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Can Fremantle avoid a rebuild?

Nat Fyfe was ruled out for most of last season with a leg injury. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)
Roar Guru
25th April, 2016
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1691 Reads

The early parts of the AFL season have seen plenty of unexpected results, but none come close to seeing the Fremantle Dockers holding up the ladder after five rounds as the AFL’s only winless side.

Following yesterday’s incomprehensible home loss to Carlton, it might seem like the time for panic but a look at the facts makes for interesting reading and the best next steps may be controversial, but seem logical.

This is the side that won the minor premiership last season and has lost only 24 regular season games in four years under Ross Lyon. This is a club that has put together a list with the goal of winning a flag, and nothing less.

While their history is littered with failures, disappointments and under-performing there was nothing suggesting they would be in such dire straits after Round 5.

So why has it gone that way? Can it be fixed quickly? Or does the club so close to premiership glory in recent times need to start again and rebuild from the ground up? Let’s take a look at the problems and whether they can be easily fixed.

Injuries
They have key players Aaron Sandilands, David Mundy and Harley Bennell unavailable, but outside of those three they were missing no other key players before yesterday’s catastrophic loss.

Today they have had terrible news with reigning Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe re-fracturing his fibula and likely being unavailable for a majority of the season.

The Dockers would benefit from holding him out for as long as possible and getting some games into their younger players, but to lose arguably the game’s best player is a telling blow for a team already reeling.

The coach
Lyon is not a coach who is familiar with rebuilding or failure, never having won less than 11 games in a season nor having had to build a team from the bottom-up. The perception is that he got everything he could out of a St.Kilda side far less talented than this current Dockers side, and was quickly out the back door when the premiership window closed.

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Long considered a tactical master, he is now faced with having a list that he carefully constructed for a game style that is simply no longer relevant. The slow, methodical, defensive grind that has characterised Lyon’s coaching has been very successful.

However the way the game is being played in 2016 is a long way away from what Lyon knows, and what this current Dockers list is built for.

The veterans
Of the current list, it could be argued that their four oldest players (Matthew Pavlich, Mundy, Sandilands and Michael Johnson) are still among their best and most important players.

For a side with premiership expectations, this list profile seems logical but given Fremantle’s poor start those four stalwarts are likely to be nearing the end.

This group has among it the greatest ever Docker, the current club captain, a fantastic defender as well as one of the game’s better basic tap ruckman so their loss would not be inconsequential but remains a near-certainty that must be addressed.

The others
Take a look at the bracket of players who are 25-30 years of age and there are concerns at every turn. Most of these players can be categorised into two groups – those who have previously been effective but are no longer players the Dockers can rely on, and those who still seem effective but do not play with the consistency.

The first group includes Zac Dawson, Tendai Mzungu, Danyle Pearce, Matt DeBoer, Clancee Pearce, Alex Silvagni and Nic Suban.

The second group includes Michael Barlow, Garrick Ibbotson, Chris Mayne, Jonathan Griffin, Zac Clarke and Hayden Ballantyne.

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No players in the first group look like having a future at AFL level and are facing careers at the crossroads, at best. Of the second group, fans and supporters would do well to ask whether selecting any of them over a youngster is of any benefit for the remainder of the season.

None of these players will improve, nor do they provide anything beyond serviceable consistency.

The other players in this age bracket who are still providing Fremantle with what they need include Stephen Hill, Lee Spurr, Michael Walters and Cameron Sutcliffe. Walters is a star and one who should be a player Fremantle build around, and Hill has the potential to be an elite midfielder while Sutcliffe and Spurr fill roles that every side needs.

All that being said, the number of experienced players on whom Fremantle can rely seems far too low for a side who came into the season with aspirations of success.

The kids
Lachie Neale has matured into a quality midfielder while Alex Pearce and Lachie Weller look to be players on whom the Dockers can rely, but the remainder are unknown or known, but unimpressive.

Matt Taberner might be a big body, and everyone knows they take longer to develop, but he looks a player devoid of confidence and talent.

As long as he is on the list, he should continue to be played but at some stage the ineffectiveness and inconsistency of his game will become too great a headache for Fremantle.

Jack Hannath has underwhelmed in his 17 games, which is a shame given he has a golden opportunity to make himself the preferred option to lead the ruck and swing forward post-Sandilands.

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Ed Langdon, Brady Grey and Darcy Tucker have shown signs of promise in limited opportunities and must be given the chance to play for the remainder of the season. When put against the likes of Suban, DeBoer, Mzungu and Danyle Pearce they must be thrown into AFL football for a sustained period of time and be allowed to develop.

The playing list is limited and subsequently the Dockers are devoid of foot speed and have far too many under skilled players, a fact that has been masked by their recent regular season success with a defensive gameplan.

That has worked through a consistent period of finals appearances but will no longer be the case. They rank 17th in effective disposal percentage and 14th in clangers, and rank last in inside 50s. Not only are they poor with the ball, they are not even giving themselves a fighter’s chance by getting it into their forward line.

The recruiting
Recruiting has been something the Dockers have done atrociously of recent times, with the Colin Sylvia debacle sending a chill down the spines of anyone associated with the purple and Bennell looks to be headed that way.

Granted, he has been injured but he has come with a ‘buyer beware’ label and while he came cheap, that is shaping as a positive for Fremantle as his season will not get off the ground.

The benefit of being in such a short-term hole is that Fremantle can start to recruit properly and not look for shortcut options. Cale Hooker is widely reported as being on Fremantle’s radar, as is Jesse Hogan.

Both would be huge additions and the Dockers should be doing everything possible to get them in the next 12-18 months. Everything possible includes putting Neale on the trade table – everyone apart from Fyfe must be used in trade discussions.

The idea of trading Neale may seem illogical, but Fremantle have poor key position depth and fixing that must be a priority.

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The answer
Fremantle have an opportunity to use the remainder of this season to change the gameplan and re-train their players; the onus must be on Lyon to change his approach and move away from the game style he has modelled his success on, as it simply cannot be effective in today’s competition

The loss of Fyfe for most of the season is a telling blow but one that may be a blessing in disguise for the long-term future of this club. Lyon has signed until 2020 and would be best using the remainder of 2017 and 2018 to complete a rebuild of this list with the focus being on getting proven, talented big men on whom they can rely when they are ready to move back up the AFL ladder.

Teams like the Western Bulldogs, Adelaide and West Coast have proven that things can turn around very quickly and there is no reason that Fremantle cannot become relevant again and return to success. It will only happen if they change the gameplan, turnover a significant amount of the list and take a more measured approach to trading.

This season is a write-off and Fremantle must have the courage and boldness to go down the rebuild track, sacrifice results in 2017 and look to a return to premiership calculations in 2018.

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