There were two teams I loved watching in 2022. One was Sydney, as they started to put together a list that could contend. And the other was Fremantle, because I loved the game style, the emergence of the kids, the brilliant recruiting, and the “bring it on” attitude that saw them become the best road team in the game.
As we tick over into January, my thoughts on the club are positive. They have done the hard yards, established a culture that does not lend itself to excuses, and have built their structure wisely from defence.
And now, they go about pursuing that elusive silverware.
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is over. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2023, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2023.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about their 2023 season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it.
And with that, let’s jump into The Big Questions relating to Fremantle in 2023.
IS THERE ANYTHING MORE TO THE EXODUS FOLLOWING THE 2022 SEASON?
I can give you a short answer and a long one. So I’ll do both.
The short answer is no – there is nothing more to make of the group of players exiting the club.
There ya go – nice and simple.
Now, to jump in a little further.
When we assess this “exodus” what do we find?
We find that Griffin Logue left the club to pursue opportunities at North Melbourne. I like Logue – he is an excellent defender, but he was the fourth of three options at Fremantle and he knew it. Playing behind Alex Pearce, Brennan Cox, and Luke Ryan, he was used as a defensive forward simply because there was not enough room in the back six to have another big defender, and he was too good to leave out of the side.
Talk about a good problem to have, huh? Too many excellent defenders! Hell, many clubs out there would be stoked if they had just two.
Darcy Tucker packed his bags and left for North, as well, but where was his career at with Freo?
He managed 14 games in 2022, recorded career-lows in disposals per game, and was either trying to crack a back six that were like folded metal, or a midfield that was humming along beautifully. Had he stayed, he was flogging a dead horse.
So, thus far, we have two players gone without altering the structure of the Dockers. No harm done, yet.
Next up… Rory Lobb…
Hmmm, I have to bite my tongue a bit with this bloke, as he strikes me as the type of player who will find something to be upset about wherever he goes. GWS wanted to him to play ruck. Rory cracked the sads. The Dockers took him on and played him forward, as per his request. Not good enough – he now wanted to move to Victoria. Tissues for Rory. Now he has landed at the Dogs… good luck, Luke Beveridge. Some men you just can’t reach.
Lloyd Meek headed to Hawthorn and well he should have.
The Dockers picked up Luke Jackson to play alongside Sean Darcy in a very potent ruck duo. I like what Meek has been able to do in his limited game time, but he saw the writing on the wall, as well. Unless he wanted extended weeks in the seconds to be part of his AFL future, he had to go as well. No net loss, there, and I am sure any sane Freo fan would wish him all the best. My guess is that with circumstances being different, he would have likely stayed.
Blake Acres leaving hurts a bit. This is the one I am concerned about.
He blossomed under Justin Longmuir, becoming the wingman many thought he was destined to be. And now, he will go to Carlton and they will reap the benefits of the work he put in out west. We’ll explore options to replace him a little later, but of all the departures, he is the one that makes me screw my face up. He was important.
Others may argue that Lobb was more crucial, given he was their leading goal kicker, but the Dockers have options to cover his loss.
In the wash-up, we have Logue, who didn’t have a real position, Tucker, who was not best-22, Lobb, who could be addition via subtraction, Meek, who was not best-22, and Acres, who is the only really upsetting loss.
And in return, they gained Luke Jackson, Jaeger O’Meara, and Josh Corbett.
I am sure I am echoing the thoughts of many Freo fans – nothing to see here. Please disperse.
DID WE WITNESS JAMES AISH EMERGE AS A LEADER IN 2022?
We did, and it was brilliant to see a player who I am not sure has ever been viewed as a leader, take the responsibility on and step up his game.
How did you view James Aish prior to the 2022 season?
To me, he was a serviceable defender who was going to have a ten-year career in footy, climb no great height, and then meander off work as a consultant for some company in South Australia who was happy to have an employee with a name that is football royalty on his books.
But something strange happened in 2022 – James Aish decided that he wanted to make a difference, and in doing so, he become a player Freo relied upon when the going started to get tough. Whether that meant moving from defence to the wing when Blake Acres went down injured (and that may be a precursor to how they cover his loss in 2023) or shifting into the centre to put the clamps on a rampant opposition midfielder, Aish gleefully accepted the responsibility to offer more to his club, and in the process, proved that he could be a genuine on-field leader.
I suppose the follow-up question is – can he build on the foundation he laid in 2022?
He is no AFL baby. At 27 years of age, it appears as though the penny really dropped for him last season. With a team full of young, emerging leaders, players like Aish and Luke Ryan bridge the gap between the established leadership of Fyfe and the departed Mundy, and the next generation of club leaders in Brayshaw and Serong.
The emergence of Hayden Young as a reliable half-back could go a long way to releasing Aish into the role that saw him play some excellent footy in 2022. Ditto the improvement of Jordan Clark. As a wingman who can switch up and move into the midfield, Aish has both the footy smarts and now, the strength to match it with the big-bodied mids at stoppages. His work in curtailing the influence of Clayton Oliver in their Round 20 match-up was almost like watching a player come of age. Oliver was everywhere in the first half, and aided the Dees in establishing a four-goal halftime lead. He had 12 disposals and was one of several Demons looking like they were set for a day out. But in that third quarter, Aish put a stop to that (at least to Oliver’s part in it) and held the Melbourne star to three touches, whilst going about accumulating 28 touches of his own for the game.
