Just three weeks ago, Fremantle were on the receiving end of an 88-point demolition job at the hands of the Melbourne Demons. Circumstances out of their control? Yes, of course. But now the Dockers are just a win away from getting into their first Grand Final.
On a warm autumn afternoon at Arden Street, the Dockers punched their ticket to the preliminary finals with an assertive second half on a North Melbourne team that have struggled for consistency for most of the year.
North had their chances in the opening half to really take the Dockers to task, but once Kim Rennie was tested for concussion and failed to return during the second term, things started crumbling for the Roos, as their forward line struggled to lock things in.
In response to their defeat from the Roos in Tassie earlier this year, the Dockers found another level with their team synergy and in tandem with their play off the rebound, left Darren Crocker and his charges searching for more answers during the off-season.
Fremantle have now earned the right to take on the minor premiers in the Adelaide Crows next weekend, providing that we don’t get either side ravaged by Health and Safety protocols in the next seven days or so.
But in the meantime, the purple army should enjoy this win and given what happened between the Crows and the Dockers a couple of weeks ago, they’ll have their work cut out for them in South Australia next weekend.
The Captain’s Game
Hayley Miller, take a bow.
Last week, I covered Brisbane’s win over the Bulldogs and touched on just how much improvement Emily Bates has made over the course of the season, well as it turns out, the Fremantle captain has been just as significant in her improvement as any other player in the competition.
Miller has found career-best numbers in disposals, marks, tackles, metres gained and scoreboard involvements – that last one, she’s nearly averaging one goal and one behind per game, which is extraordinary numbers from a midfielder who probably spends maybe 35 percent in the forward half?
When the Dockers were second to the ball, they turned to Hayley Miller to get them going, and she was responsible for a handful of important moments that saw the Dockers break out of the stoppages. Her incredible contested mark against Sarah Wright in the second term almost drew out shades of Nathan Fyfe, just how freakishly good it was – if only Fyfey could finish in front of goals consistently as Miller can.
Both midfields had their moments in this game, and I will get to North’s on-ball brigade in a little bit, but without the impact of Hayley Miller in the second quarter, then who knows what happens from there.
Kiara Bowers had the eight clearances and led all comers on the ground but lacked the tackling pressure we’ve been so accustomed to seeing over the years. But Miller made up for that with her six tackles, as well as five clearances to go along with her 21 disposals, 10 contested possessions and four marks.
Is North’s Midfield Better With Or Without Emma Kearney?
We saw in the last quarter in a desperate move to get the game swinging back in North Melbourne’s favour, their captain Emma Kearney move into the midfield after a season-long stint in the defensive half.
Kearney on the half back line is great, because she’s a brilliant, gut-busting runner and that’s what the half back flankers are all about. She positions herself well on intercept and has often been the one to drive the ball from defence to what should be attack, only for the structure to completely fall down in the forward half of the ground.
It also enables players like Mia King, who has had a very good year in the middle, Jenna Bruton (also been very strong over the course of the season) and Ellie Gavalas to feature more prominently around the centre bounce. It also gives the keys to the on-ball brigade to a player like Ash Riddell, who despite not reaching the glorious heights of last weekend, was still very good in trying to take the game on and hitting the disposals in attempts to open the Fremantle defence.
I thought the move to the middle in the last quarter was inspired, because within the opening minute of the last quarter, Kearney was getting hands to the football and as the game progressed, she was everywhere, pumping those legs and trying to create drive in every area of the ground. I reckon I counted at least six contested possessions in the last quarter that had her name to it – she finished with 10 for the match out of 22 disposals.
North’s midfield has been fine without her this year and as I’ve said a handful of times this season, their problems lie forward of centre. Ash Riddell can get all the disposals she likes and Jasmine Garner can be a brute force in the middle all she wants, but unless there’s clear structure in the forward 50, this North Melbourne team won’t be going anywhere past the first week of finals.
Emma King looks much more comfortable when she’s doing the ruckwork as opposed to being the stay-at-home key forward, Tahlia Randall has had a very good year being thrust into a position she has rarely played in and question marks linger over the consistency of players like Sophie Abbatangelo, Daisy Bateman and Daria Bannister – good on their day, but disappear when it isn’t.
Welcome Back Janelle
Since earning a spot in the All-Australian side last year, Janelle Cuthbertson has had a horrific time in getting herself on the park. A concussion in Freo’s win over the Giants in round two then led to a fractured jaw on the eve of her supposed return in the mid-week game against the Western Bulldogs.
She made her long-awaited return to footy in this game and well, it goes with the saying, she returned as if she never left. The Dockers defensive unit has been very solid all year round. Sarah Verrier has been a revelation this season, Ange Stannett has been nothing but ultra-reliable and players like Aine Tighe and Jess Low have come into the team with a specific job to do and have taken it with aplomb.
I’ll get to Tighe’s game in the next section, but Janelle’s inclusion brings with it a sense of versatility in the big Irishwoman’s game that can really prove to be decisive wherever Trent Cooper sees fit. Meanwhile, Janelle can get back to what she does best and that’s intercepting and causing disruption (if there wasn’t any already) to the opposition forwards.
We know at her best, she’s a brilliant one-on-one player, but it’s her intercepting abilities, both in the air and at ground level that sets her apart from most other key defenders in the competition.
