The drought has broken, and the purple rain is falling in Fremantle.
After 11 attempts at knocking over the Eagles, the Dockers finally emerged victorious in a Derby, and though they made bloody hard work of it, Fremantle did the hard yards early and then bunkered down as the West Coast storm gathered following the first quarter.
It was a pulsating finish to the penultimate round of the 2021 season, with Freo fans riding every bump, wincing at every tackle and trying their best to push their hearts back into their chests as the Eagles tried desperately to overhaul them late in the game. It was everything Australian Rules Football should be – the underdog throwing down the challenge to the bully that has lorded over them for years, the crowd going nuts and booing their most hated foe, the comeback from the Eagles and the answers Freo had to dig deep to find.
Was it pretty? No – at times it was an ugly affair, built on pressure, but It was sooooo good. The drama, the theatre.. the knock-down, drag-out commitment of both teams. And it all happened in front of a mass of people – damn I have missed that.
With this win, the Dockers have launched themselves into finals consideration, just percentage between them and a place in September, whilst the Eagles continue to watch their year go up in flames.
Stop smiling, Freo fans. There’s a bit to get through in this one.
Here’s The Mongrel’s Good, Bad and Ugly.
BOYS TO MEN
How fitting that the singers of “End of the Road” slot in here to serenade the Glendinning-Allen Medal winner, Caleb Serong.
You know, with all the attention on whether Adam Cerra is staying or going, and others choosing to concentrate on the ascension of Andrew Brayshaw into the upper echelon of AFL midfielders, it seems as though some have forgotten a little about Caleb Serong. I mean, at times this season, we have seen him play a run-with role as he refines his game and learns a little more about what is required at the highest level.
It seems those lessons have been absorbed by the hard nut, who threw himself into the contest in this game like there was no tomorrow, and in terms of the 2021 season, there really wasn’t for Freo.
Serong collected 31 touches and kicked two goals in close to the best all-round performance of his career, including one of the best goals you’ll ever see if you’re talking about a team trying absolutely everything to keep the ball alive. His banana kick from the boundary in the last quarter to give his team breathing space was the type of highlight that is replayed for the entirety of a career. If the AFL ever goes down the NFT path, I am bidding on that highlight right there!
Serong will either be Batman or Robin irrespective of whether Cerra stays or goes. His style of play adds a different dimension to the Fremantle midfield, and gives them a legitimate hard-ass that refuses to back down in a contest, and brings his teammates into the game. I don’t think anyone will be comparing him to Sam Walsh in terms of outside run and carry, but he does spread well from the contest and loves to be the first bloke to get his hands on the pill.
In three years’ time, how good can he be?
If you say a top five mid in the competition, I would not call you a liar. Freo have a gem, here.
THE FIRST QUARTER BLAST
Prior to this week, Freo had not kicked six goals in an opening quarter. They’d kicked plenty of points – it has been akin to their specialty, but getting the ball through the big sticks was providing a real obstacle, not just in the opening stanza, but across the entire game.
They remedied this at exactly the right time.
With an eight-goal blast, they set up their win with some blistering football, allowing the Eagles no chance to access the footy, due to the Dockers’ hard run and pinpoint ball use. Yep, you read that correctly – Freo, one of the messiest teams in the game just started lacing out passes to teammates all over the part. It was a genuine thing of beauty.
The Eagles were shocked. They usually dine out on turnovers, but the Dockers just kept hitting players in stride, and kept piling on the pressure when the ball wasn’t in their hands.
I was asked a bit of a dopey question by a co-worker at one stage. Looking for something to talk about and fill dead air (I rather like dead air… you learn a lot about how people think when you’re quiet) she asked me what was the best version of myself in that particular year. My initial thought was to say “I was pretty happy with myself before you asked that dumb fucking question” but instead made up some convoluted crap that seemed to appease her curiosity.
I mention that because I reckon we saw the best version of Fremantle in 2021 in the first quarter of this game. Without Fyfe in the guts, Walters bumming around half forward and Rory Lobb having a crisis as to whether he should play forward, ruck, or marbles, the Dockers threw caution to the wind, backed themselves and played footy like the team Justin Longmuir always thought they could.
Taberner was electrifying, Mundy and Serong gave them enormous drive, and Bailey Banfield put the clamps on Tim Kelly to the point he looked like he wasn’t too interested. In addition, Mundy’s ability to move over and ensure Dom Sheed didn’t get involved allowed Freo free reign through the middle.