In many ways, the rise of James Aish mirrored that of his team. Now, the challenge is to back up and go again.
For both him, and the club.
CAN AN EXCELLENT DEFENCE GET EVEN BETTER IN 2023?
Looking at the members of the Freo defence that was so good in 2022, it is difficult to imagine them functioning at an even higher level.
Is it possible for these blokes to work together more cohesively? If so, how?
In his first year back from a series of injuries, Alex Pearce was a colossus for Freo in 2022. Taking on the league’s best forwards every week, his ability to stand his ground and manage to stifle players like Peter Wright, Tom Hawkins, and Harry McKay, his efforts gave the Dockers a solid pillar to build around.
Whilst Pearce’s injury history remains a worry, the fact he was able to compete in 21 games, matching the output of the three previous seasons combined, should imbue Freo with confidence. He is such an important player to this side, and I can remember back when we first started this site back in 2018, how often his name would come up when we would talk about players who were on the path to claiming All-Australian honours. His 2019 season started wonderfully before disaster struck and he spent the next two and a half years attempting to overcome the ankle injury and resultant complications.
Pearce is rarely beaten. He is powerful through the core and it shows when one of the big forwards attempts to move him off the spot. He matches their efforts and holds his ground. Whilst the Freo defence has many strings to its bow, the string of Pearce remains the most important. Without him, the defence is forced to scramble to cover.
It is no coincidence that Pearce’s return to the team walked hand-in-hand with the Fremantle renaissance. If this defence is to get better, Pearce stating on the park is paramount.
And whilst I am singing his praises, it may seem as though I have forgotten that there are six pieces to a defensive puzzle – and that is the bare minimum.
Luke Ryan was The Mongrel Punt Defensive Player of the Year in 2020. In the shortened year, he put together the complete defensive season and really made me sit up and take notice of the way he was able to play multiple roles in a defence ravaged by injury. He can play tall, drop back as the sweeper, come across and intercept, and unlike many of his size/shape, can be very effective at ground level.
When you combine his skill set with that of Brennan Cox, you round out the Big Three of the Dockers’ back six. Cox was tried as a forward before finding his feet as a defender, and I can remember some commentators questioning his rather laconic playing style and whether it would fly in a defensive structure.
It not only flew, it went to great heights.
Cox’s ability to take the ball cleanly, in both dry and wet conditions, and make it look easy, gives the impression that he is consistently travelling at three-quarter pace. He is always balanced, makes good decisions, and works off his man beautifully to disrupt the inside 50 deliveries of the opposition.
With those three ruling the defensive roost, it has allowed players like Hayden Young, Jordan Clark, James Aish, and Heath Chapman to seamlessly form one of the tighter defensive units in the game. What is also impressive is that Fremantle have some depth, even without Griffin Logue to throw into defence.
Ethan Hughes is an underrated mid-size defender. Too often I have heard his name mentioned without enough credit given, but he can do a job, covers the ground quickly, and works well with the existing structure when he is called upon.
Nathan Wilson has been on the outer for a year or so, now, but he remains a viable option should one or two of the mid-size defenders run afoul of the injury bug during the season.
And the addition of Josh Corbett, though listed as a forward, gives Freo another versatile tall capable of swinging from end-to-end.
So, where does the improvement come from?
I have entire sections on Hayden Young and Jordan Clark, so I won’t bang on too much, here, but I expect both to make significant steps this season. Young was finally able to string a full season together, which should give him huge confidence in his body, whilst Clark will be more settled after 12 months in the Fremantle system.
Again, however, I find myself gravitating back to Alex Pearce.
Heading into 2022, he must have had every part of his body crossed, hoping to somehow string together enough games to feel as though he was contributing. Not only did he do that, but he also went a long way to re-establishing himself as one of the premier key position defenders in the game. If we’re looking at the first couple of months of the 2023 season and Pearce has not had an injury hiccup, this could be the driver to propel Freo to being the number one defence in the game.
And if that happens, maybe… just maybe, Alex Pearce will do exactly what we thought he would five years back, and stake a claim on an All-Australian blazer.
WHO WALKS THROUGH THE DOOR LEFT AJAR BY RORY LOBB’S DEPARTURE?
In case you didn’t notice by the section above, I am no Rory Lobb fan.
Seriously, he strikes me as a complete whiner, and sure, if he ever reads this, he might just strike me in general, but he is probably more likely to have a sook and demand a trade to a team where he won’t get nasty things written about him.
Bloody softy, that bloke…
Anyway, I have to give Lobb a little bit of credit – he led the Dockers in goals in 2022 and, at times, gave them a strong aerial target. Of course, at other times, he shrunk away from the contest like George Costanza’s penis when it gets cold, but the fact remains, he finished the season with 36 goals and will have his name on the Freo honour board as a result.
