With one game remaining in the Round Five fixture, we’ve seen some pretty big stories emerge thus far.

Port Adelaide has fallen to 0-5 and have made things incredibly difficult in terms of making finals. The Crows took the best the Tigers could hit them with and threw some pretty big punches of their own in taking the four points. And the Dees flexed their considerable muscle against the Giants, slamming on ten goals in the third quarter of their win.

However, there is no bigger story at the moment than the form of the Fremantle Dockers, and in picking up a road win at Marvel Stadium, the Dockers move to 4-1 and have set themselves up for a run at finals in 2022. With a home clash against the Blues on the agenda, Fremantle, who for the first time in years, are not being crushed under the weight of multiple injuries to key players, look like they have what it takes to contend.

Strange days, indeed.

Meanwhile, those who fancied the Bombers not just as finalists, but as a top-four threat, are suddenly being hit right in the face with the wet fish of reality. At 1-4, Essendon are teetering on the edge of failure. With Anzac Day against the Pies looming, one misstep and the fall could be dramatic. The sudden stop, even worse.

But this day was about the Dockers. It was about Matt Taberner snagging seven. It was about Alex Pearce shutting down Tow-Metre Peter, and it was about a Gold Coast reject continuing to reinvent himself in purple.

Here are The Mongrel’s Talking Points from the big Freo win over Essendon.

 

 

THE SHUT OUT

So, it was way back in the wonderful days of 2018 when Alex Pearce was running around the defensive fifty of the Fremantle Dockers, spoiling marking contests, picking up intercepts, and basically making a nuisance of himself as one of the best emerging defenders in the caper.

With a great mix of strength, agility, and reach, some predicted that he would be THE defender to take the mantle from Alex Rance over the next couple of seasons.

Aaaaaand then… the next couple of seasons happened, and Pearce went from this contest killing tyro to oft-injured and brittle. Across the 2019/20 seasons, Pearce managed just 11 games before getting back on the park a little more often in 2021. Whilst he still looked a little rusty, you could see that he was working back into shape, eager to once again put his name in the mix when it came to the best key defenders in the caper.

And then we had today.

After three games in 2022, Alex Pearce had the type of outing against the Bombers that Freo fans have been waiting for.

Oh, but wait… I know there are some of you that will spout the “it was only against Peter Wright” line, as though it actually means something. If you use that, you’re either ignorant, or a complete ass. As anyone who has watched footy closely in 2022 can tell you, Peter Wright has been immense for the Bombers, taking a heap of contested grabs, working up and down the wings, and presenting at the ball carrier better than most thought he was capable of. To attempt to dilute the work of Alex Pearce in this game by talking Peter Wright down is a cheap argument.

Off you go, to the naughty corner. Have a good, long think about things.

In the previous weeks, Wright had found a way to turn it on, even for a quarter at a time, to give the Bombers a genuine chance at winning games, or reducing the margin. He was a beacon of red light during some pretty dark times for Essendon to start the season.

But Alex Pearce snuffed out that light early in the piece in this game.

Working in tandem with Brennan Cox, the pair controlled the air, and forced Wright to either contend deep against four or five opponents, or second guess his leading options in a congested Essendon forward fifty. Yes, a lot of credit for this has to go to the Freo half-backs (Clark, Ryan, and Walker) for folding back, but when it came time to contest, Pearce was all over Wright, allowing him just four effective touches for the game and restricting him to 0.1.

There may still be some down-games for Pearce as he continues the trek back from his injury-riddled last few seasons, but after years that saw him, Joel Hamling, Hayden Young, and a host of other defenders on the sidelines, it is great to see him up and running again.

Not so great if you’re a key forward, though, huh?

 

DELIVERING

I’ve been on the Matt Taberner bandwagon for a while. My fellow Mongrel, and devout Freo worshipper, Matt Passmore can attest to the fact that I was calling for Tabs to be included in both our own All-Australian team, and the official version back in 2020. I always thought he was one huge game – a big bag of goals away from being taken seriously.

It never quite came.

Instead, we were treated to vision of him being rundown in the goal square, ala Nick Riewoldt, and everyone had a good laugh, right? Yeah… hilarious.

Well, who’s laughing now?

