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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Fremantle

Fremantle were ravaged by injury in 2018. After a relatively promising start, the Dockers fell away considerably to finish 14th.

Losing Lachie Neale, their back-to-back best and fairest winner, was a huge blow, but with emerging talent and new recruits, things are not at all bleak for the Dockers. Jesse Hogan and Rory Lobb come on board, and they’re complemented by Reece Conca and Trav Colyer. Their kids range from serviceable to impressive, and with some injury luck, the Dockers may find themselves in a position to make a push for finals as we move through the 2019 season.

Of course, a lot has to go right for that to happen, and we can cover a bit of that in our “ifs and “buts”.

IF…

… Jesse Hogan is to be the answer to the forward line prayers of Freo fans, he has to do it irrespective of the competition.

This is a real gut-feel kind of point, as when I’ve perused his 2018 stats, Hogan did OK against teams that were relatively good, but even in those games, there were points where he needed to stand up and deliver.

And he didn’t.

Let’s put things in perspective. Hogan is still a baby in terms of power AFL forwards. He’s 23 and already has 152 goals to his name, at an average of over two per game. He is the kind of talent that every club would like to have leading out of the goal square. Then why, I ask my fellow Mongrels, were Melbourne okay with letting him go to Freo?

I know there were rumours he wanted to “go home” for years, but why now? Why the change of heart from the Dees when he had more time to run on his contract, and they’re poised to make a run of their own at the finals and a flag? Yes they have Tom McDonald, and yes Sam Weideman showed enough in the finals to give them hope, but surely there must be more than that? Let’s look a little deeper at one aspect of Hogan’s 2018 season.

He played 20 games at an average of 2.35 goals per contest. Not bad, huh? However, in games against eventual top eight teams, Hogan averaged just 1.33 goals per contest. Against teams that missed the finals, he averaged 2.78 goals per game. What does that tell you?

Against quality opposition in 2018, Hogan went missing, and against the cellar dwellers, he showed up. For Freo to make a mark on 2019, and to become more than just a team that is difficult to play in WA, Hogan needs to perform more consistently, irrespective of the opposition.

If Freo are hosting the Tigers in Round Eight, Hogan needs to be the catalyst for the Dockers taking it up to the premiership favourites. If they’re playing Gold Coast in Round Two, he needs to be ready to monster the young team. It’s got to start mattering less who Hogan is playing, and start mattering more how Hogan is playing.

The Dockers have a potential star on their hands, and the forward they’ve been pining for since Matthew Pavlich hung the boots up. But that star needs to have his head on straight if the Dockers are to be any more than a top half of the bottom eight team. If Hogan performs consistently all year, they actually have a chance to be much more.

 

… Nat Fyfe is fit, he is the right player at the right time for the Dockers.

Let’s face facts – a fit Nat Fyfe is the right player at any time, for any team, but the Dockers have him clad in purple, and they’re a bloody happy lot to be in that position.

With all the talk about your Dustin Martins, your Patrick Cripps and Marcus Bontempellis, people tended to forget that Fyfe was on target for a monster 2018 before injury and an untimely suspension derailed him. He was Brownlow favourite, had an amazing string of games between Rounds 3-10 (he averaged 32.65 touches and 19.87 contested disposals per game during that period), and was dominating around stoppages (9.35 clearances per game over the same period).

He appeared to be on a mission of sorts to carry Freo towards the finals until things went awry. His hamstring injury cost him multiple weeks, and put paid to his All-Australian claims. If fit, Fyfe walks into that side, but right now, he hasn’t been in the AA team for two straight years. The Dockers need him to be in that side in order for them to be more than just competitive. It is representative of the impact he has, and they need him to be at his best for the team to improve.

Fyfe, at his brilliant best is as good as it gets in terms of AFL on-ballers. He is powerful, breaks tackles and has some of the best hands in the game for a mid. His ability to rule the skies makes others of his ilk (Cripps, Bont) appear glued to the ground. Fyfe in full flight is a pleasure to watch as a neutral supporter.

The absence of Lachie Neale places increased pressure on Fyfe in 2019. There is no question that the Dockers are his team, but with two of the last three seasons significantly interrupted by injury, Freo needs their star to re-establish himself as one of the best handful of players in the game.

