Has Fremantle Docked Or Are They Still Lost At Sea?

Last week, Fremantle felt something they’d experienced just three times over the previous 42 rounds of football- a temporary place in the AFL’s top-8.

In a season that quickly leaped form relative certainty to complete chaos within weeks, the Dockers were able to slip through security amid all the turmoil, and at an incredibly opportune time too with a rare primetime Perth showdown against Geelong on the horizon. 

Unfortunately for Fremantle, they were pummelled by the Cats, and have since rapidly been dispatched from a top-8 spot, while according to the Stats Insider futures model they’re just a 22.5% chance of returning come September. 

And so with this windy AFL season still blowing a gale, what can we make of Fremantle? Are they back and ready to perhaps once again be a genuine contender after five years in the wilderness, or are they still lost at sea, caught up inside an epic wave of mediocrity? 

Let’s have a look. 

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Still hazy

When the Dockers finally decided to cut ties with Ross Lyon in late 2019, they were a club with relatively few good players and were a team frozen within an entrenched, negative style of play. They possessed precious little in the way of talented youth and seemed a million miles away from premiership contention, let alone a September berth.

Almost two full years since Ross was tossed, and it’s not abundantly clear all that much has changed. At least not on the surface. 

The Dockers are still languishing offensively, ranked just 12th in the competition for points per game which was only punctuated by a miserable 3-goal return against Geelong with the eyes of the footy world trained on them last Thursday night. 

The Cats capitulation was a reminder of how much this club still seriously struggles against good teams. While Freo did knock off the Swans in Perth in Round 10, that result was very much an outlier with the Dockers actually losing 49 of their last 60 games against top-8 foes. 

Something else the Dockers haven’t really reconciled in the wake of Lyon’s departure is their ability to win outside of WA with the club dropping 30 of their last 40 games when they’ve crossed state lines. 

And so if the Dockers still aren’t kicking winning scores, still aren’t beating good teams and are still getting spooked outside of Perth, why should we care about a team we haven’t pretended to care about for the previous five years?

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Green Shoots

When Justin Longmuir signed-on to take over from Ross Lyon he would have been fully aware of how seismic the job in front of him was.

While Nat Fyfe had just won his second Brownlow Medal just a week earlier and would go on to collect a third club Best and Fairest in commanding fashion weeks later, the reality is that the gap between him and the rest of the list was as pronounced as any club in the competition.

Speaking of that Best and Fairest, that top-5 was populated by the familiar faces of David Mundy and Michael Walters, while the other two spots were filled by Brad Hill and Ed Langdon who were just about to skip town. 

Over the previous 8 seasons the club had reeled in just 4 Rising Star nominations, while their poor record on draft night was replicated at the trade table too. The year prior to Longmuir’s hire the Dockers had given up two first-round picks to secure Melbourne’s Jesse Hogan who went on to play all of 12 games in purple, while the same trade period saw them wave goodbye to Lachie Neale who of course morphed into a Brownlow Medalist in Brisbane two seasons later. 

Yet for all their list management foibles, Longmuir’s most pronounced effect since arriving has been to fast-track the young talent the club does have, while simultaneously changing the entire tenor of a team which had fast become a league afterthought. 

While sure, Fyfe and 36-year old Mundy still rule the roost where the Docker midfield is concerned, this has become an area of the park where Fremantle is now well stocked and could provide their ticket back to September.

Under Longmuir, both Andrew Brayshaw and Adam Cerra have taken off, while Docker hearts were warmed by Caleb Serong winning last year’s Rising Star award and taking his game to another level this season, jumping form 17 to 21 touches per game while so far amassing 14 scoring shots as opposed to last season’s 3.

This emerging midfield has also been served dramatically well by perhaps the game’s most improved player in Sean Darcy, who in short time has already elevated himself into one of the league’s premier big men.

Longmuir should also be applauded for the development of James Aish, Travis Colyer and Blake Acres as all three had been treading water at their previous places of employment yet have thrived out west with each playing all 17 of Freo’s games this year and producing the kind of number their previous clubs had given up on them consistently producing.

While the Dockers still aren’t scoring prolifically, their forward line is making marginal gains. If Matthew Taberner can ever stay healthy they’d have a legitimate, All-Australian calibre key forward on their hands, the likes of whom has slotted 56 goals in his last 27 games. Rory Lobb has also flashed promise, in fact when the former Giant has hauled in at least 6 marks since becoming a Docker his team is a finals-like 6-3. When he hasn’t, they’re just 7-13.

Unfortunately, outside of Taberner and Lobb, there’s little else to be particularly excited about up forward, and until this element of their game improves, their incredible midfield strides will go unrewarded.

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So are they coming or going? 

Well this depends on whether this young, talent-laden midfield can keep emerging and whether they can find a few more goal-scoring options. 

They clearly chose exceptionally well in hiring Longmuir to replace Lyon, while the former Collingwood assistant’s next major task will be finding ways to win outside of WA, while bridging what’s become a significant gap between how his club performs against the league’s best and worst. 

In a crazy season a Finals spot improbably opened up for the Dockers, and while they very likely won’t be able to seize it, the fact they put themselves in a position to do so speaks to a club that’s come a very long way in a short time, and from a very long way back.

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James Rosewarne

James is a writer and Managing Editor at Stats Insider. He likes fiction and music. He is a stingray attack survivor. He lives in Wollongong.

Email- james@thehypometer.com for story ideas or opportunities.

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