THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – FREMANTLE DOCKERS 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

Fremantle are an interesting team in 2020. There have been marginal gains and significant losses on their list over the off-season, but so much of how they travel this season relies simply on health.

I know it’s the same for all teams, but with Fremantle, so much of who they were was ripped from them in 2019. Alex Pearce, Luke Ryan, Matt Taberner, Jesse Hogan, Rory Lobb… just about every tall option they had found themselves in the grandstand, forced to watch on as their bodies failed them.

And failed their team.

I know that we are in the age where midfielders can play forward and forward pressure rules the roost, but the Dockers found themselves left with no one to kick to, and were struggling just as much to have big defenders kill contests in the backline. It was almost unfair.

But let’s not cry over spilt milk. Though we have already had Jesse Hogan go on a break for mental reasons… again, there is the hope that Fremantle’s tall stocks won’t completely topple over again in 2020.

Can they climb the ladder? Can a couple of the younger brigade elevate their games to aid Nat Fyfe in the middle? Can Justin Longmuir allow some of the Dockers who were so shackled under Ross Lyon the opportunity to range far and wide, playing an attacking brand of football?

Let’s explore the 2020 Dockers, and their chances with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE ONE MAN BAND

What can we say about Nat Fyfe that hasn’t already been said?

He has 13 toes? After midnight he turns inside out and prowls local parks? Those things haven’t been said, but just about every superlative you can conjure up has been attributed to him, and his style of play over the last five years, and for good reason.

Fyfe is the complete package – an absolute bull in close, he can rumble into a pack and rumble out the other side with the footy under his arm. He relishes one-on-one contests and will happily rag doll a smaller opponent and use his agility to leave a bigger bloke in his dust. Put the ball up in the air, and he has very few contemporaries when flying for the footy – it’s by no means going out on a limb to state he is the benchmark amongst midfielders when it comes to taking overhead marks; he is spectacular.

A second Brownlow cements Fyfe as an all-time great, but at 28 years of age, Fyfe has the ability to claim a third, and truly put himself at the top of the tree in terms of the AFL pantheon of greatness.

Look at this list of names of those out of the game who have claimed more than one medal – Chris Judd, Adam Goodes, Rob Harvey, Greg Williams, Peter Moore, Keith Greig, Roy Wright, Bill Hutchison, Ivor Warne-Smith, Ian Stewart, Bob Skilton, Dick Reynolds and Haydn Bunton Snr.

All are in the AFL Hall of Fame (except Judd – eligibility) – as will Fyfe once he is gone from the game, but my interest lays in the four men to have won the Brownlow three times. Each of them has ascended to Legend Status in the game. Fyfe is the only player in the current landscape I believe can join them.

There are few better sites in football than Fyfe reading the incoming footy, rising, taking a grab and hitting the ground running as his opponent wonders what the hell happened, and who was that who was sitting on his back just moments before. Fyfe is poetry in motion, and he will need to elevate his game even further in 2020 to give the Dockers a sniff of success.

As we’ll get into below, Fyfe has been a lone ranger in the middle at times for the Dockers. With David Mundy almost as old as I am, and the Brad Hill/Ed Langdon marathon runners headed elsewhere to continue their careers, Fyfe finds himself reliant on the rapid development of young stars to support him. He hasn’t whined or complained – just accepted that this is the way it is at the moment, and if he embraces it fully, how can those kids like Cerra, Brayshaw and Tucker not benefit?

2020 will not be an easy year for Fyfe. He will have to dig deep and put the Dockers on his back at times. There will be times when the load gets too heavy, the throwing himself recklessly into packs to lay a tackle becomes a little too tough, or the constant defensive attention of the best stoppers in the league will wear him down. However, the crazy thing about Fyfe is that when you watch him, he doesn’t really let you know how tough things truly are.

Ball in dispute? No problem! Pack mark? Not a worry. Shrugging off a would-be tackler? A walk in the park for Fyfe!

As much as some malign him for being the antithesis of the old school footballer, and a little too aloof for his own good, the fact is that Fyfe is a rare breed. He dances to the beat of his own drum and now expects those he captains to follow him. Yes, it may be a difficult season, but Fyfe has a rare gift – he makes the difficult things look easy.

Because for the true greats, they sometimes are.

 

THE BEST FORWARD/MID IN THE GAME?

