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A dynasty that never was: Fremantle fades away

More drama coming out of Freemantle. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)
Expert
13th April, 2016
137
24331 Reads

Dynasties rarely end with exclamation marks. All too often, they trail off into obscurity as almost soundless whimpers.

Very few are fortunate to go out on top. When the end comes, and it will, it always will – even for you Hawthorn (I think) – the source of devastation isn’t so much the fact that it’s over.

It’s the fact that it wasn’t supposed to be. Not yet, anyway.

The early 2000s Brisbane Lions played in four consecutive grand finals and then faded into a mediocrity that the club still hasn’t escaped from over a decade later. In the first week of September 2007, the Ben Cousins-Chris Judd Eagles were coming off two grand finals, were favoured to make a third, and looked set to dominate the league for the next five years. Two months later, Judd and Cousins were gone, and the Eagles were set to go 16-50 over the next three years.

The list goes on. The frontal pressure 2010-11 Magpies, full of youth and exuberance, at the time the league’s runaway best bet for long-term ascendancy, slowly and impressively fell apart, needing only three years to turn a young side that had just completed the most dominant regular season in AFL history into an afterthought. Sitting in the MCG’s Great Southern Stand last Saturday afternoon, it was clear that the only pressure these Magpies had left to generate was on the frontal lobes of their supporters, flummoxed by the team’s brazen awfulness.

The tragedy of the Ross Lyon Dockers is that their era of success is ending before our eyes and they never even had success in the first place. Not ‘the’ success, anyway.

Fremantle were widely expected to fall off last year. They had the oldest list in the competition, had been bundled out of the 2014 finals in straight sets, and hadn’t made any significant off-season additions. Naturally, they responded by winning the minor premiership, and, perhaps (this is being generous), coming within a Michael Walters kick for goal and a Tommy Sheridan slip from making the grand final.

Last season’s resilience made it difficult to predict a Fremantle tumble down the ladder this year. The Dockers still had Ross Lyon, the game’s most reputable coach alongside Alastair Clarkson, and they still had that midfield. Aaron Sandilands, David Mundy, Stephen Hill, the game’s best player, and the addition of the dynamic Harley Bennell made for arguably the game’s most imposing unit in the middle of the ground. Sure, the forward line was a question mark, but they had Walters, and yes, the defence was worrisome on paper, but they had Lyon’s structures.

The good luck that Fremantle had last year to carry them to the top of the ladder despite a percentage of 118.7 has completely evaporated in 2016. Depth has always been an issue for Ross Lyon’s teams, dating back to those St Kilda grand final teams that put the likes of Robert Eddy and Andrew McQualter on the game’s biggest stage. Injuries to Mundy and now Sandilands have taken away two of Fremantle’s three or four best players (depending how you feel about Walters), and without them, and the sidelined Bennell, they looked devoid of ideas against the Eagles last weekend.

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Like Lyon’s Saints teams, which depended so heavily on its brilliant top six to compensate for the significant deficiencies of its bottom six, the Dockers need their superstars to carry the likes of Tendai Mzungu, Matthew De Boer, Zac Dawson, Alex Pearce, Chris Mayne and the youth (what little of it) they’re bringing through. (Credit to Dawson for being carried by both Lyon’s Saints and Dockers).

The great teams have depth that holds up when its vital cogs go down. In 2014, Hawthorn lost Josh Gibson, Sam Mitchell and Brian Lake for 8, 9 and 14 games, and their coach for half the season, and still managed to win 17 games en route to the flag. Down Jarryd Roughead, Luke Hodge, Brad Hill and Liam Shiels, the Hawks still managed to embarrass their (perceived) biggest premiership threat by 46 points in Round 2.

Fremantle have never had that depth, and as it’s being exposed, so are they. In the past, the Dockers would have remained dangerous and competitive through their structures, but even those have fallen apart.

After ranking fourth in inside 50 differential last season, Fremantle are 17th in that stat through three weeks. Aside from their defensive integrity, Fremantle’s greatest strength in the Lyon era has been their supremacy at stoppages, leading the league in clearance differential by a country mile last year. This year, they’re 11th.

Discussions of structure and positioning are often problematic because we, the public, aren’t privy to exactly what teams are intending to do. What is obvious though (and let me tell you, as a Collingwood fan, it is pretty freaking obvious) is a deficiency in skill execution.

It’s no surprise that the three bottom teams in effective disposal percentage – Collingwood, Fremantle and Port Adelaide – are also arguably the three biggest disappointments of the year to date (don’t worry, I haven’t forgot about you, Richmond). For the Pies and Power, this is nothing new – Collingwood have been in the bottom three in that stat the past two seasons, and Port, a little shockingly, have not ranked higher than 12th in that stat since it started being tracked in 2010.

But the Dockers are a different story. From 2013 to 2015 they ranked eighth, ninth and third in effective disposal percentage. Their skill errors have been comically bad in the first three weeks, gifting the opposition easy goals. Fyfe, in particular, whose disposal efficiency has always been below average, has been kicking the ball like a right-footed Levi Greenwood.

There’s a line of thinking that after years of near misses, these Dockers, like Lyon’s Saints, are suffering from fatigue and have lost their hunger. My question is, fatigue from what? Fremantle have no excuse for a lessened appetite. They choked away a grand final and then lost a semi-final at home by 22 points, and a preliminary final at home by 27 points. This team was never a Stephen Milne bounce or a Matthew Scarlett toe-poke away from a premiership. They were a Hayden Ballantyne nervous breakdown, a Nat Fyfe goal-kicking breakdown, and a Brian Lake Superman cape away from one.

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The reality is that this team is not suffering from a lack of premiership hunger – they’re suffering from just not being that good when their star players are out.

The Dockers were the third best team in the AFL last year, and being that good was largely built on Fyfe being a biblical figure in the first nine rounds and Matthew Pavlich looking rejuvenated. When those two came back down to Earth – Fyfe because of injuries, Pavlich because of age (he kicked 21 goals in his first nine games, 18 in his last 13) – the Dockers finished the season going 2-5 against teams that finished in the eight, with those two wins a lucky four-point escape against the wayward kicking Tigers, and an uninspiring nine-point win at home against a Sydney side missing 38 of its best players.

In 2015 the Dockers were fading, and in 2016 the lights have gone out.

Even in the darkness, though, the Dockers will get better. They’re not this bad. Their skill execution will regress to the mean, and the #1 contested ball side of the past two years doesn’t just collapse to 13th with minimal personnel change (although Collingwood, Adelaide and the Bulldogs – the top contested ball teams in 2011, 2012 and 2013 – did fall to sixth, seventh and eighth in the following seasons).

Mundy will come back and Bennell will take the field in purple, eventually. But without Sandilands this team isn’t a top four contender. In his absence against the Bulldogs in Round 1 and in the second half against the Eagles, Fremantle were belted in the clearances by double digits. Given their much-discussed lack of offensive firepower, the Dockers depend on their clearances like oxygen, and without Sandilands giving their star mids first use, the Dockers will suffocate, as they have so far this season.

Already at 0-3 and with away games looming in the next five weeks against North Melbourne, Adelaide and Hawthorn, the Dockers’ 2016 season may never get the chance to come up for air.

West Coast fans in the immediate aftermath of the Chris Judd era would have felt like they had a dynasty stolen for them, much as Collingwood fans feel today. But those fans had at least one premiership to hold onto, something tangible written in the history books. Spare a thought for the Dockers fans, who have never had that – all they had was a hope that always just out of reach, and now, finally, appears to be out of mind.