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Footy Fix: Freo's skipper is BACK - and he's making the Dockers' defence great again

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Editor
29th March, 2024
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Alex Pearce won’t get any Brownlow Medal votes for his performance on Friday night at Optus Stadium. If there was a medal to be won, he’d have been unlikely to get a look in. And I suspect if you look at the ‘bests’ lists on the country’s leading footy publications on Saturday morning, he might just scrape in for a passing mention at the end.

It’s a reflection more on the way we value defenders, and key defenders especially, in a sport where they rarely bring in the sexy, eye-catching stat lines that the casual viewer pays most attention to. Because no one was more influential in Freo’s third consecutive victory to start the season than their inspirational captain.

Gerard Healy called the Dockers’ backline ‘the wall of Pearce’, and it’s apt – time and time again Adelaide surged forward, showing all the lack of precision in trying to hit up the most dynamic forward line of 2023 that has characterised their grim start to the season… and time and time again it was Pearce standing in their way, with a timely spoil, a strong mark, or some solid body work to allow a teammate to step into the hole, most often Luke Ryan.

It’s not a one-off, either – quietly going about his business across the first three weeks of the season, Pearce has been instrumental in ensuring a once-feared Dockers defence is again at its most miserly. Perhaps all it took was a monumental performance like his shutdown job on Taylor Walker, all while pulling down intercept marks by the score, to make everyone sit up and take notice.

No skipper endured more criticism in 2023 than Pearce; his rapid fall from grace, in no small part due to a serious leg injury that left him scarcely able to train, blew a hole in Freo’s defensive set-up that proved unfixable, and with it their season withered and died.

But the 2024 version of the 28-year old is a repeat of the 2022 version who marshalled that year’s stingiest defence, and who came close to being the most unheralded player in recent memory to receive an All-Australian nod which, quite frankly, he deserved.

A few more performances like Friday night’s, and selectors will have to have him in their calculations, though it’s far too early in the season to be making such calls.

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Walker, a reigning All-Australian himself, was made to look finished as a footballer: Pearce barely gave him an inch on the lead and forced him to head upfield for his rare disposals.

Dominant one-on-one and adept at shunting the veteran under the ball whenever it headed his way, the Crows’ best set shot and leading goalkicker for five years running had one sniff of a major – a set shot from 45 metres out on a tight angle in the first quarter, which he missed.

It was to be his only disposal inside 50 for the game. That’s the extent of the bath which Pearce gave him.

His dominance in the air got to the point where Healy was genuinely interrupted in saying on Fox Footy’s commentary that ‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alex Pearce play a better game than this’ by Pearce pulling down another intercept mark on the wing, reacting incredibly quickly to the ball falling short, sprinting away from a flat-footed Walker, and taking an easy grab.

A superb chasedown tackle on the smaller, sprightlier Ned McHenry early on showed another thing, too – the yard of pace Pearce seemed to have lost last year has returned, and apparently with interest.

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There’s a confidence about the captain this year that was conspicuously absent from him last season. Where the game’s best defenders set themselves apart is in their willingness to leave an opponent, no matter how dangerous, in order to help out with a rebound play.

Pearce seldom got involved in that sort of thing last season, but he did it in abundance on Friday night: from bustling Walker off the footy in a ground ball contest 60 out from the Crows’ goal and instantly turning the tide the other way, to him bursting up the middle in the last quarter, ignoring designated kicker Jordan Clark riding shotgun, and driving the ball deep. (Sure, he blazed away and it amounted to nothing, but how about the intent!)

The impact Pearce’s return to form is having on Freo’s defence is intangible, but palpable every time you watch them. It’s bringing the best out of Luke Ryan in particular, who can now attack the ball in the air, or sag off an opponent, with confidence, knowing the safety net behind him is structurally sound.

Ryan and Clark are the Dockers’ most efficient users in defence, and both were almost as pivotal as Pearce: unlike most kickers, tellingly, they’re tough as nails when it’s their turn to go for a spoil or desperate tackle, or to win a ground ball inside 50. It’s a combination that has put them both (and again, it’s far too early to make this assertion with any confidence) into All-Australian contention.

Alex Pearce tackles Ned McHenry.

Alex Pearce tackles Ned McHenry. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Young Josh Draper, who in his second game looked assured in defence and especially gifted overhead, is assimilating nicely into a defence that has now restricted both of 2023’s most potent attacks, Brisbane and Adelaide, to a combined 14 goals across two games. Freo are back, baby.

Realistically, the Crows’ only chance to score was to move the ball like lightning from their defensive 50, getting the ball into attack too quickly for Pearce and the Dockers to set up.

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They managed that twice in the first quarter before reality set in – the Crows just aren’t a team capable, in their current form slump, of slicing and dicing a team which pressures like the Dockers do, who laid 63 tackles to 43 despite winning the disposals count and regularly shut down Adelaide’s ball movement before it even looked half dangerous.

Pearce rescued what was a concerningly scrappy performance from the Dockers further afield: most teams going around won’t let Freo get away with their poor ball use, by both foot and hand, moving forward, or their woeful inefficiency going inside 50, or their ugly 9.15 scoreline.

Premiership contenders don’t have a disposal efficiency of under 25 per cent inside 50 across an entire quarter as Freo did in the third, a term they otherwise largely dominated.

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For a side with limited goalkicking options as it is, it will be imperative they improve their conversion rate moving forward, because 69 points won’t win all that many games even with Pearce and the backs at their miserly best. And that the Crows managed a hefty number of intercept marks themselves – 15, as it happens, one more than Freo’s 14 albeit from far more opportunities, is an issue for Justin Longmuir to solve.

But those are problems for another day. The Dockers are 3-0 for the first time since Ross Lyon’s halcyon years, they are tackling like men possessed, Michael Walters is winding back the clock..

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And integral to all that is good at Fremantle is the captain, who at the moment is perfectly summing up the old adage that a year is a long time in football.

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