There is a bit of a decision looming for Justin Longmuir, and he will have to deliberate a little about which way he should go.

You see, he has this wonderful player who is an asset in two parts of the ground. Not unlike the situation at Port Adelaide where Robbie Gray is required both in the midfield, and up forward to finish things off, Fremantle have a rare bird in Michael Walters.

But is he a rare bird that plays in the midfield to aid Nat Fyfe, or up forward where he is capable of rivalling Charlie Cameron as the All-Australian small forward?

Where is the greatest need for the Dockers in 2020?

Walters split time between the two roles in 2019, averaging over 21 disposals per game for the first time in his career, but he also topped 40 goals for the third time. It was a stellar season from Walters, who showed his match-winning ability by…well, by winning matches with late shots at goal, I suppose.

At 29 years of age, Walters made the leap into national stardom in 2019. Yeah, I know Freo fans… you all knew how good he was before that – his 2016 season was excellent, and he has only led the team in goals five bloody times, but last year saw him earn his first All-Australian blazer. It was well-deserved, as Walters assumed the spot on the half forward flank that Robbie Gray has had a mortgage on over the past few years.

I wonder whether Longmuir has lost any sleep about where to play Walters, or whether he sees him as a stop-gap measure when things aren’t going as well as he’d hoped.

Freo are in need in both positions, but there is only one Michael Walters. Brandon Matera kicked 30 goals in 2019, but the next best mid/small forward was Andrew Brayshaw, with seven. There is a huge chasm from Matera to the next average size forward, which makes Walters’ presence inside 50 incredibly valuable.

But what of the midfield? You have Fyfe, whose brilliance I’ve already covered, then Mundy, but there is 50 disposals per game between Hill and Langdon that have wandered out the door – Walters is needed there as well.

The decision around where to play Walters in 2020 may ebb and flow, and that is part of the Walters charm. When he plays forward, he looks like he could tear your heart out at the first opportunity. When he plays in the midfield, he looks as though he could cut through teams like a knife through butter. It is such a shame that impish smile, and the look in his eyes like he could put one on your chin in the blink of an eye cannot be replicated in both positions.

Suffice to say, wherever Longmuir settles on playing his star, we as fans are in for a treat, and those given the task of stopping him are in for a long day at the office.

 

BUCKETS TABERNER

Myself and my fellow Mongrel writers butt heads (Haha. Yes, they’re buttheads) on a number of topics, but things always get a little interesting when we submit our All-Australian selections for the rolling teams. For those new to our site, we have four during the year and I always find the first one, after Round Seven,  to be the most fun, and offer the most varying results.

In 2019, I was banging my drum and talking up the merits of Matt Taberner – I felt like I was banging my head against the wall.

Tom Hawkins was nominated by the team as the Centre Half Forward (the first of two teams he pinched a spot from someone else more deserving in 2019) and Tabs was relegated to an also-ran.

In my team, I had him plonked right in there at CHF on the basis of his start to the season, and I stand by it – he was fantastic.

At that stage of the season, Tabs was averaging over a goal, eight marks and two and a half contested grabs per game. He was instrumental in the Dockers’ huge win on the road against the GWS Giants, kicking four, taking four contested grabs amongst his 13 marks for the game, and almost setting a new career-high with 21 touches.

Watching him that day, I felt as though Freo had been looking for a big forward, grabbed by Rory Lobb and Jesse Hogan, but it would be Matt Taberner that would end up emerging as their go-to player.

Sadly, he lasted two more games before a foot injury ended his season.

Tabs’ injury brought to light the issue of the surface at Optus Stadium, and I hope this is something the facility has rectified heading into 2020. Fremantle has a couple of big blokes who have experienced foot injuries, and a hard surface can’t be helping matters at all.

A fit and firing Matt Taberner makes Freo a dangerous proposition. They started 4-2 in 2020 before injury to basically every tall they had bumped them down the ladder. Every team needs some luck, and should Freo receive enough of it to keep even half their tall options on the park in 2020, they will give plenty of teams headaches in the air.

 

THE MATURATION OF BRANDON MATERA

I’d almost given up on Brandon Matera.

After watching him at Gold Coast, seeing a player who seemed to like to try, but never actually pull off the impossible, there seemed to be a distinct lack of hard work, and a distinct abundance of overconfidence about him on the field. He looked as though he was writing cheques his backside couldn’t cash at times.