It was brilliant footy, and after such a long, painful wait, it gave Fremantle supporters belief that the streak was about to come to an end.
Oh, and big props to Adam Papalia for throwing in the Undertaker Wrestlemania reference during the call – I enjoyed it, Paps.
MATCHING IT WITH THE BIG MAN
I’ll get a little more into the ruck dynamics below, but the work of Sean Darcy, and his ability to muscle-up against Nic Naitanui, gave the Dockers a genuine chance to break even at stoppages.
Nic Nat was still the best tap-ruck out there, with a +7 advantage over Darcy, but the Freo big man was able to body up and win some of the footy on his own, matching Nic Nat with seven personal clearances for the game.
I wrote in the first part about boys becoming men. Whilst Darcy is a far cry from being considered a boy, he is a pup compared to the big dog that is Naitanaui, and in this game, being able to extract the footy, himself, and also drop back into the hole to make intercepts, gave Freo a weapon that the Eagles found difficult to combat.
West Coast fans may argue that had Nic Nat played the 83% of game time that Darcy played, his numbers would have been superior, but that is a moot point. He didn’t. And he didn’t because he couldn’t. Darcy was capable of doing that, and Darcy did it.
So, d I think the Freo big man had the better of Nic Nat?
No… no, I don’t. Some of Naitanui’s taps are almost otherworldly, they’re so good, but where Nic Nat usually kills teams ins with the clearances he wins, himself, and Darcy was able to match that.
At 23, Darcy has improvement to come in his game, and by the time these two clash 2-3 more times, I reckon the gap between the two becomes so small that you’d be a brave man to award Nic Nat the points. As a matter of fact, by 2023, Darcy may well be the undisputed champ of the AFL big men.
Bookmark it and come back to me.
BOO SOME MORE
There may be a few Freo fans with sore throats tomorrow, and for that, they can pour some more hate Andrew Gaff’s way.
Hate him as much as you like, but Gaff always puts his hand up for the Eagles, even in games where they look like a bit of a lost cause. Against Geelong early in the year, he was one of the very few who showed up. Again, against Sydney, Gaff was the best West Coast had on the park, and despite the boos raining down on him, he was amongst their best again in this one.
Gaff will be heckled against the Dockers until the day he retires. Hell, I can even see him sitting at a cafe somewhere post-retirement and an angry Freo supporter banging on the window and booing him every time he takes a sip of coffee.
The thing is… he just eats it up. Gaff is despised by Freo supporters, yet there he was again, notching a game-high 32 touches around half back and the wing, barely going off to have a rest whilst everyone else had their tongues hanging out.
I know this will largely be read by Freo fans and that’s fine. You can hate what I am writing all you like, but irrespective of what he has done, and how you feel about him, Gaff continues to produce and over the last ten years, may be the most consistently good Eagle of the entire bunch. And he was excellent in this one.
RYAN AND RYAN – ATTORNEYS AT FOOTBALL
I have to admit, I did not see this matchup coming, but man, it really delivered in terms of a style clash (yes, an AJ Styles reference. If Papalia can do it, so can I!).
Luke Ryan rules the air with his intercept game, but confronted with Liam Ryan, he found that he was forced to engage in the air with someone who was deceptively tall… inasmuch as he leaps to heights that you would not expect him to. The Fremantle version looked a little surprised with the ability of Liam Ryan to elevate early in the game and appeared to be waiting for the footy to come over the back as the indigenous star lead hard at the footy.
No, Luke… you cannot sit back when you’re playing on Liam Ryan.
Being the astute defender he is, Luke Ryan made the necessary adjustments immediately, and what unfolded saw two engage in a game of cat and mouse. Firstly, disregard the stats – Luke Ryan took most of the kick ins, so it gives him a bit of an unfair advantage, and could potentially sway someone’s opinion.
His direct opponent ended with three goals and looked, as the game progressed, as the player who might be able to crack it open for the Eagles, however, Luke Ryan had some stellar moments in defence, earning big one-on-one wins against his namesake, and slotting in as the help defender to record eight intercepts.
This was a real left-field move from Justin Longmuir, and it really was a risk v reward type scenario. With three snags to his name, it is hard to say Liam Ryan was beaten by Luke, but given the control of the footy and composure from Luke Ryan, how can you say he was beaten, either?
Much like Monty Python’s Black Knight… we’ll call it a draw.
