Fremantle have stood down 75 per cent of their staff in what they have labelled “extreme austerity measures” in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
After a superb season 2019, there were fears Fremantle would get smashed by the expansion draft, with many of their best players leaving for West Coast. But instead it seems Fremantle will be better this year than last.
Though eight players left for West Coast, there were perhaps only three whose departure really hurt — Dana Hooker from the midfield, and Kellie Gibson and Ashley Atkins from the forward line. They also lost their two undersized rucks — Pariss Laurie and Alicia Janz — but it seems unlikely to hurt them this year.
In the offseason, Fremantle got an Irish recruit, Aine Tighe, who is 185 centimetres and apparently quite athletic — she may have some trouble adjusting to the new sport, but at least she’s a proper ruck size, which Fremantle haven’t had for all their time in the AFLW yet.
Apparently she’s doing training drills with none other than Aaron Sandilands. Better still, Freo collected teenage ruck star Mim Strom from the draft, who could be good enough in her first year to let them use Tighe up forward or in defence as well.
The prospect of an effective ruck should lift Freo’s already impressive midfield. Yes, they’re missing Hooker, but Kara Antonio (nee Donellan) was down on form last season, apparently with injury, and should be better this year.
Haley Miller and Stephanie Cain are both lightning fast, only 23 and still improving, and Kiara Bowers showed last year that she’s one of the competition’s elite players.
That’s four top quality mids, plus there’s been some talk of maybe moving defender Evie Gooch into the middle, something that could be possible thanks to Ebony Antonio staying back in defence next season (if she does) and not playing forward as she did last season.
Lindal Rohde, too, is a mature-aged netball convert from the WAFLW with rare size and speed on the wing, who looks like she’ll fit Freo’s fast-paced playing style perfectly.
The reason Antonio probably won’t be needed up forward is that Freo’s forward line, despite losing Gibson and Atkins, probably got stronger in the offseason.
Mostly this is due to Freo’s top draft pick, the awesomely named Roxy Roux, who’s probably the most exciting athlete to ever come out of Western Australian women’s football.
Roux has been used as an undersized ruck at junior level thanks to her crazy vertical leap, but at AFLW level that’s a massive waste of energy for someone who could be taking big contested marks anywhere within 70 metres of goal.
Roux’s also got a huge kick, is very agile, and tackles like a train. Added to Kate Flood, another Irish import about whom glowing reports are coming in, and you’ve still got Gemma Houghton, who’s probably the most athletic key forward in the comp after Tayla Harris, the fast Ashley Sharp, and the clever opportunist Sabrina Duffy.
So no, Freo’s goalkicking power, the thing that set them apart from most other teams last year, doesn’t seem to have declined at all, and might have even increased.
Freo’s backline, already strong last year, will be better again if Ebony Antonio stays back all year, plus Freo will be hoping to get back the important Alex Williams from her late-season ACL injury last year.
In addition, the Dockers may have got the steal of the Western Australian draft in Emma O’Driscoll, a recently converted former netball player, who is only 19, strong, fast, and in a couple of WAFLW games I saw on YouTube, has a ferocious attack on the ball.
Best of all, Fremantle benefitted from some of the best coaching in the competition last season, with Trent Cooper’s adoption of a fast running game.
Last year, teams playing the old, slow, congested style actually played into the hands of teams like Fremantle, by concentrating all their players down one end and getting beaten out the back by Freo’s pace — some huge percentage of Fremantle’s goals were scored on fast breaks running the length of the field.
This season it seems likely far more teams will be playing the same style, and it will be interesting to see how those already playing the end-to-end style adjust. My money’s on Fremantle doing it better than most.