Ross Lyon initially copped his fair share of heat for his decision to leave St Kilda not even a week after an elimination final exit in 2011.
Moving from coast to coast, the manner in which Fremantle sacked previous coach Mark Harvey and subsequently replaced him with Lyon was critiqued and dissected by the media, notably in Lyon’s first press conference as head coach of the Dockers. With his reputation and integrity under fire, one of the attributes he was to bring to Fremantle was immediately on show – his professionalism.
“Every moment of the day you’ve got to pursue excellence, so you’re either getting closer to your goal or you’re getting further away,” he responded. “That’s the philosophy I bring and that’s what we’ll be pursuing, and all I know is you don’t prepare every moment of the day in that manner you’re getting further away from your goal.”
Lyon was direct in the notion of taking the underachieving Fremantle, a side then with six finals to its name, to the top of the field. Rivals West Coast, in that period, had played 24, including a famous 2006 premiership. There was no nonsense, no cliché, no spin.
It accurately describes the Fremantle of now, currently third on the ladder, with the highest percentage and lowest score conceded in the league, having only lost four games so far this year.
There is something marvellously meticulous about the way they operate. It is a difficult game style that relies on all 18 players on the ground offering the same commitment to defensive pressure, and further application to a precise uncontested style of ball movement.
It’s clearly working. Offensively, they lead the league in effective kicks and uncontested marks, losing only one game from 15 when they win both these categories. Defensively, they are the only side to concede under 10 goals a game, and successfully rebound 72% of their opposition’s entries inside 50, only behind Sydney.
In each position is a widespread variety of capable players, too. If Lyon has regrets from his work with St Kilda, his work with youth must be one. The neglect to give players such as Jack Steven, amongst many others no longer at the club, game time in favour of senior players is hurting the Saints now.
The average of all three of St Kilda’s Grand Final sides under Lyon was above 26, with Ben McEvoy and Robert Eddy the only players below 24 years old in their 56-point loss to Collingwood in 2010. Fremantle’s side that crushed fellow finalist Port Adelaide, in comparison, had 10 under that age bracket. Players such as Lachie Neale, Cam Sutcliffe, Jack Hannath and Michael Walters are relishing the opportunity.
This is combined with a superb, albeit small senior core in Matthew Pavlich, Luke McPharlin and Aaron Sandilands. It is an underestimated and outstanding effort that Fremantle has managed to go as far as they have with the trio only playing one game together, in round 15.
The side is much better as a whole when McPharlin shuts down the opposition’s best forward. Garrick Ibbotson, most notably, finds significant freedom with him in averaging 23 disposals alongside McPharlin and only 16 without. The rest of their defence is also less restricted in their roles as a result.
Pavlich, while not being the Coleman contender of last year, is critical to their structure. He presents a strong marking target as well as a foil for Walters, Hayden Ballantyne, Chris Mayne and improved performances from Stephen Hill and Danyle Pearce, amongst others. That they score 116 points per game with Pavlich in the side and only 70 without him this season says enough.
And in a squad missing both Jon Griffin and Kepler Bradley, having Sandilands fit is enormous. He is ageing, but still overwhelming in the centre alongside the in-form Zac Clarke. Them tapping it down to Nathan Fyfe, David Mundy and Michael Barlow is a dangerous scenario.
Granted they haven’t played particularly formidable opposition over recent weeks – indeed, the highest-placed side they’ve faced in the past five weeks was Port Adelaide – but, after all, they can only play who they’re up against. And they’ve been progressively more comprehensive in beating them.
It warms them up for what is in all likelihood an away qualifying final against Geelong, either at Etihad Stadium, where they play the Saints this upcoming round, or at the MCG, where they shocked the Cats last year. The Dockers hold favourable records at both grounds, and will no doubt have their hearts set on redemption for what was their most embarrassing performance of the season against Geelong in round 14.
It’d likely be their strongest side of the season, as all of McPharlin, Ibbotson, Sandilands and Clancee Pearce should be fit and ready to slot back into the side.
Geelong, or whoever else the Dockers may come across in September, will be fearful of that. As groomed for finals football as a team like the Cats, Swans or Hawks are, Ross Lyon cultivates the intensity of it.
And as he stated nearly two years ago, with a preliminary final or perhaps even a grand final now in their sights, they have indeed pursued and achieved something excellent.