It happens every season.
It took a five-goal demolition of fellow premiership contender Adelaide to confirm that the Fremantle Dockers are a legitimate threat for the AFLW flag in 2021.
Extending their historic winning streak to ten, the Dockers went through the incomplete 2020 season undefeated. However, without having faced fellow contenders, premiership success simply couldn’t be treated as a fait accompli, to the chagrin of Fremantle’s fans.
The 2021 season started off in familiar fashion, with a five-goal win over a GWS team that had been through extraordinarily mental and physical fatigue to participate in Round 1 followed by a workmanlike performance in the wet against the Eagles.
Travelling to South Australia, the Dockers stuck to their tactical guns and were far too quick and applied too much pressure going forward against a wayward Adelaide unit.
Fremantle’s success has come on the back of a clearly defined plan with players executing extremely well at both ends of the ground.
A direct style that looks to cover ground by foot and relies upon the fitness and speed of its players, Fremantle has a structure behind the ball that is strong in the air and on the ground, ready to counterattack as soon as possession is won.
The Dockers possess an incredible 2.52:1 kick-to-handball ratio, well clear of West Coast (2.06:1) in second place and completely foreign to Carlton (1.10:1).
Ranked ninth in both total disposals and marks in the competition, the emphasis has been placed on pressure and getting the ball forward, which eliminates the risk of overpossession as the mindset isn’t worried about disposal efficiency.
Forgoing possession can be a risky ploy, but as has been seen through the Dockers here and Richmond in the AFL, putting more time into forcing opposition turnovers means that when these teams win the ball, their opponent is out of position and there’s plenty of space ahead.
There is simplicity in chaos.
Behind the ball Janelle Cuthbertson has been taking enormous strides forward in her game, leading the league for intercept possessions through the first three rounds.
Averaging 13 disposals, four marks and 11 intercept possessions per game, Cuthbertson’s role and confidence in the defensive 50 has relieved the pressure on young gun Emma O’Driscoll to develop her own multifaceted defensive game without being exposed.
Lauren Pugh is just as important defensively as an unheralded yet vital cog in the defensive machine that does any job asked of her to an elite level.
The defensive success of the Dockers, conceding just three goals per game, is built on the pressure up the ground forcing the opposition to kick into the defensive zone set up by the aforementioned players, while midfielders and outside players are more than willing to push back in order to assist in rebound and commencing the counterattack.
Many fans would suggest the Kangaroos own the hardest-working midfield in the competition, but the brilliance of that team cannot compare in work rate and ethic to the way the Fremantle centres operate.
The way in which the Dockers wants to wear down the opposition and work relentlessly hard in both directions is built for the personnel the team has rather than trying to fit a mismatch of pieces into a jigsaw.
Kiara Bowers is an MVP favourite for a reason, increasing her already incredible numbers to an average of 22 disposals, 12 tackles and three rebounds per game through the opening third of the season.
Stephanie Cain hasn’t missed a beat since returning from her ACL injury in 2020, working hard on both the inside and in both directions to collect the ball, while Kara Antonio is having a similar effect.
Ebony Antonio’s transition into the midfield utility running up and down the wings has been an exquisite fit for Fremantle, playing often on the defensive side of the contest to help get the ball forward to the more attacking midfielders, Hayley Miller and Tiah Haynes, who are thriving as attacking midfielders.
All this movement up and down from the midfielders has opened space for the forwards to push higher than their direct opponents up the ground, leaving grass behind them to turn and get goalside.
There was a clear directive for players to improve their fitness levels, and with plenty of quiet periods in 2020, some star Dockers took that personally.
Gemma Houghton is perhaps the best example, having already been one of the more impressive key-position players in the competition. The 27-year-old posted career-best running in the preseason and has started off 2021 brilliantly, kicking six goals and averaging 14 disposals as a key forward through three games.
Ashley Sharp returned for the Crows game and kicked two goals as a beneficiary of the open space in attack, while Roxy Roux has impressively been able to manipulate defences without getting any personal reward, which should only be around the corner.
Perhaps the most exciting development goes to the club’s cult hero, Sabreena Duffy.
Epitomising the way Fremantle wants to play, Duffy is pushing higher up the ground when the opportunity is available, and her breakneck speed allows the team to adopt a near-Perth Glory kamikaze-style approach, kicking the ball over the top and letting their star youngster run into attacking 50.
If Duffy hasn’t yet been studying highlights packages of Michael Walters, you’d be shocked – that is the influence she will have on this team going forward.
Once again, there is simplicity in chaos, and Fremantle’s clarity in mindset is what separates them from a host of other AFLW teams.
The game against Adelaide proved that the style holds up against the best teams in pressure situations, legitimising everything the Fremantle Football Club is about.
The question marks are disappearing and the Dockers do not necessarily need to continue this amazing winning streak to prove they’re a contender.
Facing a tough road ahead with an unknown about how long they will continue being able to play games at home, this Dockers team has already bought into their system and each other.
We loved the Dockers heading into last season, but 2021 has a different feel to it.
This is a side that has decided how to play winning footy, and it holds up.
The Dockers are legit, and it’s a sign of things to come.