“Handball, handball, handball”, “power forwards win flags”, “cream rises on grand final day”, “Tell Aka”, “contested ball wins grand finals”, “Come with me and we will win this”, “you have to lose one to win one”, and my personal favourite, “don’t think, do”.
Grand final day is full of great quotes and phrases. Some have turned prophetic, some have been rites of passage and some have been debatable myths. And so to add to great grand final quotes, let’s add, “predictability can only take you so far” or even “unpredictability wins premierships”.
If there is one AFL lesson that should be told more, as it has consistently been proven on grand final day, it is that unpredictability wins. Think back to Barassi’s handball in 1970, Shane Ellen going forward in 1997, Akermanis front and centre in 2002, Hawthorn walking Geelong to a grand final loss in 2008, Hawkins’ moment in the sun in 2011, Hawthorn preying on Sydney in 2014.
History is littered of examples where unpredictability wins and predictability loses.
Few people know this lesson better than Ross Lyon who in the past decade has made a habit of producing dominant teams built on predictability that dominate the first 25 weeks of the year. That 26th or 27th week has been the killer.
Statistically Lyon has built great teams with St Kilda in 2009 and 2010 and Fremantle in 2013 and 2014 yet for all this greatness Lyon is still yet to savour premiership glory.
It is a damning statistic but Lyon teams have never scored more than 68 points in a grand final. Despite Lyon being a defensively minded coach, this four game average of 62 points is well down on his career mark of just under 90 points. Indeed if there is one thing that Lyon’s grand final experiences should teach, it is that against the best teams, on grand final day, you need more than your usual predictable best.
I made the comment a week or two ago that Fremantle were the only premiership contender, but maybe that sentence needs refining. How about, the 2015 premiership will be decided by Fremantle. I expect Fremantle to be at the MCG in October with another five or six contenders currently battling to be opposed to the Dockers on grand final day.
And on that day, it is either Fremantle to lose as Ross Lyon has always done, by being predictable. Or they win, by being unpredictable.
So with all this in mind, how about now, with 11 games still to go but a top two spot basically wrapped up, clean passage at home to grand final day along with it, Fremantle start thinking about an unpredictable attitude towards that very grand final.
Most fans and experts would highlight the Fremantle zone and manic pressure as the most predictable part of their game. At their best they control possession of the ball, work the ball forward and set up defensive zones that can be tough to penetrate considering the pressure that is put on ball carriers.
The reality is though, this is a big thing to change and not something that could and should be messed with. Instead let’s focus on another part of the game that is predictable but can easily be manipulated. That part is the ruck, and the 211-centimetre monster that gives Fremantle a predictable edge at every contest.
The merits of ruckmen have been highly debated but what has become apparent in Fremantle’s matches this year, is that opposition are far more focused on working off the Sandilands tap or outpointing Fremantle’s clearance group headed by Nathan Fyfe, David Mundy and Lachie Neale.
Fremantle have tried to remove the predictable nature of the Sandilands tap over the past two years by having Fyfe and Neale as go to players as opposed to the previously more widely used Mundy. At points this has worked, at other times it hasn’t.
A lot has been made of Sandiland’s dominant hit-out advantage not translating to centre clearance wins or clearance wins for Fremantle it is not this that should be of greatest concern. Instead as was highlighted in the Fremantle versus Richmond match a fortnight ago, the bigger problem is that hit-outs to advantage are not actually giving Fremantle an advantage.
Sandilands had 23 hitouts to advantage, an AFL record, against Richmond in Round 10 yet this contributed to just three of Fremantle’s 10 goals on the night. This should emphasis the concern for Fremantle that not only are teams now reading the ruckwork of Sandilands and working off him, but AFL teams are now structuring up beyond the contest with the expectation that Fremantle will have the ball.
This is the definition of predictability and the one element of Fremantle’s game that can be exploited. Richmond are the live proof of this. You can only expect that over the second half of the season more teams will be structuring around stoppages based not only off Sandilands winning the tap, but what Fremantle’s next move will be.
So, some parts explained, some parts to be explained, large parts crazy, why not recast Sandilands in the role of key forward.
If Fremantle give Sandilands a six-week run as a key forward it may be the difference between winning a historic first premiership.
Because of the fast start to the season Fremantle are really in a no-lose scenario and a position where they have the ability to trial things with a grand final in mind. A loss here or there is not likely to dent their top two chances with an easy run on the lead up to finals.
Fremantle have a solid ruck division behind Sandilands with Zac Clarke and Jon Griffin both quality AFL ruckmen in their own rights and youngsters Jack Hannath and Craig Moller behind this duo. Giving any combination of these four a trial over the next six weeks will keep Fremantle unpredictable and really change how opposition sides have to confront Fremantle.
All of a sudden the predictability is gone.
Beyond the ruck contest, this too could be a huge boost for the biggest footballer in the game. Sandilands has been brutalised again at the ruck this year and any chance to rest his body in preparation for finals has to be seen as a good thing for Fremantle.
Perhaps though, it is the idea of Sandilands playing as a key forward that is the real master stroke.
Speak to any other clubs fan and the thought of Sandilands as a marking threat inside 50 would send shivers down the spine. Fremantle fans often point to the leniency that opposition defenders are allowed to use against Sandilands.
Perhaps the reason that Sandilands is treated different inside 50 is because he is still seen as a ruckman. Play him as a key forward for a month and maybe umpires see Sandilands as one, and the free kicks may come.
Ask opposition coaches what they fear about Fremantle and Sandilands in the ruck is not something they are going to jump on straight away. Tell an opposition coach that Sandilands would be forward, and there is some real thinking that needs to be done. Sometimes the art of coaching is doing what opposition coaches and sides will fear.
What was that saying about fear of the unpredictable.
Fremantle, Aaron Sandilands and Ross Lyon – embrace the fear, embrace unpredictability. Your 2015 premiership may rely on it.