And no, I am not stating which one of the Ryans was King Arthur, and which one was a legless torso threatening to bite the other’s legs off. I’ll leave that up to you.
THE PRESSURE GAUGE
Believe me, you don’t need a little graphic on the screen that no one understands to tell when a team turns the heat up, and there were periods in the third quarter where you could see West Coast coming at Fremantle. They were gang tackling (I initially wrote gang banging… what I am thinking?) and continually pushing the ball forward, without taking possession.
The game became a battle of wills, and part of me wondered whether that 11-game streak would start to feel like a weight around Fremantle’s neck, and a pair of floaties on the Eagles as they both struggled to keep their heads above water.
In the end, the passage highlighted above in the Caleb Serong section demonstrates that the Dockers were well and truly up for any fight, but both sides should be commended with the way they applied themselves in that third quarter. It was cut-throat footy at its finest, with no one out there leaving anything on the table. It was a privilege to watch.
THE EARLY SHUTDOWN
This will be lost on most due to the unfortunate injury suffered by Tim Kelly, but the job Bailey Banfield did on his up until he left the ground was superb – real top-notch tagging role.
We’re all aware that Banfield has the ability to play the shutdown role, but teams often don’t deploy players in the role every week. Perhaps they identify certain targets that fit within the skillset of their tagger and that’s when they unleash them?
If that is the case, Longmuir pulled the right string in this game in sending Banfield to Kelly.
With Dom Sheed struggling to get into the contest, Kelly’s ability to find the footy was nullified by Banfield’s attention to detail. He gave the high-profile Eagle little room to move and blocked his run at stoppages, resulting in just seven touches for Kelly through the first quarter and a half.
More impressive was the pressure Banfield put on Kelly when he did get the footy – just one of Kelly’s seven touches was classified as effective, whilst Banfield went on to collect seven touches, himself, in the first quarter alone.
Banfield would divert his attention to Luke Shuey following the departure of Kelly, though he was much less effective in curtailing the power game of the West Coast captain.
BARRASS AND TABS
This was a ripping duel, and after being drawn and quartered by Taberner in the first quarter, Tom Barrass fought back well to really restrict Taberner for the next 90 minutes of footy.
At quarter time, Tabs had picked up a severe case of leather poisoning (quick… one case – better lockdown the state) and added three goals to his six marks and six disposals. Working out of the goal square, Taberner was the focal point the Dockers needed him to be, and once again demonstrated why he may just be the most underrated key forward in the game.
But with the increased pressure on the Freo midfield after quarter time, came a renaissance in the game of Tom Barrass. He restricted the Freo forward to just three touches over the next two quarters and though Tabs picked up four touches in the last quarter, none were anywhere near attacking fifty.
So, how do you look at this one?
Barrass finished with nine intercepts and ten one-percenters as he firmly took control of the contest after quarter time, but Taberner was so pivotal in the first quarter that you simply cannot discount what he meant to Fremantle in establishing their lead.
As much as I admire Barrass’ fightback, you cannot give a player like Taberner a start like that and expect plaudits. Tabs was the key to the Freo attack when the game was won. He gets his hand raised in this one.
This is not about this game, but rather, the season of West Coast in general.
When you look at the list this team possesses on paper, you cannot help but wonder how they’re unable to string wins together? We saw them fall over in 2020 on the back of being in a hub, as though they were the only team that had players with families they missed. We saw them fall in a heap this season with a couple of the worst beatings in the history of the organisation, to Geelong and Sydney, and now we see them fall over in the Derby.
This has been the game they’ve dominated for the past 11 clashes. They once again pushed Fremantle in the position of little brother and overshadowed them in a two-team state.
But that seems to be all over. With a plethora of their best performers north of 30, I hate to say it, because I know we have a heap of West Coast supporters that follow our site… but this team flat out does not deserve to play finals this season. They’re not up to it.
The issue is – where do they go from here? Retool, or rebuild?
At points in the life of a team, we see moments where things change. For Hawthorn, it was 1994, where after years of smashing the Kangaroos, the Wayne Carey-led North Melbourne turned the tables. For Brisbane it was their first win over the Tigers in 12 tries just last year. And for Fremantle and West Coast, perhaps that turning point occurred in this game.
This was the day little brother stood up and became big again, and as West Coast pick themselves up off the mat once more, suddenly, they don’t look that big at all.
Retool or rebuild? I know what you’re thinking – you want to start with a new coach, right?
People always do.
Righto, I am doubling down.
