Mid-season report: After a slow start, Freo is really starting to heave ho

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In numbers

  • 6/10SCORE
  • 6WINS

Fremantle came in cold to the 2023 season, kicking off their campaign with back-to-back losses to St Kilda and North Melbourne.

Yet after struggling in the opening rounds, the Dockers have now hit their stride to reach their round 12 bye with four straight victories. Their momentum shift has largely come from a more attacking game style and improved ball use.

Caleb Serong has been a shining light for the Dockers this season.Credit: Getty Images/Stephen Kiprillis

Early on, the Dockers lacked connection and had contested ball issues. In the first six matches, they lost the clearance battle, their woes compounded by the injury-enforced absence of star ball-winner in Nat Fyfe. While their inside-50 numbers were still better than most in the competition (sixth in the AFL after six rounds), they lacked the polish in front of goal to hurt opponents on the scoreboard.

But the win over Hawthorn in round eight – which also marked Fyfe’s return to the team – was a turning point. Since then, the Dockers midfield has been cleaner at the contest and more effective at winning the ball through the middle of the ground – they won the clearance count against power clubs Geelong in round 10 and Melbourne in round 11. The midfield’s ascension has resulted in Fremantle’s forward line playing with more confidence. After their break, they face lower-placed Richmond and GWS, then the spirited Essendon, which could help springboard them into a run home to finals.

Who’s hot

Sean Darcy has done the heavy lifting in the ruck for the Dockers, including in round 10 against Geelong’s Tom Hawkins.Credit: AFL Photos

Sean Darcy has been a consistent and reliable performer for the Dockers this season, even when the midfield was slow off the mark early in the season. Having a big impact in the air, Darcy is currently ranked third in the AFL for average hitouts, with a career-high 39.2, and is fourth for hitouts to advantage. He’s also been crucial in contest situations, with an average of 4.6 clearances a game. Unfortunately, the big ruckman will be sidelined for at least one match after being subbed out against Melbourne in round 11 with a moderate hamstring injury.

Caleb Serong is cementing himself as one of the best midfielders in the competition, and was strong even early in the season when the Dockers started slowly. This season he is averaging 30.3 touches per game – 13.4 of them contested – including 7.2 clearances a game. With a career average of 24 disposals and 5.1 clearances, Serong was already an excellent player, but his increased output this year is elevating him to the elite level. As the Dockers’ midfield finds more connection, Serong could prove even more damaging in weeks to come.

With only 13 games under his belt, 19-year-old Jye Amiss is becoming a vital cog in the Dockers forward line. He claimed the Rising Star nomination in round 11 by kicking three goals and has hit the scoreboard in his past nine games, taking his tally to 19 from 10 games. While he only averages 8.1 disposals a game, it’s the damage Amiss does with them that counts, and his 1.5 tackles a game also helps mount pressure on opposition defenders.

Who needs to lift

While Luke Jackson played a starring role against his former side Melbourne in round 11, he did start the season slowly. In his first two games, the prized 199-centimetre recruit took just one mark. While things started to look better in game three, with three marks and two goals, it wasn’t until he faced his ex-teammates that it looked like the big price tag the Dockers had paid for him was starting to be justified. With Sean Darcy out for a few weeks with a hamstring injury, Jackson will need to dig deep for that same kind of influence as he sees more time in the ruck.

Putting dual-Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe in the “needs to lift” category feels sacrilegious, especially given he missed a fair chunk of the season with a plantar fasciitis injury, returned in the subs vest and when you consider his team is unbeaten since his return in round eight. However, he’s a long way from his best form, which admittedly is a high standard to set. Fyfe was originally slated for a key-forward role. But after registering below-competition-average statistics for goals, marks and tackles, is now mixing his time between the midfield and the forward line. His season average of just 12.4 possessions a game is well below his capability.

Another unexpected entrant in this category is Andrew Brayshaw. But following a breakout season in 2022 – when he claimed the Doig Medal (Dockers best and fairest award) and finished equal-fourth in the Brownlow Medal – the midfielder has failed to meet expectations early in 2023. While the statistics support the contention that his output is down, it must be noted Brayshaw wasn’t helped by his side’s slow start and a knee niggle in the opening rounds. While it took a while to find his groove, he has lifted alongside the Dockers’ overall performance in the past month.

Fremantle coach Justin Longmuir.Credit: AFL Photos

Coach’s box

The pressure was on Justin Longmuir early in the season as Fremantle lost three of their first four games, including two they went into as favourites. The climb to the cusp of the top eight in time for the round 12 bye took all the heat off the coach.

However, the horror start means the Dockers still only sit mid-table, and their season could go either way from here. After finishing fifth last season, just two points behind Collingwood – who now leads the competition – the Dockers were expected to be a clear finals, if not top four, contender this year. Longmuir was considered one of the best coaches of 2022, but that performance comes with expectation, and he now finds himself in an uphill battle to match last year’s placing.

The road ahead

Round 13 v Richmond at Optus Stadium
Round 14: v GWS at Giants Stadium
Round 15 v Essendon at Optus Stadium
Round 16 v Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium
Round 17 v Carlton at Optus Stadium
Round 18 v Collingwood at the MCG
Round 19 v Sydney at Optus Stadium
Round 20 v Geelong at the GMHBA
Round 21 v Brisbane at Optus Stadium
Round 22 v West Coast at Optus Stadium
Round 23 v Port Adelaide at Optus Stadium
Round 24 v Hawthorn at the MCG.

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