It’s time to take the Dockers seriously.
A 35-point win over Carlton in front of a home crowd starting to believe was never truly challenged, outside of a wayward first term and a brief Blues surge in the final term. After a run of soft kills against Essendon, GWS and West Coast, this was the statement they needed to make.
We didn’t necessarily know how good the Dockers are. We do now.
If you’re going to talk about Fremantle under Justin Longmuir, you can’t start anywhere else but in defence. It was down back where Longmuir first set about building the Dockers side we see today – getting an undersized group light on A-grade talent and with a spate of injuries to rank fifth for points against in his inaugural season.
Since then, improving the rest of the ground has steadily followed. Their midfield, which ranked bottom-four for disposals in 2021, is now mid-table, while their tackle count has exploded from second-fewet last year to fourth at this stage of 2022. It’s meant fewer opportunities for their rivals to send the ball inside 50, while plentiful chances for the Dockers themselves.
There were some brilliant highs and crushing lows in 2021, but the Dockers of 2022 appear stable enough to be bound for finals. And, just maybe, even more than that.
Intercept kings Brennan Cox and Luke Ryan were tremendous against the Blues, particularly the former – ensuring a wounded Harry McKay and Charlie Curnow had next to no impact outside a brief spurt in the last term. Just as crucial was the midfield, whose pressure and refusal to yield to a Blues group which has been unstoppable at times in 2022 saw them translate a 34-32 clearance advantage to a 37-53 inside-50 discrepancy.
Trailing at quarter time courtesy of some traditional Freo kicking for goal – they led inside 50s 13-9 but kicked 1.4 – they began to make the most of their control of the game from there.
The worm turned suddenly and brutally on the Blues – after failing to concede a goal from Freo’s first 12 inside-50 entries, the Dockers would slap on five from their next 11.
With options opening up everywhere in attack, Lachie Schultz and Michael Walters particularly dangerous with a pair of goals apiece, the Dockers began to target the smalls on leads rather than bomb long, where Jacob Weitering had mopped up in the first term. The result were profound, and only two goals from six inside-50s kept the efficient but outmatched Blues in the contest.
The rout continued in the third, with Rory Lobb’s height and marking power beginning to worry the Blues. With three marks inside 50, the occasionally wayward spearhead would kick truly from each. While Carlton remained lethal from centre bounces, they weren’t getting enough chances to keep the margin from blowing out.
When the Blues surged in the last term, it came from a Docker drop in intensity. Suddenly, the Blues began running in waves through the middle as Freo fatigued – five of their six scores for the match from chains starting in defensive 50 came in that quarter.
But the Dockers were seldom threatened, with three of the last four goals ensuring the margin reflected their control on proceedings.
This is a Fremantle that wants for nothing. Alex Pearce, Cox and Ryan couldn’t be doing much more in defence, the Will Brodie and Andrew Brayshaw combination in midfield good enough to start speculating about Nat Fyfe playing forward when he does return, and a forward line previously thought light on power suddenly blessed with goalkicking options to spare.
If someone is going to challenge Melbourne this year, why not the Dockers?
We’ll find out soon whether Port Adelaide’s 84-point victory over West Coast was the Power finally waking up after a nightmare start to 2022, or, y’know, because they were playing West Coast.
But after a first term that was every bit as ugly as the five weeks that preceded it, there was plenty to like about Port’s performance, and enough for Ken Hinkley to keep holding on to that belief that his side just might have a pulse this season.
This was an absolute procession after that early struggle – the Power ended with 76 extra disposals, 11 extra centre clearances and a staggering 31 extra inside-50s (65 to 34). Better defences than the Eagles’ injury-ravaged, Jeremy McGovern-less group wouldn’t have been able to stop that deluge.
It’s worth noting that this isn’t some one-off showing: the Power did the same to a more highly credentialled team in Carlton in the second half last week. The key to that turnaround, and best afield again today, was the same player: Connor Rozee.
Moving the pick five in the 2018 draft into the middle should bring deserved kudos for Hinkley, a man not exactly known for his innovation by Port fans. He has injected some badly needed class into a midfield full of bulls, while his speed and ability to work into space has helped the Power’s spread no end.
Finishing with 31 disposals and seven marks, and going at 83 per cent efficiency, Rozee is exactly the creative ball-user the Power have been looking for. Considering he averaged less than 10 disposals a game across the first four rounds stuck out in the footy graveyard that is the half-forward flank, his sudden influence is remarkable.
