Hawthorn v Fremantle – The Four Points

 

For the first five or so minutes of today’s game between Hawthorn and Fremantle, I thought we would have a close game. Hawthorn’s pressure looked to be creating an objectively superior Fremantle side a few issues, and Freo’s midfield looked just a step off the pace. If the Hawks pressure could continue to force the Dockers into errors, and their tall forwards stay dangerous, and if Mitchell could keep the ball on a string, and if they get a little bit of luck, I thought we might have an entertaining match. How wrong I was.

Fremantle completely outclassed the Hawks today in just about every key metric you’d want – I think the only stat they didn’t win was tackles, but to be fair, it’s hard to tackle the opposition when you keep winning the ball. After those first few minutes where the Hawks were on top, Fremantle wrestled back control of the game and never let go, eventually doing what all good teams do – beat up on bad teams.

Here are my four points.

 

  1. Sean Darcy

 

We had a discussion in The Mongrel Punt chat this week about whether it was a fait accompli that Max Gawn was the All-Australian ruckman. While he probably is, Sean Darcy put as strong a case forward for his own selection as just about any player has done this year. He didn’t just beat Jon Ceglar and Ben McEvoy, he comprehensively beat them. No, that’s not enough. He destroyed them. No, that’s still not enough. You know what, it’s like he took the selection of an opposing ruckman as some great personal insult and decided that he would demolish them so completely that any other potential opponents watching would suffer premature PTSD.

I’m not sure that I’ve seen a ruckman play as good a game as Darcy’s this year. He finished today with 25 disposals (16 contested and 88% efficiency), nine marks (six contested), 27 hit outs, five clearances, nine intercept possessions and six score involvements. But the stats, as astonishing as they are, don’t really do justice to his dominance. He was incredible around stoppages, using his huge frame to win the hit out, invariably putting it down a teammates throat and on those occasions he didn’t, he’d win the clearance himself. He would involve himself in attacking possession chains like I haven’t seen him do before, showing that level of confidence that comes from sustained brilliant performances. And whenever the Hawks got threatening, moving the ball with precision through the middle of the ground, it was Darcy who would park himself inside defensive 50 to take the relieving (and contested) mark, thwarting any hopes the Hawks had of getting back in the game.

The Sicilian criminal, Vizzini, famously said that there are a few classic blunders – never get involved in a land war in Asia; never go against a Sicilian when death is on the line; never bring a knife to a gunfight – you get the idea. If Vizzini hadn’t perished in a classic wine/Iocaine powder battle, I reckon he would have added one more blunder to his list – don’t kick long forward when Sean Darcy is around. He was an impassable obstacle today, and at times it felt like the Hawks would get the ball to half-forward, and whether it was because they had no options or didn’t back in their skills, they would wait a while before eventually kicking long and providing Darcy with some marking practice.

While he has been heralded for some time as the future ruckman of the Freo footy club, I reckon he had a growing list of doubters coming into this season. He was drafted back in 2016 and is now 23 years of age, meaning this year is his fifth on an AFL list – enough time even for ruckman to prove their worth. Others who were taken around him – the likes of Tim English, Sam Draper, Rowan Marshall and Peter Ladhams – had all started to show signs of improvement, so the pressure was on Darcy to do the same. It is probably an understatement to say that over the course of the last 16 games, Darcy has leapfrogged them all, but that’s what he had done. Looking fitter than he ever has, Darcy has fair claim on being the most improved player in the comp, and with a recently signed contract extension, appears to be the next Dockers superstar. Ladies and gentlemen, Sean Darcy has arrived and while he may not yet be the best in the competition, it is only a matter of time before he ascends to the throne and takes his rightful place as the number one ruckman in the comp.

 

  1. Midfield Battle

 

Celebrating his 200th game, Nat Fyfe took little time in establishing control of the game today, winning 13 first quarter possessions. In fact, his first quarter was so dominant that I found myself (a West Coast supporter and Fyfe non-believer) writing, at quarter time, that yes, Fyfe doesn’t defend, but he doesn’t have to when he’s winning as much of the ball as he does. While his influence waned over the next three quarters (it’s pretty hard to dominate a full four quarters), my attitude about his game doesn’t change. If there is one immutable fact about Fyfe’s ability, it is probably this – there is no better clearance player than a fully-fit Nat Fyfe. Yes, he is a phenomenal mark too (he is a superstar after all), but his power and strength in the contest is second to none. Since his first Brownlow win in 2015, it feels like we have been consistently getting an 80% (or less) fit Nat Fyfe – even this year, he is hobbled by a shoulder injury that will require surgery at the end of the season. Today gave us a glimpse into his best, and it is truly breathtaking. 31 disposals, a goal and 12 score involvements is a decent day at the office, and for a guy as banged up as Fyfe is, celebrating his 200th like he did is a testament to the champion he has been, and continues to be.

