Fremantle is reaping the rewards of a tough rebuild, with an emerging core of young players ready to propel it into a new era.
After recording its highest finish since 2016, the Dockers head into this season with more experience and renewed expectations.
But it remains to be seen whether this will be enough to put the club back into the top eight.
12th, 7 wins, 10 losses. 93.7%
While Fremantle didn’t make the finals for the fifth year in a row, 2020 showed it has the nucleus to make an assault on September when the time comes.
Going into last season, there many reasons to think it would be a year filled with growing pains.
Having to learn a different system under a new coach, while losing talent like Lachie Neale, Brad Hill and Ed Langdon over the last two off-seasons, many thought the club would take a step back.
But under Justin Longmuir, the Dockers developed a game style that made them tough to play and score against (ranking fifth for least points allowed).
The team was competitive in the majority of its game with an average losing margin of 22 points and even upset the likes of Collingwood and St Kilda.
Adam Cerra and Andrew Brayshaw both finished top five in the best and fairest in their third seasons respectively, while Caleb Serong was the Rising Star.
Luke Ryan announced himself as one of the best defenders in the game, taking out All Australians honours and the Doig Medal.
An inability to consistently score was the Dockers’ Achilles’ heel (finishing 16th in points scored), despite Matthew Taberner enjoying a breakout season.
Small forward Liam Henry has been the clear standout this pre-season, coming back in excellent condition in preparation for his second year at the level.
He kicked three goals in a recent intraclub game and looks set to explode, after struggling to reach the high expectations of a top 10 pick last year.
Rookie Josh Treacy is turning heads, he also kicked three goals in that practice match and fellow key forward Matt Taberner said he looks AFL ready.
In another boost to Fremantle’s forward line, Sam Switkowski has been finding the goals at training, after his 2020 was wiped out by hamstring injuries.
Heath Chapman, pick 14 in last year’s draft, has settled in beautifully and is a strong chance for a Round One debut.
Nat Fyfe’s specky in a recent scratch match is a contender for mark of the pre-season (if such an award exists), but the five goals he kicked are just as noteworthy.
Longmuir plans to rotate his superstar through the forward line this season, something that was seen at times last year and employed during the practice match.
On the injury front, Sean Darcy and Matt Taberner have suffered setbacks, but are expected to be ready for Round One.
After a season spent on the sidelines, key defensive duo Alex Pearce and Joel Hamling have been training and participating in match simulation.
Darcy Tucker also played in the most recent intraclub game after recovering from a long-term hamstring injury, while Griffin Logue, Luke Valente, Nathan O’Driscoll and Sam Sturt sat out.
What to look forward too:
A continuation of the youth movement
Fremantle showed last year that it has a bevy of young players ready to take over.
Too much was often left on the shoulders of Nat Fyfe and Michael Walters, but now the next generation is picking up the slack.
Andrew Brayshaw put pen to paper on a four-year contract extension and was added to the leadership group, committing his future to the club until 2025 and firming as a potential captain down the track.
Adam Cerra is set for more time in the midfield, while Caleb Serong should get even better with a more normalized structure around him.
Fellow top ten picks, Hayden Young and Liam Henry, look set for big sophomore seasons as well.
Henry’s form on the training track has already been covered, but Young was going from strength to strength last year before injuries ended his season.
Sam Sturt looms as an exciting third-tall up forward, though he will likely miss the start of the season due to an ankle injury.
Every player that Fremantle selected in the 2020 National Draft hails from WA, with first-round pick Heath Chapman and NGA product Joel Western impressing early.
Josh Treacy was taken in the Rookie Draft and has been looking strong up forward.
There are several exciting players on the periphery like Michael Frederick, Mitchell Crowden and Taylin Duman, illustrating the Dockers’ depth of emerging players.
It’s a big year for:
It wasn’t long ago that Connor Blakely was expected to step up in the absence of Lachie Neale, but the inside midfielder is now truly on the outer at Fremantle.
He didn’t break into the team until Round Nine last season and only played five games, with Longmuir prioritizing the Dockers’ young midfield brigade.
Blakely has been involved in trade discussions over the last two off-seasons, other clubs lack of interest was the only thing that stopped a move from happening last year.
He’s contracted until 2022, so this season isn’t necessarily his last chance, but it’s hard to see what his next step is if he doesn’t play regular games this year
Biggest unanswered question:
Who locks down the key posts?
While it might seem strange to question Fremantle’s strongest area of the ground, it’s still hard to know how its backline will look this season.
What made the Dockers’ form down back so impressive last year, is that they did it without the services of Alex Pearce and Joel Hamling.
Neither of them played a game last season, but the duo are automatic selections when available.
Longmuir says they’re on track for Round One, but there would be concerns over whether they can stay fit after such a long layoff, especially with Pearce given his long injury profile.
After previously playing as a forward, Brennan Cox looked at home down back and Longmuir has already indicated that he wants to keep him there.
Former top ten pick Griffin Logue was also in the best form of his short career, before injuries cut him down once again.
The club has four strong key defenders and while it’s a good problem to have, it feels inevitable that there will be one or two unlucky players who miss out.
Coach pressure index:
Fremantle has found the man to lead it forward in Justin Longmuir, he met or exceeded every expectation in his first year at the helm.
He took a side many predicted to be in the bottom four to 12th on the ladder, with an emphasis on exposing young talent.
Much like his time at Collingwood, he implemented a strong defensive scheme that held up when he mas missing some of his best players.
He also set high standards, indicated by the departure of Jesse Hogan.
The club has aided Longmuir by adding Matthew Boyd (Collingwood) and Joel Corey (Western Bulldogs) to its coaching ranks, while overhauling a fitness department that had been problematic for years.
Heath Chapman (West Perth), Nathan O’Driscoll (Perth), Brandon Walker (East Fremantle), Joel Western (Claremont), Josh Treacy (Bendigo Pioneers)
Jesse Hogan (GWS), Cam McCarthy (delisted), Brandon Matera (delisted), Jason Carter (delisted), Dillon O’Reilly (delisted), Isaiah Butters (delisted), Hugh Dixon (delisted), Tom North (delisted), Jarvis Pina (delisted)
Predicted Rd 1 lineup:
B: Luke Ryan – Alex Pearce – Ethan Hughes
HB: Hayden Young – Joel Hamling – Nathan Wilson
C: Adam Cerra – Nat Fyfe – James Aish
HF: Michael Walters – Rory Lobb – Sam Switkowski
F: Lachie Schultz – Matt Taberner – Liam Henry
R: Sean Darcy – Andrew Brayshaw – Caleb Serong
I/C: David Mundy – Brennan Cox – Blake Acres – Darcy Tucker
A finals berth is definitely a possibility, but Fremantle will need to take another step forward in order for it to happen.
It has to fix its scoring issues (with Longmuir hoping for 20 more points a game), the midfield group needs to hold up against some of the best in the competition and there needs to be a clean year on the injury front.
Its improvement will come from within after a quiet off-season, but if its young players can keep developing at the rate they have been, the club will be in the mix for finals.
The Dockers are an exciting contender for the top eight, but it is not an indictment on them or their process if 2021 isn’t their year just yet.
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