There are not many players in the game that can put a midfield on their back and carry it, but the Dockers have one. They will only go as far in 2019 as Fyfe can carry them.

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… Connor Blakely moves into the midfield permanently, and stays healthy, he may be the breakout star of 2019.

I touched on the loss of Neale above, but there is always a ripple effect to those sorts of moves, and it isn’t always a negative.

Admittedly, losing Neale’s 30.32 touches per game hurts. It’s pretty difficult to find someone of his calibre ready to slot in and pick up the slack, but what it does do is open the door for something different.

Connor Blakely is not going to give you 30 touches per game, and Neale’s 15 contested touches per game is right up there with the league’s best, but if Blakely can improve on his 23.77 touches in 2018, we could be seeing the emergence of Fremantle’s next star. Some may argue that he has already broken out (three consecutive seasons at above 20 touches per game speaks volumes) but it may be time for Blakely to start plying his trade in the middle more often, and to start giving Fyfe a bit of a hand at stoppages.

Blakely looked likely to emerge as a stoppage player in 2016/17, averaging just under 3.5 per game in that period, but he was required to play a more uncontested role in 2018, and his numbers reflected it before a torn meniscus sidelined him in the second half of the year, restricting him to just 13 games.

He was -1.81 clearances, and -2.58 contested possessions last season, whilst his uncontested touches were +2.97 for the year. In a role across half back, that’s a great set of numbers, but Freo need that in the guts now. There were definite signs in 2018, with two cracking efforts in the two games before his injury. He notched 57 touches, 20 contested possessions and 14 clearances over that two week period, in a clear indication that he had what it takes to move into a permanent midfield role, but sitting out the remainder of the season has all but erased Blakely from the consciousness of casual AFL fans.

And that’s not a bad thing.

Blakely is entering what they call a “contract year” in the USA. He could really see his value rise when it comes time to negotiate a new contract with a solid start to 2019. A Western Australian, he would be unlikely to want to make the move east, but at just 22 years of age, this season may be one of the most important of his career. If Connor Blakely can elevate his game and provide Freo the kind of organic improvement that good sides demonstrate, his name may be on the lips of more than just Docker fans as the season wears on.

 

… Bailey Banfield is the next Mark Hutchings, the Dockers are in better shape for it.

I know there are a lot of people who despise the role of a tagger, but don’t count The Mongrel among them. An accountable player who takes the defensive aspect of midfield play seriously is a rare commodity, and playing that role is also a wonderful learning experience for young players. In 2018, Banfield took on this role and he will be better for it.

There are a few genuine stoppers in the league currently. West Coast’s Mark Hutchings was probably the stand out, with a few big jobs on the likes of Steele Sidebottom, Dylan Shiel and Tom Mitchell, particularly in lieu of the injury that limited North Melbourne’s Ben Jacobs last season.

Bailey Banfield’s efforts against Shaun Higgins and Jack Steven, whilst not in the elite range just yet, give a solid indication that this is a young man who understands the value of a good defensive mid. And if he improves on his 2018, which I have little doubt he will, we will be mentioning his name as one of the toughest match ups in the game.

As he grows, develops, and gets stronger, I expect Banfield to make the move from tagging to being a damaging midfielder in his own right. His 14.6 touches per game is a wonderful starting point, and as he increases both this, and his tackle count, his name will be on a lot of opposition whiteboards in 2019.

 

… Alex Pearce can stay fit, the Dockers will not leak goals.

Ross Lyon is a defence-first coach, so he must absolutely adore Alex Pearce. Though his form tapered off a little as the year went on – expected after such a long injury lay-off, Pearce was in the top handful of defenders in the first half of 2018. We had him as the best-ranked key defender over the first five weeks.

He takes on the big defensive jobs, and his efforts in curtailing Tom Lynch, Charlie Dixon, Joe Daniher and Jeremy Cameron over the first five weeks were incredible. Combined, they kicked four goals in total – that’s some high quality defending.

With 21 games under his belt in 2018, Pearce would be chomping at the bit to take on 2019, and the All-Australian full back position is not out of the equation at all. Think about that for a moment – bookends of Pearce and Hogan both performing to their optimum… there are much worse spinal players in the league – the Dockers would start to command a fair amount of respect.

