It’s about time the Western Derby became interesting once again.
For years, Fremantle have simply been levels below West Coast, and that has affected the quality of the most heated rivalry in the AFL.
The Eagles have won ten matches in a row against the Dockers with an average winning margin of 37.4 points, which dates back to Round 20, 2015. Only three of the last ten derbies have been decided by four goals or less.
We can drill down further to see just how anticlimactic these matches have turned out to be.
Using the same sample size, the deepest into a game the Dockers have led the Eagles is seven minutes and 23 seconds into the third quarter of the Round 6 derby in 2018, which was decided by eight points, the closest of the ten matches.
Every other game has had the Eagles leading from, at the absolute latest, the 24th-minute mark of the second quarter.
In fact, Fremantle have only led the Eagles for 11.26 per cent of the last ten games between the two, which eliminates the misconception that teams fire up for derbies regardless of where they sit on the ladder.
If it weren’t for the geographical location, we would have absolutely no interest in this match-up based on recent history.
But here we are, heading into the seventh round of 2021, and we see more than just light at the end of the tunnel.
It feels as though things in Western Australia are starting to turn, with the Dockers finding some form and the Eagles heavily depleted.
We won’t overreact to recent results or current ladder standings, as recency bias is a pet hate of mine. But there is no doubting that what Fremantle coach Justin Longmuir has been building is looking far more solid as time goes on.
Sure, the Dockers’ wins have come against GWS, Hawthorn, Adelaide and North Melbourne, and of course, the travel to Victoria continues to be a genuine concern.
But the base level of performance is increasing to a point where Fremantle won’t let you down in games you expect them to be competitive.
Given the injury bug flying around the AFL, it’s easy to forget the Dockers have started off the season depleted themselves.
Their current injury list features Adam Cerra, Joel Hamling, Stephen Hill, Alex Pearce, Sam Switkowski and Hayden Young, with Brennan Cox under an injury cloud this week. All these players bar possibly Hill are in the club’s best team.
Even looking within the fit core unit, Rory Lobb, Griffin Logue and Michael Walters are still trying to find their feet, while Sean Darcy is hitting his straps after a delayed start.
On the flip side, the Eagles are coming off a demolition, their worst loss since Round 3 of 2009 against St Kilda, where they became even more depleted with Jeremy McGovern’s injury.
Shannon Hurn has been missing, Josh J Kennedy was absent and key players Liam Ryan, Luke Shuey and Elliot Yeo have long-term injuries.
West Coast have been hit with ailments to some of their most crucial players and have only three wins and a percentage at 93.6 after six rounds, but we have seen some excellent performances out of the team against the Bulldogs and Port Adelaide.
With both teams having so much to play for and prove to their stakeholders, we are finally approaching a Derby that is mouth-watering and well worth the anticipation.
It’s expected that the Eagles will be able to select at least one, if not both of Hurn and Kennedy, which are massive inclusions.
Hurn may well be a luxury given how well Alex Witherden has started, but part of the Eagles’ downfall against the Cats was an inability to maintain possession, and the backline was incredibly ineffective as a result.
Not to be discounted is his record in these games, with Hurn being a three-time Glendinning-Allan medalist, as well as the fact he will move past Dean Cox and become West Coast’s games record holder.
Kennedy too, is a three-time winner of the best-on-ground honours in derbies. He has 27 goals and 16 behinds in his last seven matches against the Dockers and is perhaps even more dangerous given the fact Oscar Allen is starting to take over his role as the main forward and attract serious attention.
And this is perhaps Fremantle’s biggest challenge to overcome, especially with Cox’s fitness concerns.
The Eagles are expected to play their big three key forwards and will look to exploit an undersized defence.
Griffin Logue is 193 centimetres tall and would be the only key option available, with the likes of Taylin Duman, Tobe Watson, Luke Ryan, Ethan Hughes and Heath Chapman all potential partners but not suited to key defensive posts.
Should Cox be unavailable, at least Duman’s selection would be an appropriate match-up for Jack Darling.
This isn’t a new issue for the Dockers to overcome – it’s the reason why Brennan Cox had to become a key defender in the first place.
However given the offensive strength of the opposition, whether Fremantle can break even in defence will be the defining factor in this Derby.
West Coast’s gameplan gives them a chance. If the Eagles play as they wish, they will be controlling the ball with short kicks to manipulate the opposition.
In reality though, West Coast are ranked dead last in inside 50s and with Fremantle being able to form a web behind the ball, they will limit the efficiency in which the limited entries turn into scores.
Similarly, this will ultimately be the avenue to winning for the Eagles too, particularly having success in the aerial battle.
Fremantle concedes 12.2 marks inside 50 and 12 contested marks per game and with the fear that without Brennan Cox, who has had a stellar start to the season, these could be far more devastating statistics closer to goal.
Expect West Coast to try hammering the ball in more than usual to try and take full advantage of their strength. Of course, the Eagles will only be able to do this by winning enough of the ball through the midfield and having control off halfback.
The difficulty for them will be that Fremantle has a significant advantage in the midfield.
Largely built on the incredible start to the season David Mundy is having, averaging 25.5 disposals, five tackles, five clearances and five inside 50s a game, Fremantle have been one of the best midfield units in the centre.
At a cursory glance, it may seem otherwise.
The Dockers are ranked tenth in hitouts, 11th in clearances, tenth in centre clearances and 12th in disposals.
In-game, however, Fremantle manage stoppages around the ground really well, averaging five more clearances than their opponents and three more inside 50s.
When it comes to West Coast’s clearance advantage with Nic Naitanui, it’ll only come from centre clearances, where the Dockers are likely to be susceptible in the 6-6-6 setup.
Once the ball comes to a halt around the ground, Fremantle attract numbers around the ball and centralise their wingmen, so that there is enough of a presence to feed the ball out and run forward.
It’s unlikely that the Eagles are going to make any drastic changes, with their trends indicating they tend to lose out around the ground too, making for a fascinating contest in Fremantle’s numbers around the ball behind West Coast’s numbers in defence.
Sean Darcy’s breakout season faces its biggest challenge, while Nic Naitanui doesn’t have the easier route he has had previously.
And while McGovern is a big loss for the Eagles, too many people overlook Tom Barrass and how good he is.
Matt Taberner is the main focus of any opposition, and will attract the attention of Barrass, with others such as Josh Rotham and Brad Sheppard peeling off.
Geelong were able to overwhelm West Coast’s defence with running and slick ball movement, and the smaller players took full advantage.
Nat Fyfe will play more in attack knowing this, while Lachie Schultz, Michael Walters and perhaps even Travis Colyer are important for hitting the scoreboard.
Make no mistake, there are a heap of narratives within each part of the ground that make this contest tantalising.
There has been a definite switch in momentum in footy in Western Australia, and for the first time since 2015, we may have both teams making finals.
With a heap to play for and lots to prove, we can expect a tight, hard-fought game that Fremantle will look to win around the ground, and West Coast will look to win aerially in offence.
If you love your footy, you’ll be glued to your screens or radios in the final match of the round, where we should see the best Derby in years.
For what it’s worth, I think Fremantle can snap the losing streak, and excellent performances from Luke Ryan, Caleb Serong and David Mundy will throw them in medal contention.