael Walters|
|F||Hayden Ballantyne||Matt Taberner||Cam McCarthy|
|Foll||Aaron Sandilands||Nat Fyfe||Connor Blakely|
|Int||Hayden Crozier||Cam Sutcliffe||Garrick Ibbotson||Lachie Weller|
Emergencies: Sam Collins, Ed Langdon, Darcy Tucker
Let’s look at the good news first.
Nat Fyfe is back after only playing five games last year. He started 2016 as the best player in the league, but Danger signs were starting to emerge in the form of a certain Geelong superstar.
Fyfe will lead the midfield once more in contested beast mode, and will be hoping Aaron Sandilands can also feature in the majority of matches to provide him with gilt-edged service. The big ruckman also hit the park only five times last year.
In their absence, Lachie Neale stepped up with 33 touches a game and was top three in the league for disposals, clearances and contested possessions. He truly was a one-man band on the inside, with the next best contested possession player at Fremantle (David Mundy) over 160 behind him, clearly the biggest differential in the competition.
The inside support of Michael Barlow is gone, but the impressive Connor Blakely should step up again with his third pre-season under his belt, and Fyfe’s return will help everyone else down the chain. Mundy will still be used, but has also been earmarked for a half-back role.
Outside run has always been seen as a weakness of Ross Lyon teams, with his reputation for stodginess and stifling of natural flair for the advantages of structure, discipline and team defence. He’s been unfairly maligned over the journey, but should get to showcase some attacking principles now.
Brad Hill has come across from Hawthorn to join his brother Stephen, and they will seek to run the wings, scything through opposition midfields, calling to mind two bishops on an open chessboard.
Clusters of pawns in the centre are the natural enemies of bishops, and have proven to be Ross Lyon’s preferred method of attack and strangulation over the years. Will he allow his bishops the space they need to be used to best advantage?
Michael Walters was a deserved top three finisher in the Fremantle best and fairest last year, and possesses a deadly combination of creativity, skill and smarts, regardless of what part of the ground he’s operating in.
Freo fans, and the football world at large, will be hoping Harley Bennell can get on the field and return to his best. Few have more talent than he, and it’s worth remembering that five times in his career he’s had 27 or more possessions and kicked three or more goals in the same game.
If Bennell, Walters and the Hill brothers can get up and running, the Dockers will have no excuses transitioning the ball between the arcs and looking dangerous moving forward.
The tall forward trio of Matt Taberner, Shane Kersten and Cam McCarthy have all walked different paths to reach where they are today, and it doesn’t exactly look a premiership line-up.
Kersten improved significantly last year, after looking every bit a VFL-only player across 2014-15, which made it surprising when the Cats were happy to let him go. He’ll lead hard, and has good hands and a strong kick. He’ll be an important player on his long home ground.
McCarthy has had his off-field issues, and is by no means the complete player yet. It remains to be seen how many dimensions he has to his game, and although he kicked 35 goals in 2015, in the last four matches he played that year, he had a combined total of 27 touches, six marks and one goal.
Taberner has looked on the verge of taking the next step for a couple of seasons now, but keeps falling down the stairs instead. In last year’s preview series, I asked “Is Taberner mentally ready to take the next step? Is he hungry enough? Is he desperate enough? Is he willing to attack each contest as if it’s his last?” We’re still waiting for the right answers, but then maybe he’s only got the wrong ones.
The Fremantle defence struggled under the weight of easy ball that headed their way last season, and should find things easier this time around, but still look on the limited side as individuals.
Lee Spurr and Cam Sutcliffe have been doing what they do for years. Michael Johnson only played four matches last season, and his run and carry is as important as his intercept play. Premiership Bulldog Joel Hamling has been added to play full-back, and strikes as a typical Ross Lyon defender.
One of the questions for Lyon will be what balance he strikes between playing the older servants (Spurr, Garrick Ibbotson, Danyle Pearce, Hayden Ballantyne, Zac Dawson) and the younger brigade (Alex Pearce, Ed Langdon, Darcy Tucker, Harley Balic). This will likely be determined by the shape of the season.
The Dockers are going to need a lot of things to go right in order to surge back up the ladder, and while they have some unique tools to do so (particularly in the shape of Fyfe, Sandilands, Bennell and Walters), it feels like a bridge too far, and they’ll be closer to the bottom than the top come Round 23.
Predicted ladder spread: 13th-16th
Predicted finish: 14th
Best and fairest: Nat Fyfe
Leading goalkicker: Michael Walters
All-Australian potential: Nat Fyfe, Lachie Neale, Michael Walters
Rising Star candidates: Harley Balic, Brennan Cox, Sean Darcy and Griffin Logue are the only senior list players eligible – but how many opportunities will they get under Ross Lyon?