On the opposing side, Tom Mitchell fought a valiant battle against a much deeper midfield group. As he has always done, he accumulated disposals like they were going out of fashion, finishing with 39 touches and five tackles. Watching his game today, I was struck by how efficiently he seems to work. In one second he was contesting a centre bounce, the next second he was deep in defence, winning possession and trying to start a scoring chain for his team. There has been some chatter this season about whether the Hawks would be better off trading Mitchell to another club and getting some draft picks in the door. Can I just say that this is a terrible idea. Mitchell is a star, and the reason his impact on games is not resulting in Hawthorn wins is not because he has no impact – it’s because the others in the midfield group aren’t helping him. He has fantastic reflexes, a great set of hands and a trusty left foot and the impetus should be on the Hawks providing him with teammates who will work hard and provide targets for him. He reminds me a lot of Matt Priddis at West Coast, and I think it’s fair to say that Priddis played his best football when he had Luke Shuey and Andrew Gaff running with him at West Coast. Where are Mitchell’s versions of Shuey and Gaff?

Yes, I can hear you Hawks fans – they’re Jaegar O’Meara and James Worpel. I’ll get to Worpel in a second, but first I’d like to say that if Hawthorn are going to trade anyone from their midfield group, they should be trading O’Meara. His game today was horrible, and not befitting a player of his ability. I know that he has been injured, but he’s 27 years old now and history tells us that players don’t get better after 28. If this is all he’s got, then the Hawks have to get rid of him. Worpel, on the hand, showed some promising signs today. Every time I watch the Hawks, I think a midfield of Mitchell, Worpel and a kid with speed would be something pretty special. Worpel’s goal kicking can definitely be improved, and his clearance work looks like it has gone backwards since the heights of 2019, but at least you are seeing a solid base from which to work. 18 touches, three tackles, four inside 50’s and a goal is not a bad game for a young mid, and some of the signs I saw in the second half, like him receiving the ball and running with it, indicate that he might be getting some confidence back.

For the winners, outside of Fyfe, the rest of their midfield played exactly the sort of games that you expect them to play. Andrew Brayshaw gathered plenty of the ball, working hard up and down the ground. David Mundy continued to have a really good season, using the ball beautifully going inside 50, while Caleb Serong played one of his better games in recent memory, gathering 30 possessions and ten clearances to prove himself as one of the best four or five young mids in the comp. It’s incredible to think that Serong has played only 30 games, as the professionalism with which he plays gives the impression he has suited up more than 200 times. While Mundy is getting a little long in the tooth, and with Fyfe being as banged up as he is, the fact that Freo have the likes of Brayshaw, Serong and Adam Cerra to throw into the middle shows why it is necessary for some teams to rebuild through the draft.

 

  1. Boring Football

 

I know I have pumped up Fremantle quite a bit in this review and tried to make the game sound like it was an interesting game, but really, that’s a facade. The truth is, today’s game was pretty boring, and if you’re reading this review and thinking that you’ll watch the game after, please let me convince you that that would not be a wise idea. There are plenty of better things to do than watch this game. You could watch Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible, for example. Or spend a fun day stuck in traffic with a crying baby. Or even try and convince a boomer that Climate Change is real. All of these activities, and many more, would be better than spending your time watching the Hawks and Freo do battle.

Before the start of the game, Gerard Healy made the observation that Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson would want to make this game a ten goal to eight match, which if anything, set the expectations a little high. I know there will be Freo supporters reading this, a game review of a Freo win written by an Eagles fan, and believe this is biased, but I can guarantee you it is not. If anything, Freo were the side trying to make it exciting, daring to run the ball out of defence, and change angles with dangerous kicks in-board, but more often than not this game settled into battle between the arcs – whoever defended better would get the chocolates.