Tabs gave the struggling Bombers backline a spanking en route to collecting a career-best seven goals, and displayed some lovely set shot kicking in the process. His hands were great, his timing impeccable, and as the game started to move into the premiership quarter, Tabs lowered the boom on the Bombers, with a withering display of power forward footy.

With four goals in the third quarter, Tabs dominated the game. Only six goals were kicked for that quarter – all of them to Freo, and with Taberner kicking four of them, one does not have to wax lyrical about his performance too vividly for you to get a picture of just how good he was.

So, after missing the first two rounds of the 2022 season, Tabs has 11 goals across the next three. Right now, the frontrunners for the key position posts in the AA team would be Tom Hawkins, Max King, and Joe Daniher. With Freo posting wins, how long until Tabs forces his name into the conversation?

He now has his big game to hang his hat on, and he is one of the more consistent tall forwards in the game when it comes to hitting the scoreboard. By the end of Round Seven or Eight, I want to see and hear the name of Matt Taberner at the forefront of the AA discussion. He has made the big step, now he just has to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and soon enough, his record will be too hard to ignore, even if you’re part of the Victorian Media.

 

THE SECOND CHANCE STAR

There have been points this season where Will Brodie has looked like the best clearance player in the competition.

No, that is not hyperbole – he has had patches where he is the first player to get his hands on the footy at multiple stoppages, and his handballs to set his teammates off and running have been vital to the Dockers. His third quarter was incredible in that regard, and one of the catalysts for the Dockers pulling away from the Bombers. He has only been a member of this club for five games, but today was the third time this season I have seen him will himself to the footy and own the clearances.

He finished with nine for the game, to lead all players, and with just two turnovers from his 26 disposals, managed to avoid the trap of playing contested footy – hacking the ball to a well-setup defensive structure.

I won’t go on about how he couldn’t get a run at Gold Coast – God knows, I am sure Suns fans will be sick of hearing about that, but I do want to give a hell of a lot of credit to Brodie for not only giving himself the chance to succeed at Fremantle, but for getting in the type of shape to make it happen.

It can be demoralising – working your backside off at a club and being unable to crack the best-22. It is like being told “thanks, but no thanks” after buying someone dinner and getting their pants off, and it takes immense self-belief to put that aside, pick up, and start again elsewhere.

That’s what makes what Brodie is doing at Freo this season so damn spectacular. And he is keeping his pants on in this version!

He is now averaging 26.8 touches, 14 contested possessions, and 6.8 clearances (good for ninth in the league). After losing Adam Cerra and with Nat Fyfe on the sidelines, many expected Freo’s midfield to buckle under the strain, but Brodie has come in and shouldered a huge load for this team and, I hate to say it, he is making himself indispensable… even if Nat Fyfe returns sooner rather than later.

I know that is borderline blasphemous to a Freo fan, but Brodie’s excellent form allows the Dockers to become a little more creative with Fyfe, and not so rushed to thrust their captain back into the fray. For the first time in a while, Freo are winning and Fyfe hasn’t had to throw the cape on for them to do it. He is now a luxury – a fan-bloody-tastic luxury to play either forward or in the middle at their leisure.

What a position to be in after five rounds. Will Brodie, well done, son… on so many levels.

 

SEPARATING THE WHEAT FROM THE CHAFF

If you ask people in and around footy to name some of the best young rucks in the game, you might get a bit of a varied response.

Tim English, at 24, will get a mention, as will the 20-year-old Luke Jackson and 22-year-old Tom De Koning. But two names that will be on everyone’s list would be Sean Darcy and Sam Draper – both 23 at the moment.

In this clash, we got to see two of the brightest young big men in the league going head-to-head for the majority of the game. With the Dockers opting not to play Lloyd Meek (perhaps the best genuine second ruck in the game) and the Bombers losing Andrew Phillips to a hamstring injury in the first minutes of the game, we got more than a decent look at Darcy v Draper – a ruck contest that should provide plenty over the next 6-7 years.

So, what did we see?

Firstly, Draper is more than able to hold his own in the ruck against Darcy, using his superior athleticism to elevate and get first hands to the footy.

And that about wraps up which areas Draper can match Darcy.

The Freo big man was so much better around the ground, and was able to push forward to snag two goals in the second half, whilst Draper appeared to be sucking the big ones in (breaths… dirty minds). This genuinely surprised me, as Darcy doesn’t strike me as a bloke who often drives past Maccas drive-thrus, so to see him contesting well late in the game is probably a testament to how much work he has done to improve his conditioning.