Earlier in the week, I wrote an article addressing the distinct drop off in terms of effectiveness in the middle when Nic Naitanui sits down for one of his 27 rests for the game… I kid, I kid… he was actually out there for 75% of the game this week after notching 61% last week.
Anyway, a heap of people commented on it despite not reading it (a sure-fire way of being misinformed, if you ask me) and missed my contention that the Eagles’ staff and coaches have done a poor job in covering Naitanui’s loss when he takes a seat. People took the article (which they didn’t read, and therefore had no chance of understanding) as a shot at Naitanui. It was not – in the body of text, I made sure to mention that when he is on the park, he is THE BEST ruck in the game.
Of course, that was missed because, again… they didn’t read it.
Really, if anyone had the finger pointed at them, it was the Eagles staff who have not put anything in place to a) increase Naitanui’s game time, and b) have not got anyone close to being ready to fill the void when he does have a break.
Buckle up – I take notes, kids.
In the first quarter, I was particularly interested in how the Eagles would fare without Nic Nat. He played from the opening bounce until just after Sean Darcy moved forward, took a mark and kicked a goal. Then, it was time for Nathan Vardy to shine!
For the next eight minutes, Freo dominated stoppages. Darcy and Meek had their way with Vardy, who just looks like the game has gone past him. It’s not his fault – it just happens. Freo won three straight clearances that I took note of before Nic Nat re-entered the fray to even things up at stoppages again with the clock ticking past the 16-minute mark.
Now, I am not blaming Naitanui for his lack of fitness – as pointed out to me by several people, he has had two knee reconstructions (welcome to the club, by the way), but he has been on limited minutes for three seasons now. Isn’t it time the Eagles sought out someone a little better-equipped to hold their own in the role than Nathan Vardy? I mean, it’s a nice thank you for his part in the 2018 flag, but enough is enough.
With Nic Nat back in after his break, the Eagles won the very next clearance and a couple more, including a shot at goal from Naitanui due to a hold in the ruck that he sprayed out on the full from 35 metres out.
So again, I reiterate – West Coast are an immeasurably better team with Naitanui on the park, and if they know he is going to be missing 25-35% of the game to rest, then they need to recruit to fill that role, not band-aid it with Vardy, who will most likely play his last AFL game next week.
WAS THIS JAMES AISH’S BEST OUTING THIS YEAR?
I covered Freo a few weeks ago, and I was pretty savage on two players – Nathan Wilson and James Aish. Both played games where they looked weak compared to their opponents and were thrown around way too easily.
Whilst Wilson was not on the park to redeem himself in this one, Aish was, and what he did renewed my faith in him. Despite his diminutive size (as in weight… he is a stick man) he put his body on the line and worked really hard in and around the contest.
I still don’t trust Wilson at all – I think he plays lazy footy at times, but the faith is back for the time being with Aish. He proved a bit today.
IS MITCH CROWDEN A CULT HERO?
I genuinely don’t know, but he should be. The bloke looks like Ollie Wines’ little brother and has no fear at all when attacking the footy. He is strong as an ox and will happily take a tackle if it means dishing off to a teammate in a better spot.
I think he may be my favourite Docker. He is all heart.
HOW GOOD CAN HAYDEN YOUNG BE?
Really good, but for the time being, I may not want the ball in his hands when it comes to making the precise kick from defence. He had a couple of turnovers in this one that could have been extremely costly given the way the game played out, but in terms of reading the footy and floating in to relieve his teammates, the bloke is a gem.
Has future All-Australian half back written all over him.
IS THIS THE TYPE OF WIN THAT SWAYS A YOUNG MAN’S DECISION?
We saw something like this earlier in the year, with Zach Merrett basically stating to the Bombers they needed to show him they were worth re-signing with. Well, they did.
And now we have Adam Cerra, who changes his mind about as often as Joe Ganino changes his underwear (about once every week or so) in regard to whether he is staying or going in 2022. These are the wins that demonstrate where the team is headed. If he wants to be part of a winner, then you take him at face value – this team is building into a winner. If he heads to Carlton… well, he is going for the money, regardless of what else is said – they’re a rabble.
And that will do me – wait, just one more thing. Footy with a bog crowd… guys, from a bloke stuck in Melbourne and having to endure half a dozen lockdowns, my patience is pretty thin on most things at the moment, but see fifty thousand of you at the footy gladdened my heart for a couple of hours. Thank you – it was beautiful to hear each and every one of you scream for your team.
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