Getting the ball into Rozee’s hands has also had a huge impact on Port’s inside 50s. Where against Melbourne and Hawthorn, they resorted to long bombs to an undersized and outmatched forward line, here options found themselves with space to lead into, and accurate passes to latch onto.
The result was a whopping 19 marks inside 50, with Jeremy Finlayson and Todd Marshall suddenly looking like Wayne Carey and John Longmire with five goals apiece. The smalls, too, were noticeably up on confidence, with the Power laying 28 tackles inside 50 to three as Sam Powell-Pepper, Steven Motlop and co. suddenly found themselves with chances to have an impact.
Equally important were the veterans: the ageless Travis Boak took to a more outside role like a duck to water, running hard all day and even finding a way to have nine clearances when he was on the ball. Ollie Wines looked every inch the reigning Brownlow Medallist with his typical bullocking strength in close and incredible work rate in space, traits sorely missed against the Blues and in the second half against the Demons.
There’s still plenty to work on for Port Adelaide – as much as a backline that conceded only four goals can look shaky, theirs did on occasion early. Aliir Aliir is still regaining his touch, and whenever Charlie Dixon returns the team will clearly be better for it. An ill Zak Butters was hardly sighted, and can be excused, while another injury setback for Robbie Gray is a blow.
A litmus test is to come next week against St Kilda, too, where the Power will have their improvement truly judged. Failure there, and they’ll be in exactly the same spot as they were before thrashing the Eagles.
But while there’s life, there’s hope. And Rozee will be key in what comes next.
Forget the one-point margin. Forget the ‘controversial’ centre bounce error in the final seconds. This was a comprehensive victory by Adelaide over the Western Bulldogs in Ballarat.
In just about every stat, especially the ones that are barometers for the Dogs in their pomp, the Crows held their own. 15 more inside 50s against a team that relies on massive territory domination to flourish. Just three fewer disposals, and only five fewer clearances. Four more contested possessions against – supposedly – the deepest midfield going around.
Only goalkicking accuracy – the Crows’ set-shot kicking was literally hit and miss all day – and several butchered chances in the third term kept the margin as close as it was. It would have been a travesty had the Dogs pinched it.
Not much praise has come coach Matthew Nicks’ way in his two and a bit years at the helm at West Lakes, but it’s time to give credit where it’s due. Luke Beveridge is no tactical slouch, but he was comprehensively out-thought and out-planned by the Crows boss.
With frenetic pressure, the Crows nullified the Dogs’ biggest strength – their fast handballs in midfield. Chip kicks in the backline were repeatedly cut off, with the visitors making the Bulldogs’ passes look decidedly pedestrian with an almost clairvoyant ability to read the play. Not that their job was made that difficult by the Dogs.
Dominant early with 13 touches to quarter time, Bailey Smith’s run and carry was clamped down on from there. Never given space to run on the outside, the Bulldog would still finish with 29 touches, but spent much of the final three terms corralled and forced into hack kicks long rather than the penetrating runs that carved up North Melbourne on Good Friday.
Forcing the Dogs into a corner meant playing into their biggest strength – the Crows ruled the skies all day. Billy Frampton was titanic in the defensive half, finishing with nine marks and ten intercept possessions, while ruckman Reilly O’Brien mixed pack grabs with deft taps to his little men at ground level. Jordan Butts, meanwhile, had Aaron Naughton’s measure all day. The loss of Tim English to a hamstring injury during the week was, in hindsight, the killer blow.
The result was 16 marks inside 50 to only eight, with many of the Crows’ coming from defensive half turnovers. In that, Shane McAdam and Lachlan Murphy were key, with the latter’s entries inside 50 in the final term delightful.
Then, of course, there was Taylor Walker, who rose to the occasion in the final term after being beaten by Ryan Gardner, and finished with three goals in his latest crucial performance.
The biggest concern for the Dogs, though, remains in midfield. That a group as star-studded as the Bulldogs’ on-ball brigade, even with Marcus Bontempelli again largely forward, could be beaten by a comparatively blue-collar group of Ben Keays, Sam Berry and Rory Laird is a sizeable concern.
There were times in the last quarter where the Crows resembled Melbourne in the 2021 grand final, such was the ease with which they exited the centre circle with ball in hand.
Forget missing Josh Bruce. Forget no Alex Keath. And forget no English. It’s incumbent on the likes of Jack Macrae, Tom Liberatore and Adam Treloar – all down on form to start the year – to turn this ship around.
Otherwise, it’s possible the Dogs might be in just as perilous a situation as the Power. Who are now just a win worse off.