I’m earmarking the Round Four derby clash as the test for Pearce this season. I think he’ll get hold of an underdone Ben Brown in Round One, but Josh Kennedy will be his big test. Huge game, with a sell-out crowd, and the cross-town rivals and premiers staring back at them, Pearce’s performance will go a fair way to dictating how the Dockers fare. If he puts the clamps on Kennedy, anything could happen…

… including people taking notice of one of the best defenders in the game.

 

BUT IF…

… Fyfe is the main guy responsible for delivering the ball to Hogan, Fremantle need to consider other options.

I gave Fyfe a pat on the back above, and now he gets a kick in the pants.

He needs to hit targets a little more often. He is one of the best in the game at getting the ball, and marking overhead, at winning clearances, and at earning the footy in contested situations, but he lets himself down with his kicking at times.

Kicking efficiency stats have only been made public since 2013, but since then, Fyfe’s best season was 2016 where he went at 63.8% by foot. Sadly, it was over the course of just five games due to injury. Over the last three years, his kicking efficiency has declined to sit at 57.8% in 2018.

Look, Fyfe is never going to be Darren Jarman with the footy – not many players will ever have the skillset of ‘Jars’ but he needs to start hitting targets more often. He does the hard stuff and wins the tough contests, only to let himself, and the team down with wayward disposal. I’d go so far to say it is the only real flaw in his game, particularly since he changed that shonky hairstyle.

I am sure there will be many situations that see Fyfe streaming out of the centre with the ball, and Jesse Hogan on the lead. Fyfe HAS TO hit those kicks. He has to make life easier for the new Fremantle forward.

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… Cam McCarthy can’t function as a decent third option, and raise his accuracy above 50%, it may be time to look elsewhere.

I’m not sure there’s been a more disappointing player in the game than Cam McCarthy. After two promising seasons at GWS, his move to Fremantle appeared to be just what the doctor ordered for both him, and the club. But the development has been slow. Some would say he’s gone backwards.

What McCarthy has done, or more to the point hasn’t done at Fremantle, is assume the number one forward position with any sort of authority. After averaging 1.75 goals per game in 2015, the best he has been able to muster in purple is 1.32 in 2017. Last season, he dipped to 1.12 with a goal accuracy rate of just 45.2%.

So McCarthy is not the star forward and never will be – that much is obvious. When he gets the best defender, he doesn’t perform. But what about when he gets the second best defender? Or the third? Could that be the factor that aids his game?

With Jesse Hogan prowling the forward 50, and if 2018 was any indication, he will work hard up the ground as well, McCarthy might find himself in some advantageous positions up forward on clear-outs. He’ll have Rory Lobb dropping back as a deep forward target as well, leaving McCarthy as the third option, if he gets the nod ahead of Taberner.

That last point is a pretty big one. It’s possible McCarthy might be a fourth option in the Fremantle forward line now. It’s not quite what Fremantle expected from the 23 year old, however time is on his side, for now.

Having the load taken off his shoulders is an opportunity he has to make the most of. He promised so much, and to date, has delivered so little. With the help that was obviously lacking now present in the form of Hogan and Lobb, there are no excuses for him this season.

With just 19 goals to his name in 2018, I have to think 30 is his pass mark this season, assuming he plays 15-18 games. It’s not as though 30 goals is some mythical figure – he’s been there before in 2015. He needs to be around that mark to a) become relevant again in an improving forward line, and b) take the heat off Hogan and Lobb a little. If he can hold up his end of the bargain, and their new forward recruits come to the party as well, the Fremantle forward line starts to look like something they haven’t in quite a while – dangerous.

And if he can’t hold up his end of the bargain? Well, I guess Matt Taberner gets another chance to uphold his.

 

OTHER STUFF

The new additions to Fremantle make for an interesting topic. We’ll get to Rory Lobb soon enough, but Trav Colyer and Reece Conca are very nice complementary players. Conca was close to best-22 at the Tigers in 2016 and 2017 until a gruesome-looking ankle dislocation sidelined him in 2018. He recovered to finish to season strongly as part of a Richmond team that went to the Prelim final. Colyer’s departure from Essendon was a bit lost amid the Dylan Shiel hype. With 87 games under his belt, but coming off only eight games in 2018, Colyer will be looking for more game time in purple, and should add some poise to the outfit.

