2016 season preview: Fremantle

Last season

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Fremantle started 2015 in style with a come-from-behind round one win over a Port Adelaide side considered premiership contenders, following it up with a seven-goal belting of the Cats at Kardinia Park.

But it was what came next that put the football world on notice: Freo piled on the first 11 goals in a breathtaking display against West Coast in the derby. The Dockers meant business.

It took until round 10, when they were jumped by Richmond, for Ross Lyon’s men to taste defeat.

About the only thing more impressive than Fremantle’s start was the form of Nat Fyfe, who somehow took his game to a higher level than the lofty mark set in 2014. The umpires adjudged the midfield monster the best player on the ground nine times in Fremantle’s first 13 games, with a two-vote game thrown in for good measure on his way to a deserved Brownlow Medal.

Sadly for Fyfe, and the Dockers, he was able to fully celebrate his Brownlow win because Fremantle’s season had ended three nights earlier at the hands of the Hawks. The Dockers had dispatched Sydney in the qualifying final to earn a week off, but despite finishing the home and away season atop the ladder, they became the first non-Victorian club to lose a home preliminary final.

Comings and goings

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The biggest loss for the Dockers was the retirement of full back Luke McPharlin, who pulled the pin on an excellent 256-game career. Skillful half back Paul Duffield also hung up the boots, while Ryan Crowley was cut loose after serving a 12-month drug ban. Failed free agent Colin Sylvia was gave up in the middle of 2015, bringing an end to a disappointing career that included 157 games with Melbourne and only six games in two seasons as a Docker.

Speaking of unfulfilled talent, Fremantle took a punt in trading for Harley Bennell from the Suns, giving up their first and second round picks but receiving a second rounder back. Despite all the controversy that has surrounded him, Bennell has averaged better than 22 disposals and a goal a game over the past four seasons. And for all the criticism that Ross Lyon does not develop young players, he has always gotten the most out of elite talent – and Bennell is certainly that.

Left-footed small defender Darcy Tucker was drafted with pick 27 from North Ballarat, talented junior basketballer Harley Balic was selected at pick 38 and Sam Collins with pick 55.

Shane Yarran, who spent six years in prison and is the cousin of Richmodn recruit Chris Yarran, arrives after booting 93 goals in two premiership seasons with Subiaco in the WAFL. The 26-year-old should push for senior selection early in the season.

Injury-cursed talent Anthony Morabito was delisted, but gets a second chance on Freo’s rookie list.

Strengths

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Since Ross Lyon took the reins in 2012 the Dockers have won 14, 16, 16 and 17 games. The criticism of Lyon for not having won a premiership is simplistic and lazy – he’s one of the game’s best coaches.

In typical Lyon fashion, Fremantle was as stingy as ever last season; they conceded only 71 points a game, which ranked second in the league behind the Hawks. In 15 of their 24 games, they held opponents to fewer than six first-half goals.

A lot of this stems from Freo’s powerful midfield group. Nat Fyfe is arguably the game’s best player, David Mundy posseses that rare combination of power and exquisite foot skills, and 22-year-old Lachie Neale is coming off a career-best season. Stephen Hill is the prototypical winger; fast, tall and strong with exceptional endurance and a lethal left leg. And all of them are fed by behemoth Aaron Sandilands, who remains one of footy’s most influential ruckmen. It’s no surprise that the Dockers scored more points from clearances than any team last season.

Weaknesses

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With Luke McPharlin gone and star centre half back Michael Johnson on his last legs, the back six looks vulnerable on paper. That said, history suggest Ross Lyon could line up the Me? I Like Football contributors in the defensive third and still restrict AFL opponents from scoring 12 goals.

The hard truth is that it’s up front that has held the Dockers back. Matthew Pavlich is a modern great still performing at a high level and Michael Walters is one of the best small forwards in the league, but there’s not a lot of firepower after that. They cracked triple figures only once after round eight – it’s an area Harley Bennell could boost.

They’ll also be hoping this is the year 198cm forward Matthew Taberner becomes a force in attack. The 22-year-old booted 14 goals in 15 games last year; he should be aiming to double that goal tally this season.

As good as Freo has been over the past four seasons, their lack of scoring power has meant they’ve been no match for the all-conquering Hawks, who have beaten them eight of the past nine times the teams have met. Chances are if you can’t beat Hawthorn, you can’t win the flag.

There isn’t a lot wrong with the Dockers, which is why they win so many games. But until they find a way to score more points – particularly in September – the league’s most powerful teams will continue to cause them grief.

What to expect in 2016 

Much of the same. The Dockers still have elite talent, a great coach and a home field advantage the envy of the league. Ross Lyon is smart enough to know his team needs to score more to take the next step, so expect them to be more aggressive in their quest to find another two or three goals per week.

Best 22

B: Lee Spurr – Zac Dawson – Cameron Sutcliffe
HB: Garrick Ibbotson – Michael Johnson – Tommy Sheridan
C: Danyle Pearce – David Mundy – Stephen Hill
HF: Harley Bennell – Matthew Pavlich – Michael Walters
F: Hayden Ballantyne – Matthew Taberner – Chris Mayne
FOLL: Aaron Sandilands – Nat Fyfe – Lachie Neale
INT: Michael Barlow – Tendai Mzungu – Matt de Boer – Nick Suban 

The verdict

Fremantle is a damn good football team and has been for some time. But the flipside is they have the oldest list in the competition and this could be the last chance for club greats like Matthew Pavlich and Michael Johnson. Expect the Dockers to be there when the whips are cracking in September, even if their premiership window is only slightly ajar.

We have Fremantle finishing fourth, with a puncher’s chance of making the grand final.