And then it all seemed to click into place in 2019.

Before I sing his praises, Matera had one of the worst pre-season games I’ve seen last season. For a player of so much ability, he came across as though the Mon-Stars had flown in from their planet and decided to suck the talent out of his body (there’s a visual for you), leaving him to flail away at the footy without much success.

And whilst Matera is no Charles Barkley or Patrick Ewing (or Shawn Bradley for that matter… maybe he is Muggsy Bogues?) I thought he may have been cooked.

I was wrong, and Matera really knuckled down. His 2019 campaign started in Round Three, where he snagged three goals in a win. Two weeks later he kicked four in another win, and then five in a third win. The  Dockers were 4-1 in games where Matera finished with three or more snags.

The penny really seemed to drop in 2019 for Matera, and his application not only with the ball in his hands, but when the ball was in dispute increased exponentially. He’d always had the skill, but he started applying great pressure inside 50 as well, finishing with 5+ tackles on three occasions.

Whilst Matera is not the key to the Dockers forward line, he can be a nice piece to any puzzle Longmuir is putting together. He has a great goal sense and has the potential to have games where he is the most effective forward on the park – it is something I didn’t think I’d see as little as 12 months ago.

 

THE OPPORTUNITY TO SHINE IN THE MIDDLE

We’ve all heard the saying about the words “crisis” and “opportunity” in China, right? If there is a crisis, it’s an opportunity for the military to go in and squash the uprising, just like in Hong Kong…

Too soon?

The saying goes that the Chinese use the same word for opportunity as they do for crisis, and though I am certain the word “crisis” has never been uttered in terms of the Fremantle midfield, the word “opportunity” springs to mind when I think about the situation heading into the 2020 season.

For mine, there are three or four midfield spots wide open and up for grabs at this stage. Whilst you’d think Blake Acres would have the inside running to set up shop on one of the wings vacated by Brad Hill and Ed Langdon, there is a real chance we will see the emergence of a new star in the Fremantle midfield in 2020. But who will it be?

Andrew Brayshaw – There were some marginal improvements in Brayshaw’s game in 2019, but I was taking a real interest in his development in 2018 prior to… the incident. Prior to being punched in the chops, he had notched a career-high 25 touches the week before and was tacking nicely in the Derby as well. Fast forward almost 12 months and he finally topped that career-high with 26 touches and three goals against the Dogs. Plenty of potential, but will need another season pinch-hitting in the guts before he breaks out.

Adam Cerra – A year down back may have served Cerra well, but you don’t use pick five to draft a kid to play in the back pocket. Cerra is quick, with good hands and decent, if not brilliant delivery. At 20, a bit of space and freedom on the wing could be just the ticket for him to get more involved.

Connor Blakely – The move was threatened in 2019 and never really eventuated. Nudged 20 touches per game in 2019, and at 23 years old, seems the most likely to be able to physically stand up to the rigours of life in the midfield. With 60 games under his belt, he has served his time in defence. A move into the middle beckons, and the Dockers need him to be very good, very quickly.

Nathan Wilson – A little out of the box, but Wilson has been a little underwhelming off half back, and part of me wonders whether he would be better suited to running forward of centre, where that run and long ball inside 50 could really catch defenders napping, and the penetration he gets could get the ball out the back quickly. Whilst I am not really sure who takes his role at half back, Wilson as a wingman could really kickstart the Fremantle forward 50.

I’m sure I’ve missed someone. If you have any others you’d like to see get a run through the guts, by all means let me know.

 

DEFENSIVE PILLARS

Yes, I know the Fremantle lament – Alex Pearce gets hurt too much. I get it, but I am an optimistic person – I buy the occasional Powerball ticket (but only when it gets to like $20 million… I don’t want one of those pissy little $2 million wins). I like to look at the best-case scenario, and really it has to involve Pearce staying on the park in 2020.

When I look at Freo, the combination of Pearce, Luke Ryan, Joel Hamling and Griffin Logue have enormous potential to become an elite building block.

Unfortunately, a couple of these defensive pillars have crumbled in recent seasons.

Alex Pearce has one season of 20+ games to his name. He was looking amazing in 2019 until his ankle decided it’d had enough of the season.