Darcy was better around the ground, notching 18 disposals and five marks, whilst Draper struggled to get involved, and not for the first time this season. He finished with eight disposals and had big, fat zeros in the marks and tackles categories. Darcy was also able to outmuscle Draper at stoppages, winning eight individual clearances to Draper’s three.

The TLDR version of this is that Darcy was better for longer, and Draper was disappointing for the second time in three weeks.

 

SHIEL IN THE GUTS

This preseason, I wondered, both to myself, and as part of our Essendon Season preview how Dylan Shiel would slot back into this Essendon midfield.

Whilst I believe the situation is still to fully play out, with Zach Merrett and Jake Stringer both unavailable at the moment, the answer in the short term is that he will fit in beautifully. As a matter of fact, he had a period in this game where he looked like the best mid on the park by a serious distance.

Working to both rove the taps of Draper, as well as shark a couple of Darcy’s, Shiel was able to collect two clearances in both the second and third quarters that set the Bombers alight. These were not the little “get your hands on it and quickly dish off” type of clearances – no, no, no – these were powerful, burst-running clearances that gave his forwards a chance at getting a one-on-one contest.

It was kind of a pity that his forwards were so outgunned by the Freo defence when he did this – he didn’t do much wrong.

Shiel faded as the Dockers put the foot down in the third quarter and that could be a concern, but he had a couple of mates who went missing in the third quarter as well (Andy McGrath had three touches after a huge first half, and Jye Caldwell seemed to get the majority of his touches in one-two give and go plays).

What is becoming apparent is that in order to work properly, this Essendon midfield needs all cylinders firing. It needs Stringer and Caldwell doing grunt work. It needs Shiel and Merrett on the run and spread. And it needs Andrew McGrath coming in and pinch-hitting when the Bombers need some class.

Injuries are preventing that right now, and when you take two vital components from this midfield machine in red and black, sometimes, it fails to turn over. And that’s what happened in this one.

 

THE FUTURE… NOW

It was supposed to be Brayshaw, Serong, and Cerra.

That was the blueprint going forward. But times change and so do plans. Adam Cerra wanted out and he departed. It left the Dockers with two pieces of their trio of midfield terror… and it just might be enough, anyway.

It’s difficult to find too many young players as universally respected as Andrew Brayshaw. Maybe Sam Walsh? And outside of that, they all seem to have their detractors.

Brayshaw is a special one. You can tell by watching him. It isn’t that he is flashy, or crashes through tackles like the midfield bulls that seem to get most of the headlines – not at all. He does everything well. His vision, his speed off the mark, knowing when to take the game on and when to pump the brakes. It is as though everyone is dancing to the music out there, but he is the DJ. When he wants things to slow down, he makes the change. When he wants this team to play frantic footy, puts a different track on and off they go.

He is paired with a ravenous beast in purple attire. You could picture these two lining up for a team photo day, couldn’t you? Brayshaw with the million-dollar smile, clean-shaven and not a hair out of place… and Caleb Serong would show up with a sauce stain on his jumper and his fly undone. They’re like the odd couple of the Freo midfield. One looking every bit like the class unit, and the other like the junkyard dog.

But it is difficult to fault what they produce together.

They combined for 64 touches in this one as they worked beautifully with Will Brodie and David Mundy (who still finds so much time despite looking like he moves like a glacier) to give the Dockers good decision making through the middle. At 22 (Brayshaw) and 21 (Serong), one could be forgiven for thinking that these two will one day dominate the midfield for Freo. But by looking forward, you’re missing what they’re doing right now.

And what they’re doing right now deserves a heap of praise. With Serong back in the mix, the Dockers have an added edge to the way they play. There will come a time this season when Serong does the grunt work and Brayshaw finishes and you’ll think back and remember this review. They may be the odd couple, but they are as good a one-two punch you’ll find in that age-bracket.

 

IT’S NOT ABOUT KICKING THE GOAL

There is this misguided belief that unless Walters is hitting the scoreboard, he is not contributing. It is a terrible way of looking at things when assessing him at the moment. With his confidence down, you can see that he is overthinking every shot at goal he has, and as the misses pile up, it has the capacity to weigh him down.

