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AFL preview series: Fremantle Dockers

Nat Fyfe: Soon to be hot property. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)
Expert
21st March, 2016
166
3212 Reads

Where do Fremantle sit in the AFL pecking order? Are they the side that was 12-1 after 14 rounds in 2015? Or is it the team that only won six games from that point on, coupled with five losses?

Are they the perfect blend of footballers in their prime, topped with experienced heads to keep the lid on? Or are they just plain old, and unable to withstand the rigours of a long AFL season?

Read the rest of Cam’s AFL season previews here.

Is their coach, Ross Lyon, a genius maestro, who has this team contending beyond their talent base? Or does he have the cattle, but shackles them with a game-plan that is too defensive for them to shine?

You’ll hear all these things and more over the course of the year, often written or said after the fact. A set of ideas that can be applied depending on whether the Dockers are winning or losing.

Let’s have a look at the sort of side they’ll be taking into 2015, and see if we can discover where the truth may lie.

B: Cameron Sutcliffe Zac Dawson Lee Spurr
HB: Garrick Ibbotson Michael Johnson Tom Sheridan
C: Stephen Hill David Mundy Danyle Pearce
HF: Michael Walters Chris Mayne Harley Bennell
F: Hayden Ballantyne Matthew Pavlich Matt Taberner
Foll: Aaron Sandilands Nat Fyfe Lachie Neale
Int: Jonathon Griffin Alex Pearce Michael Barlow Nick Suban
Em: Tendai Mzungu Clancee Pearce Hayden Crozier

Starting with the defence, the Freo backline isn’t exactly overflowing with stars, but then Lyon has never needed them.

Michael Johnson is a fine player, whose judgement is his greatest asset. Playing as a tall defender requires a series of quick decisions, back-to-back-to-back. To stay with your direct opponent, or go third man up? To mark or to spoil? To run off or stay with?

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Johnson makes the right decisions again and again, which enables him to attack more than others of his ilk. At 31, his body is starting to break down though, and he’s played 15 and 18 games in the last two seasons, after only missing a combined three matches in his previous three years.

Zac Dawson is the much maligned full-back. His limitations are easy to see, but I’ve been one to back Lyon in with him. There is value there. High hopes are held for Alex Pearce to take over from Luke McPharlin, which would also free Johnson up to fulfil a more valuable role.

Cam Sutcliffe, Lee Spurr and Tommy Sheridan make up a no-name, no-nonsense trio in classic Lyon fashion. The former two are more renowned for their defensive abilities as small and mid-size defenders, although Spurr provides his share of run.

Sheridan is one of three 22-year-olds on the list that are key players for Fremantle, now and into the future. His season was defined for most people by a dropped mark in the vicinity of Cyril Rioli in the preliminary final, but his strong finish to the year, once settled in the side, confirmed his talent and importance as a running defender.

Garrick Ibbotson returned to his best last year, and his reading of the play is the hallmark of his game. The complementary abilities of the Freo defenders is part of what makes them so effective as a unit.

The Fremantle midfield is stellar, and the reason why they should continue to be a formidable force in 2016. If they all played for different clubs, you could easily imagine an All Australian midfield consisting of Aaron Sandilands, Nat Fyfe, David Mundy, Lachie Neale and Stephen Hill.

Fyfe was voted the number one player in the AFL in our Roar Top 50. An untackleable beast in traffic, it’s not unusual for him to shrug off strong opposition like he’s swatting a fly, or pinpoint a handball with three or four hanging off him.

But it’s when Fyfe launches at the ball in an aerial contest that everything good in Australian rules football is on display. Timing, judgement, power, and an athletic grace that is to die for.

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Mundy is another tall and strong ball-winner who is able to couple clearances with class. With such strength over the ball, he is all but an immovable force, and can bully smaller opposition mids. But he can also glide over the ground before unloading the ball with yet another good decision.

Neale is getting better and better, and he was coming off a high base to start with. Tough, moves well, and keeps going all day on the inside and outside. Importantly, he can sniff out a goal too.

Michael Barlow will spend more time in the middle this year, getting back to what he does best at the coalface. This will enable Fyfe to spend more time as a dangerous and unstoppable forward. Barlow is always going to find the football, because of his high footy IQ.