Griffin Logue is a great name, so he’s definitely got that going for him, but he is another who has been bitten hard by the injury bug over his short career. Still, there were definite signs in 2019.

Joel Hamling did his best to hold down the key position without Pearce there, and was one of the league’s best spoilers, second only to All-Australian full back, Harris Andrews, yet never spoken about with the same affection by those in the media.

And then there’s Luke Ryan, who had a career-best season in 2019 as the floating defender, able to impact contests as the third man up.

Health is the absolute key to this bunch. Talent is not a factor at all – they have it in spades. You throw in Nathan Wilson running off half back, the newly arrived James Aish perhaps engaging in a larger role than he did at Collingwood, and the developing Adam Cerra or Connor Blakely, and the Dockers have an impressive launching pad in defence.

Now, if only the rest of the team could match it.

 

CAN NATHAN WILSON TAKE THE NEXT STEP?

I want to sing Nathan Wilson’s praises. I started to last season as he appeared ready to take the next step in his development and become one of, if not THE best rebounder in the game.

But he didn’t, and slotted in as the 13th best rebounder in the league instead.

Behind names like Nic Newman and Michael Hurley.

No disrespect to those two – I just plucked them out at random, but Nathan Wilson should be blowing people off the park with his run out of defence by now, and his metres gained per game should be skyrocketing through the roof! Instead, he sits outside the top ten in that category as well.

Pretty negative, huh?

Not all negative – you see, he has so much room to improve. I still think Wilson could absolutely lead the league in rebounds. There is a saying in basketball – leapers want to leap. It’s taught to players like myself, who maybe cannot get off the ground as high as we’d like, so have to employ pump-fakes and head fakes to get the opposition into the air. Leapers want to leap, so they’ll bloody leap!

Just like leapers, runners want to run, and Nathan Wilson is born to tuck the footy under his wing and take off. In 2020 I want to see him become an 80-metre player. 25 metres run and carry and 55 metres kicking down the wing.

Whether he plays half back or gets his chance to play on the wing, Wilson is a weapon that, when deployed correctly, has to be respected. Justin Longmuir has to imbue him with the confidence to take the game on and use his strengths.

And hope like hell he doesn’t misfire.

 

CERRA RIPE

Adam Cerra is listed as a medium defender on the AFL app.

He’s not.

He is a midfielder in waiting, forced into defence by a wicked overlord who has now been ousted by the gallant knight, Sir Justin Longmuir, and as such, has freed the young squire Cerra to be the player he always wanted to be.

But is he ready?

Look, I actually really like Ross the Boss – there was never any bullshit about him, and I reckon he knew what he was doing with Cerra. More importantly, he had the guts to do something that would hurt in the short term and benefit in the long term.

So many coaches are beholden to the fear of losing a player that they feel forced to play him in the role he thinks he is most suited to. Not Lyon – he sent Cerra, who was called a Rolls Royce in the TAC Cup, back to defence where he learned to wear a few dents and scratches.

As much as he may not have enjoyed it, it would have done him good in the long run.

And now Justin Longmuir gets to inherit a better-rounded player.

Cerra should see ample game time in the middle this season. He has done his defensive apprenticeship and learned the ways of the back men. Now it is time to apply those principles where the heat is.

Any chance Longmuir assigns Cerra a few defensive jobs so he can learn from some of the best mids in the game this season? It may not be the worst idea.

 

THE BAD

 

THE LOSS OF THE RUN

I don’t want to denigrate what Blake Acres may bring to the Dockers, but I want to throw some figures around.

In losing Ed Langdon and Brad Hill in the same trade period, the Dockers have been dealt a vicious blow to their run and carry game.

Combined, the departing pair take with them over 50 disposals per game. They were ranked second and third in average disposals at Freo in 2019, and it is not just the disposals that hurt.

Between them, the absence of Langdon and Hill sap the Dockers of over 900 metres gained per contest. Hill was ranked ninth on the competition in that category, and whilst Langdon was somewhat down the list at 35th, so much pressure will fall on the shoulders of others to pick up the pieces… and run with them.

Nathan Wilson seems the logical choice to shoulder the load, and the Dockers should look for him to increase his run from half back in the wake of the departures. Other options include Adam Cerra, Andrew Brayshaw and Darcy Tucker.