At one point of the contest, one of the boneheads on commentary stated that this day would be perfect if Walters was able to snag a goal, but you know what? I would much rather see Walters out there competing, not kicking a snag, and the Dockers winning than revert back to 2019 when Walters was starring and Freo were losing.

Yes, he can play better. Yes, he is not the goalsneak we all came to know and at times, hate when our teams played the Dockers, but slotting one goal in a win of this magnitude does not change anything – it is about far much more than whether he hits the scoreboard.

You want to know what I would be concerned about more so than the scoreboard? The way he turned it over when kicking as the release man at half-back – THAT is a worry because it can lead directly to an opponent scoring, and it was a basic skill error.

The positives are that he wasn’t out there flouncing around attempting to milk free kicks, he had 15 touches, a goal assist, and if not for the umpire’s whistle holding up play, could have picked up a couple of snaps at goal to make Dwayne Russell stand at attention and embarrass himself on national TV.

People, if the effort is there, which it was in this game, the results will come. I have been critical of Walters in the past for playing for free kicks and basically staging at points, but I won’t be critical of him when he applies himself as he did in this game. He put in – that’s all you can ask.

That said, I am not sure he isn’t “rested” or “managed” for Lachie Schultz to come back into this team next week.

 

MOUTHGUARDS IN?

I am genuinely thinking of jumping in the car and heading out to Essendon training this week – it should be a good session, first up, considering they just gave one of the most insipid tackling displays I have ever seen at AFL level.

The following players had one tackle or fewer.

Sam Durham, Jye Caldwell, Archie Perkins, Andrew McGrath, Dylan Shiel, Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, Jake Kelly, Nic Martin, Sam Draper, Dyson Heppell, Jayden Laverde, Jordan Ridley, and Tom Cutler. I left out Andrew Phillips, as he was subbed pretty quickly.

That’s 13 of the 23 players that simply could not apply pressure because… well, because they couldn’t be arsed from where I sit.

I deliberately didn’t listen to the press conference from Ben Rutten, as I wanted to have a crack at it myself, so here goes.

“That’s unacceptable. It is not the brand we’ve been building, and we need to get better at applying pressure on the ball carrier and stick our tackles. Our leaders will be disappointed with this and we’ll be addressing it.”

How’d I go?

Interestingly. I look at that list and the names of McGrath, Shiel, Caldwell – this was supposed to be the engine room in this game. I guess these cars only go fast when they have the footy, huh?

There is a phrase used in footy circles to describe players like that.

 

QUICK BITS

 

Another really solid day at the office from Darcy Parish, with 33 touches, but I have to say… they didn’t really jump out at me. He had a couple of nice moments inside 50 that led to direct goal assists, but other than those two, I find it hard to remember him breaking lines and doing anything that looked like changing the game.

I did like the desperation of Mason Redman in this one. I’m still kind of waiting for him to have this huge breakout game where he runs for 1000 metres gained or something ridiculous, as I always get the feeling he is not far from tearing a game to shreds.

But I guess that’s the problem – he is always not far away; he never quite gets there.

Jordan Clark was one of the few Dockers who seemed to double-grab at the footy a lot more than we’re used to. He had a few fumbles en route to picking up 20 touches, and would like to have his time over again on a few of them.

Nick Martin continues to make Adrian Dodoro look good. Another two snags in this one from the wing. There are a few Essendon players that could learn a bit from him about hard running.

Did it not occur to Truck Rutten to move Archie Perkins into the action for a while in this game? He sat inside 50 for too long at points, rarely targeted and looking pretty frustrated with proceedings. I wonder whether he watched Ben Hobbs being given the latitude to run through the middle and do a couple of nice things, and pondered what he had done wrong to be relegated to a forward pocket.

That’s about as quiet a game as I have seen from Nick Hind in Essendon colours. Nowhere near it.

Nik Cox is not a wingman. Find out what he is quickly, but please stop trying to make him something he clearly isn’t.

 

And that may just do me this week. A ripping win on the road for the Dockers, and with a date with Carlton on the horizon, we may need a standalone article detailing the potential clashes in that contest. If you’re still reading, let me know if you’re interested in that, okay?

As for the Bombers… this Anzac Day clash is going to be huge for both teams, as if it normally isn’t anyway, right?

Massive thanks to our members for their amazing support. Without you, there is no us. If anyone else read this and liked it, please consider becoming a member to support this work – it takes a bit of effort, y’know?

 

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