Hill and Danyle Pearce run the wings in style. Hill is the more dangerous and skilful player, also more given to two-way running and inside work when required. No wing duo in the league comes close to generating the amount of inside 50s these two do in tandem, particularly when you’ve got players the calibre of Fyfe, Mundy and Neale getting it out to them.

Sandilands won his second best and fairest last year, which is an amazing achievement for a now 33-year-old ruckman in a top-of-the-ladder side.

The ‘stoppagisation’ of football has played into his monster hands, but it’s a little-recognised fact that he has finished top six in the league for contested marks in the last two seasons. It’s a handy string to his bow, and a reason he could spend even more time inside 50.

While the Fremantle midfield is acknowledged as the perfect blend of inside toughness and outside class, the forward-line is always the subject of debate. On face value there is enough talent there to score heavily, if the coach would release the shackles.

They have a motley crew of talls that doesn’t exactly scream top four, but their smaller feet is exceptional.

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Matthew Pavlich is going on for an incredible 17th season, and should bring up his 350th game at some point in the year. For a guy that has played his entire career as either a key position player or inside midfielder, travelling across the country every second week, it’s an extraordinary achievement of resilience and durability.

The Pav may not be what he was, but he’s still pretty bloody good, and can still have a major impact if managed correctly through the season. Don’t expect him to be getting on a plane to Queensland this year.

Chris Mayne is a solid contributor, but his team needs him to get back to his 2013 form. His forward pressure is arguably the best in the league, but that needs to be coupled with more possession and more goals.

Matthew Taberner might just be ready to go as the key forward support to Pavlich that Dockers fans have been waiting for. A stylish player now entering his fourth AFL season, he’ll no doubt gain confidence knowing he won’t be subbed off each week with the abolition of the red and green vests.

But 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? If he can answer those questions in the affirmative, through action not talk, he could be the missing link in the race to land Freo their first premiership.

To complement the talls is what should be the most dangerous trio of small-medium forwards in the competition.

Michael Walters should be a multiple All-Australian by the time he’s done, with his graceful movement and superb skill. Hayden Ballantyne is coming off his worst year, after 2014 was his best. These two are yet to really both fire in the same year. The closest they’ve come to it was 2013, when the Dockers made a grand final. Go figure.

And now we get to Harley Bennell. Brought into be the dazzling cream on top of a fine pudding, there’s no doubt he could be one of the best players in the game. Silky smooth, an abundance of skill, he can make the footy talk in his hands, and is one of few in the competition who can truly play an untouchable brand of football.

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The Dockers have experienced depth with the likes of Tendai Mzungu, Matt de Boer, Zac Clarke and Alex Silvagni all capable of coming in and doing a job. Young players like Lachie Weller, Connor Blakely and Ed Langdon are expected to press their claims and force some more experienced hands out of the side too.

The top-end talent is there. Each line is multi-faceted, containing players of variety and complementary skills.

Ross Lyon teams are always the best at all-ground defence, and the Dockers played some thrilling, pulverising football at times in the first half of 2015. They have the players to execute quick ball movement in the manner of a Hawthorn, particularly if they can transition from defence to attack quicker than they have previous.

Every year there is talk of Fremantle figuring out a way to score more heavily. It remains to be seen if they can do it. If so, they can make some waves again.

Predicted ladder spread: first – fifth

Predicted finish: second

Best and fairest: Nat Fyfe

Leading goalkicker: Michael Walters

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All Australian potential: Nat Fyfe, David Mundy, Michael Walters, Harley Bennell, Michael Johnson, Stephen Hill, Garrick Ibbotson

Rising Star candidates: Lachie Weller, Connor Blakely, Ed Langdon

Current ladder
2. Fremantle
3. Hawthorn
4. Western Bulldogs
5. Geelong
6. Richmond
7. Sydney
8. GWS
9. Collingwood
10. Adelaide
11. North Melbourne
12. Melbourne
13. Gold Coast
14. Port Adelaide
15. St Kilda
16. Brisbane
17. Carlton
18. Essendon