Fremantle coach Ross Lyon has for so long been so excruciatingly close to glory on that last day in September.
A toe poke in 2009 and an unlucky bounce in 2010 spurred two grand final losses with the Saints. After his move to Fremantle, woeful kicking hurt in the Dockers’ maiden grand final appearance in 2013, and injuries were of similar assistance as they crashed out of finals in straight sets last season.
He is a maestro of the defensive side of the game, Lyon. There is no doubting his record – five of the last six seasons has seen a Lyon-coached side rank top two defensively, and a win-loss record of 66.8% is uncanny in the modern era.
For so long this Fremantle side depended on Stephen Hill for their outside run, and he became their barometer as a result. Under Ross Lyon the Dockers are 25-2 when Hill wins 22 or more disposals, and 15-0 when he kicks a goal on top of that. Naturally, their record when Hill fails to make a reasonable contribution diminishes, and rapidly. Matthew Pavlich and Nat Fyfe aside for reasons of importance and superstardom respectively, Hill is perhaps Fremantle’s most crucial player.
But the absence of tagger Ryan Crowley due to suspension, as well as defensively-minded Tendai Mzungu out of Lyon’s preferred mix, means the roles have been shuffled around. No Mzungu, no Crowley and Garrick Ibbotson finding fitness down back has freed up the side and given Hill a reengineered support act in transition.
Ibbotson is a terrific intercept player. Cam Sutcliffe has leg speed and is willing to use it. Paul Duffield is a smart kick and has found the freedom to use this up the ground, as has Clancee Pearce, deceptive for his quality outside play despite the build of an old-fashioned rover. Lachie Neale is also in career-best form and covers a lot of territory, especially in the defensive half.
In fact, of the 50 players to have a disposal efficiency above 80% from 60 disposals or more this season, Fremantle have 10 – including the aforementioned quintet – which dwarfs their opponents. Their combined efficiency as a side sits at 78.7%, also a competition high by a considerable margin. For perspective, the AFL average this year is 72.7%, and Hawthorn, renowned for their skill by foot, topped the charts last season with a now meagre-looking 74.3%.
This, as well as the career-best form of Fyfe, David Mundy and Danyle Pearce, means the Dockers are moving the ball better and punishing the opposition more than ever.
In fact little has been made of the extent of Fremantle’s dominance, putting games to bed so early. The Dockers have percentages of 213.1% to half time this season and 180.5% to three quarter time – over 65% better than the next best side in both areas. Assertive football would put it too lightly – they are building significant, unassailable leads before the opposition knows what hits them.
This is not an incapability to play four quarters, either – they trailed for the majority of their round one victory against Port Adelaide, and added insult to injury against Melbourne in round five, kicking seven goals to none in the last stanza. And percentage isn’t an issue for a side two games clear on top of the ladder.
They are a top six team for transition from defensive 50 to forward 50 in the first three quarters. Even in final quarters, when Fremantle switch off, they are ranked 12th, notably better than their 2014 ball movement, which ranked them bottom three alongside Brisbane and Melbourne. Even a suppressed, switched-off Fremantle is moving the ball more productively than the Fremantle of yesteryear.
This ball movement was the gaping hole in the Lyon game plan – forcing turnovers or winning stoppages has never been an issue. To commit so much defensively took a chunk out of their capabilities to move the ball, but now some small adjustments to the side, as well as a notable fitness regime over the summer that is seeing the Dockers run harder and faster as a unit than ever before, are paying off.
It’s daunting to think this side is adding some potency to its game. And it’s been done without sacrificing the most effective defence in the competition, merely a tweak here and there to discover the winning formula. Lyon has noted he wants the Dockers to become a top four offensive side – they are fourth for goals scored in 2015, and at the third-best conversion rate inside 50.
These are the qualities that etch teams into the record books. ‘Defence wins premierships’ is a common notion and one that has formed the backbone of many high-quality sides over the years, including both of Lyon’s. But it’s the coming together of both offence and defence that can win Ross Lyon and Fremantle that elusive premiership.
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