2023 is a different beast, however, and with Lobb no longer on the list, we find a Fremantle forward line searching for a leading goalkicker and marking presence inside 50. As Men at Work famously asked – who can it be, now?
The obvious answer is Matt Taberner, but if you are worried about his recent injury history having a negative impact on his 2023 season, you’d be echoing my own reluctance to go all-in on him.
See, I am a Tabs man – I love his game and know he has worked really hard on the facets of AFL footy that he once struggled with. Sadly, just as he seemed to be getting on top of his goal kicking woes, soft tissue injuries have sidelined him waaaay too often, and when he does get out there, he comes across more as a bloke looking not to get injured than someone looking to attack the contest and knock over anyone in his way.
We all have two aspects to the way we see the 2023 season. One is what we hope for, and the other is what we genuinely believe will happen. I hope that Taberner puts together 20 games in 2023. However, at the same time, the realist in me keeps chattering away and telling me he will, at some stage, limp off the park and ice up a hamstring.
So, if Tabs is a 60/40 in terms of availability, where do we look next?
Is it Josh Treacy that gets the nod?
He made a big splash in his 15 2021 games, but fell off the radar a little in 2022, playing just four senior games. I have heard the word “lazy” bandied about by a few Docker fans, which is worrying… unless they’re talking about me for not doing my own research, which is completely justified. These opinions came from watching Treacy in the WAFL in 2022, so take it for what it’s worth.
What I have seen from Treacy personally is something that you cannot teach – he hits packs hard. He was doing it as a kid with no fear in 2021 and if he gets the opportunity to do it again in 2023, I expect nothing less this time around. In a little while, I will be writing about the potential of the Freo small forwards and how they can elevate this team – Treacy is the type of player that brings them into the game. When he starts crashing into people, the ball spills, and opportunities are created.
I will readily admit I have only seen what the AFL has shown me of Treacy, but what I saw a couple of years back were things players don’t forget how to do. I’d love to see him get an extended run at making a spot in the best 22 his own.
I wrote about Josh Corbett above, and this is where his recruitment is doubly handy. Outside Gold Coast fans, not many know a ton about Corbett. Whilst he is not a standout , he was a pretty reliable contested mark for the Suns up until last year. He was starved of opportunity in 2022 and will be determined to make an impact early in 2023. He is capable of getting up to the wings to take “Get out of Jail” marks and open up the space behind him. If teaming with Taberner, this saves Tabs’ legs and gives him more room to operate, so his acquisition could be a bit of a sleeper hit.
As for something a little different, Jye Amiss’ appearances in 2022 were only seldom, but he looked likely on the lead, had great timing, and seemed to find plenty of space at exactly the right time. Good forwards do that instinctively and if he can slot in as the third forward at times, we may find ourselves in a situation where he is very difficult to remove from the team.
Look, ideally, Taberner gets himself cherry ripe for this season and we don’t need to look too hard to find a replacement for Rory Lobb, but even if Tabs does struggle, the Dockers have options.
And no… I am not forgetting Nat Fyfe or Luke Jackson. They get their own sections..
WILL IT BE THE FREMANTLE SMALLS THAT MAKE THE BIG IMPACT IN 2023?
This is where I really see the Dockers making some strides in 2023.
Lachie Schultz really flew the flag for Freo in 2022, didn’t he? Playing a lone hand for most of the season, he was a constant presence inside 50, harassing opposition defenders just like a good small forward is supposed to.
He finished the season leading Freo in tackles inside 50 and also managed to snag 30 goals for the season. I know he has improvement in him, but that return is exactly what was needed at Freo, given the decline of Michael Walters. That is no shot at Walters, by the way – a quick perusal of last year’s columns will strongly indicate I was all for persisting with him and I had a strong belief he’d provide a bit in the later stages of the year.
Still, Sonny wasn’t great early on, and Schultz elevated his own game to compensate.
This was particularly important because Sam Switkowski found himself out of the side for an extended period through the middle of the year, leaving Schultz playing a virtual lone hand at ground level.
I love what Switkowski brings to this team. He is a firecracker and is constantly on the move. There is a bit of Robbie Gray about him in the way he takes the ball cleanly and changes direction, and at 26, he should be right at his peak about now. He finished 2022 by returning in time to get a couple of games under his belt before finals, but it was apparent that he was not quite right.
Pre-injury, Switkowski was averaging 15.3 touches per game to go with 1.1 goals.
Following his return, Switkowski managed 12.0 touches and did not score a goal across the four games.
See? Not right.
With these two fit and able to combine, Freo has a potent one-two small man punch, but the great unknown comes in the forms of Sam Sturt and Liam Henry, and what they can provide in 2023..
A first-round pick back in 2018, Sturt has managed just four games for the Dockers and is one of the team’s great “what ifs…” Between him and Liam Henry, Freo have two players whose best we’re yet to see. All it takes is for one of the two to find a way to start having an influence and suddenly, we could be looking at a Fremantle team flush with small forwards who are ready to create havoc.
This ends the free component of the article. The next six or so thousand words are for our members. Want to join us?