It seems like more and more we are being expected to think and speak positively about football. Don’t believe me? Try and count how many times this weekend a commentator says something negative about a game or even a player. It doesn’t really happen any more (other than on social media, of course). But I think if we’re going to be honest about our game, we need to start by saying what we want to fix about it. Kicks backward may be a good place to start. In times gone by they have helped to start attacking chains, giving sides the opportunity to changes angles and attack from a different direction. But now that all sides are well coached defensively, it seems like the teams that want to kick the ball around their backline end up doing it for as long as it takes to make a mistake.

I know I might sound like an old man yelling at a cloud, but today’s game was the first time that I have been reviewing a game and honestly felt like turning it off in the third quarter and starting my review from then.

 

  1. Michael Walters

 

But enough of that negativity, let’s finish on a positive. Michael Walters’ position in the Fremantle side has been a cause for quite a bit of debate here in WA recently. Peter “How so” Sumich went so far as to say that Walters’ drop in form was the result of a rift between him and coach Justin Longmuir, saying that Freo would be better served dropping Walters back to the WAFL to try and gain some form. I have to say, though, I loved Longmuir’s response to these questions. He said “[Walters is] not getting dropped. We’ll continue to work with him to create more opportunities to get into the game”. I loved that messaging coming from a coach, and it’s an indication of the sort of culture they are building at Freo.

I must say, though, at stages in the first half today I was agreeing with the view that Walters needed to be dropped, particularly after he tried to centre the ball only to see it be turned over and lead to Emerson Jeka’s second goal. At this point, I thought that Walters would drop his head and go missing for the rest of the game.

Walters is made of sterner stuff than that, though. During the third quarter, I made a note that Walters was trying so hard to get back into form that he might actually hurt himself. Fortunately, he didn’t. What he did do was have a heck of a second half, gathering 16 disposals, taking four marks and kicking a goal. Following a first half where he had gathered just five disposals, the second half must have felt like all of his Christmas’s had come at once.

If Fremantle are to have any say on finals this season, and they absolutely should, then Michael Walters is going to be a big part of it. Getting him back in form now is really important for them and him, and I reckon as he walked off the ground today, he might have done so feeling about 20kg lighter.

 

Stray Shots

 

  • What was happening with the umpiring today? I’ve been watching a lot of footy for more than two decades and I reckon I know the rules pretty well, but I didn’t have any idea on how the umpires were adjudicating the holding-the-ball rule. It wasn’t that it favoured any side particularly, or even thwarted any offensive moves, I just felt so puzzled about the interpretation, and I don’t reckon I’m alone in that.
  • Like Terry Wallace, I nearly spewed up when I heard Nick Dal Santo mention that O’Meara could be the next captain for the Hawks. Surely there would be at least ten better options than him?
  • It’s not often that one team will beat another team by more than ten goals and have you thinking ‘did they leave a few goals out there?’. But that’s the impression I’m left with today. Aside from those hopeful first few minutes, the Dockers completely outclassed the Hawks to the point where they were almost toying with them. Their four principal midfielders – Fyfe, Brayshaw, Serong and Mundy – would all finish with 30 or more disposals, while key forward targets Rory Lobb and Josh Treacy would combine for 11 scoring shots. Should they have won by more?
  • While I’m on it, Lobb had a great game today, and I think just goes to show how important he is for Freo. Like Mitchell for the Hawks, it has been mentioned that Lobb may be moved on from Freo at the end of this season. I think his performance today puts a stop to that idea.
  • I liked the game of Lachie Bramble for the Hawks. A tough, nuggety half-back with a bit of dash, he looks a likely type and certainly better than his four games experience would indicate.
  • In an earlier review, I mentioned that I like Josh Treacy, and his effort today didn’t hurt this at all. He attacks the contest with all his might, and while that may prove his undoing one day, as a fan I absolutely love it.
  • For the Hawks fans out there, is there any reason why McEvoy isn’t playing as the permanent number one ruckman? I don’t think he’s a world-beater by any stretch, but I’d have him in the best six or eight ruckman in the comp on his day. Can anyone say the same about Ceglar?
  • Freo are starting to build a nice fleet of small forwards with Bailey Banfield adding to Lachie Schultz and Sam Switkowski. If Liam Henry continues to grow as a footballer, he could be the missing ingredient.

 

That’s about all I have for the game today. A comfortable win by Freo seems them in the eight, at least for the moment, and continues to fan the flame of a return to finals football. They’ll try to continue that journey next week when they take on Geelong at Optus Stadium Thursday night, while the Hawks face a tough match-up against Melbourne at the MCG next Saturday.

 

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