Just 10 games for Brad Hill hurt Fremantle in 2018. His run and carry – and endurance... don’t forget that – were sorely missed. When Hill was at Hawthorn, people lauded his pace, but I don’t think he is as quick off the mark as people think. He runs all day, however, and is still going at the end of games at a the same pace he’s travelling in the first quarter. He is an endurance beast, and when others start to slow, he’s still going strong. 20 games for Brad in 2019 means the Dockers aren’t lacking for run late in games. His brother’s off-season surgery has delayed his start to pre-season. Having both Hill brothers out there opens up a world of running possibility.

Interested to see what Fremantle fans think Michael Walters’ best position is? For mine, he is the perfect small forward, and in 2013 I remember thinking that we were seeing the evolution of that position in Walters. He hit that height again in 2015, but since then, whilst his disposals per game have increased, the trade-off has been his goal kicking. More disposals have equalled less time in front of goals. Walters could be a huge beneficiary of Hogan up forward. A big, mobile target allows for some predictability for small forwards to read, and Walters’ ability to hit a pack front and centre is excellent. If he plays forward more often than not, the Dockers have a potential three-pronged attack that will take some stopping.

I’m a David Mundy fan. He doesn’t need a heap of the ball to hurt oppositions, but when he does get it, he uses it well. His ability to win the ball and stand in tackles is important to the Dockers, but he is starting to get on now. He’ll turn 34 during the season, and we could see his production start to dip, possible to under the 20-disposal mark.

Keep an eye on Nathan Wilson drifting back after set shots at goal to take the kick ins, and take off with the ball. The new rule where you don’t even have to kick the ball to yourself may see him grab the ball, run and deliver the ball to the wing over any defensive zone. He’d be the bloke I’d be designating to do that if I were Ross the Boss. But then again, that’s probably why I am writing for free on the internet, and Ross is getting good coin to make these decisions. Wilson averaged 510 metres gained per game in 2018 - good enough for third in the league. If he starts running from kickouts, he might be #1 in 2019.

So where does the organic improvement come from this season? Adam Cerra and Andrew Brayshaw should be a lot better – Brayshaw was really coming into his own before the Gaff incident and had recorded a career-high 25 touches the week before. Cerra has looked dangerous at times, and I’d expect to see him getting on the end of some running chains inside 50 this season. Mitch Crowden and Stefan Giro should both continue on their merry way and add to the depth of the club. Crowden looks like a bit of a rough nut, huh? Not the most attractive fella in the world…

I really like the addition of Luke Valente to the Dockers. All reports suggest an incredible work ethic, and solid leadership skills at junior level. Looks like a keeper, and a bargain at pick 32. Hope he cracks the best 22 early in the season – I reckon he’ll be difficult to displace.

And then there’s some relief for Aaron Sandilands in the ruck in 2019. With just 11 games last season, Sandi looked every bit of his 35 years. Now at 36, he was in dire need of someone to share the load, and though Rory Lobb will spend time up forward, the Docker mids will still get excellent service when Sandi has a rest. Lobb will probably be in a similar position he found himself in at GWS, splitting time between ruck and forward when Sandi is in the team, but with the big man’s time very limited in the past few seasons, Lobb in the ruck may be a sight Freo fans should get used to.

The Draw – Just putting it out there… did the Dockers get shafted in this year’s draw? After finishing 14th, they don’t get Carlton, Gold Coast or Brisbane twice, and have to settle for St Kilda, whilst also getting Essendon, Port, the Bulldogs and the Eagles. There is an argument that St Kilda, Port and Essendon all have the potential to improve drastically. Not sure Freo have been dealt a good hand here.

This should be a year of development for the Dockers. They weren’t great last season, but early on, I thought they showed plenty. Once injuries hit, the performance fell away significantly, indicating a lack of depth. This has been aided somewhat with the addition of Colyer, Lobb and Conca, but more work needs to be done. The addition of Hogan whilst losing Neale may turn out to be a break-even, and will be one of the more interesting storylines as the season progresses.

For mine, Freo won’t be playing finals, but if they defend their home ground, cause an upset or two, they can have 7-9 wins for the season, which may not seem like much of an improvement on 2018 (because it isn’t!) but it’s more about how the team develops and starts to gel together.

That said, I can see the team being 3-1 after four rounds, and confidence is a wonderful thing. With early wins on the board, and a good run with injury, the Dockers may surprise a few.

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