She finished with six marks from her 12 disposals in this one, and a few of them were very strong contested intercept grabs, as she was working off of players like Emma King, Randall and maybe even a player like Jasmine Garner, who we know is a very dangerous player inside forward 50 for the Roos.
She’ll have her hands full next week in trying to stop the league’s leading goalkicker in Ashleigh Woodland, who has got pace to burn and on her best day, has no trouble in putting goals on the board in a hurry.
Fremantle’s Forward Line Potency
When I was writing out my season previews last December, the biggest concern I had for Fremantle is where the goals were going to come from?
Gemma Houghton, for as dangerous as she can be, has looked a bit blasé at times with her approach to the goals this year and her kicking for goal has suffered as a result, take that into consideration and you’ve got to be super impressed with the potency that this Fremantle side has to offer.
I hinted about Tighe’s game before, so let’s delve a little deeper into it now. I thought she was simply terrific. For a woman of her stature, it should be illegal for her to have the vision and composure of a creative forward, but that’s exactly what she brought to this final.
I feel like a broken record when I say it, but you just know she’s spent a considerable amount of time watching vision and how to play since arriving at Fremantle because she brings so much to this Fremantle side. Her versatility is key, having been used as either a ruck or a key defender for most of the season.
Kara Antonio’s influence on this forward line is another key reason the Dockers are where they are right now. It was only a few years ago that we revered her work as an inside midfielder, but her abilities as a forward are just simply amazing. She sees the game unfold before most others on the ground and always seems to pick out right options, whether it through kicks or through deft taps to her teammates.
I would also like to just briefly touch on Mikayla Hyde’s game, too. I thought it was close to the perfect small forward’s game. She was at the feet of her tall forwards so consistently and was able to get on the scoreboard multiple times because of that. Could’ve had three goals, but finished with two – which look, you’d take that in a heartbeat. Hyde didn’t play a game for Fremantle in 2021 but has been one of many finds this year.
What’s Got To Change Next Year At North Melbourne?
System aside, North Melbourne need to look at a few areas of the ground.
Emma King to be the number one ruck option next year has got to be the priority. Get her out of full forward and look at someone at state level who can present well on the lead and kick the set shot reliably, remarkable that they didn’t target someone like Tara Bohanna in last year’s draft.
Not only is King an unreliable shot for goal, but she makes the midfield look a little bit better, I’d like to know what her hitouts to advantage number was, because I reckon, she palmed it down directly to her midfielders maybe half a dozen times? It puts a bit of pressure on Kim Rennie to add another string to her game as well, she’s a solid tap ruck, but nothing that will rival those around the comp for All-Australian.
Sarah Wright has been in fine form across the season as an intercepting half-back flanker, but where does the help come from? Jasmine Ferguson and Danielle Hardiman take the best key forwards every week and Brooke Brown is someone who knows how to play, but very inconsistent with her decision-making.
Bella Eddey has had a very solid year on the wing in her second season, but I expect her to go up another level next season. Kaitlyn Ashmore is a top-line wing player and except for her two behinds, played a very strong game, but Freo have three very strong wing options in Ebony Antonio, Steph Cain and Airlie Runnalls – the top four sides of the competition have great players that hold their width and break the game open with their speed and skill in the process.
They’ve got a midfield should be combating with the best, but instead they find themselves out of the finals in the first week for the second year in a row. It’s concerning for Darren Crocker.
Thought Nicole Bresnehan’s efforts playing in a few roles in this game were very good. Played a little on the wing and some time at half back but competed well when needed to.
Wasn’t her day, but I thought the defensive pressure Roxy Roux brought to this game was incredible. There’s a hard but fair approach to her tackling, and it’s an approach that will test the nerve of many defenders.
Not against playing more Tahlia Randall as the pinch-hitting second ruck in the future. She’s got a great vertical leap on her and you know you’re going to get a competitive player in the contest every time. Going to be very important for North’s fortunes next year.
In amidst Hayley Miller’s game and the clearance work of Kiara Bowers, Gabby O’Sullivan’s game was extraordinary. Made some ordinary decisions early in the game, but the grunt work and the ability to run away with the ball has made the move from forward to midfield a great move – had 18 disposals, 13 of them contested.
Ash Riddell will go close for the league best and fairest I think, despite Garner featuring well in games late in the season. On top of her work across general play, her clearance work in this one was simply brilliant – her seven clearances lead all Roos in this game.
Loved watching the match-up in North’s forward 50 between Daria Bannister and Sarah Verrier. I’d give the chocolates to Verrier – kept Bannister scoreless and was superb in spoiling many aerial contests.
Not sure where Grace Campbell will be at next season. Her eight tackles around the forward half shows that there she’s a great competitor, but I don’t see her bursting away from players or presenting herself as a forward threat.
Dana East may be in her first year at the Dockers, but I can’t wait to see what’s ahead of her following this season. Tough at the coal face and allows players like Miller, O’Sullivan and Bowers to be more outside as well – had only eight disposals, but six were contested and laid five tackles as well.
Aileen Gilroy had a very good first half I thought – used her body well in a few one-on-one contests and rebounded out of the defensive 50 very strongly. Unfortunately, she couldn’t string it together for four quarters. The 50-metre penalty in the last quarter she gave away in the last quarter summed up the Roos’ day.
And with all that said, that’s a wrap on this Finals’ review. It’ll be the Dockers taking on Adelaide in South Australia, hopefully next weekend, but with the uncertainties of Covid still hanging around, who knows where we’ll be in the next seven days.