The addition of Blake Acres (averaged 225 metres gained per game at St Kilda – 21st on their list) should soften the blow, but it is unrealistic to think he will be any more than a band aid on a bullet wound.

The timing of the Hill/Langdon departures is horrendous. One loss, you could handle, but two?

On a positive note, as covered above, this creates opportunity for players to step up in 2020, and the Dockers will need them to cover these losses. Sometimes all that’s required is opportunity.

 

TALLS MADE OF STRAW

How good could Freo be if their big guys could stay on the park?

When you look at their preferred spine in 2019, they had their full back (Alex Pearce) gone, their centre half forward and full forward (Matt Taberner and Jesse Hogan) both gone, and then the replacement tall forward and floating defender (Rory Lobb and Luke Ryan) both out with injury as well.

It left them shorthanded at just about every key position, with Nat Fyfe the only real player to maintain his position in the centre in the spine.

And what happens if you remove most of someone’s spine? It’s a serious question – I’ve never removed one, but I don’t think the results would be too positive.

Freo operated under extreme duress in 2019. As we turned for home after Round 13, the Dockers were sitting at 7-6 and looked be ready to make an unlikely push for finals, but with eight losses in their last nine games, the absence of just about every big bloke on the list just became too much.

But what if a few of those big fellas are able to stay on the park in 2020? What about if the wheels don’t completely fall off after the halfway point of the season, and we get to see a Fremantle side that is not ruined by injury?

The Dockers were forced to rely on Cam McCarthy again once everyone else went down. He had a good start to the season, but it became apparent soon enough that a forward line with him, Hogan and Lobb was going to take a while to start functioning well together. In the end, all that was left was McCarthy, and had you given Freo fans the choice of which of those three they wanted left standing, if you forced them to choose, I doubt too many would have selected McCarthy.

With Hogan off at the moment due to mental health reasons, we may see the season start with a combination of Taberner and Lobb in the key positions up forward, with either of Brennan Cox or Cam McCarthy floating in.

Alex Pearce, Joel Hamling, Luke Ryan and the improving Griffin Logue are more than capable of holding the fort in defence, however we already had Pearce undergoing some follow up surgery on his ankle which has interrupted his pre-season. Not a great start for a player that could be a decisive factor as to whether Freo sinks of swims in 2020. As a matter of fact, I would rate Pearce as the biggest challenger to Harris Andrews for the AA full back position.

Freo have “potentially” the best talls in the game, but they need a season where they can keep the majority of them on the field to see just what they are capable of.

 

THE UGLY

 

THE ONE MAN BAND MK II

Yep, this is as big a negative as it is a positive.

Nat Fyfe is so far ahead of every single one of his teammates, with the possible exception of Michael Walters, that it makes his control of the midfield somewhat of a negative.

How so?

Well, it is no easy task, but the AFL now has an upper echelon of run-with players whose only purpose is to prevent players like Fyfe  from dominating games. Easier said than done with a player like Fyfe, I know – but what  is the Dockers’ Plan-B when “hit the ball to Nat Fyfe and get the hell out of the way” doesn’t quite go as planned?

In the past, we had a bloke named Lachie Neale running around, who was no slouch, himself. However, amongst the current crop of midfielders in purple, the drop-off seems huge.

We had murmurs of Connor Blakeley moving into the midfield last year, but a significant hamstring tear seemed to scuttle that in the pre-season. Could this year be the year he shifts gears and makes the move into the middle?

David Mundy… the ever-reliable David Mundy, will most likely miss the start of the season, although shedding the moonboot in early January is a good sign for the 35 year old. That said, Mundy with a limited pre-season is  not the ideal help for Fyfe.

I guess it comes down to just how much weight Nat Fyfe’s  shoulders can carry early in 2020. He will have to do a mountain of work in order to keep this side competitive as this midfield starts to gel. He’s done it before – it’s not like this is at all foreign to him – but when it is asked again, and again… does it start to feel a little heavier each time?

My hope is that he receives some unexpected “out of the box” games by one or two of the younger guys, allowing Freo to punish their opponents if all the attention goes onto their captain. It might be wishful thinking, but with Mundy restricted to walking laps as little as a few days ago, wishing is about all you can do for this undermanned squad.

And while you’re wishing, you’d better wish Fyfe stays healthy as well. 2020 without his influence would be messy.

 

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