FREMANTLE coach Mark Harvey sat down with Nathan Schmook to reflect on the season so far and outline his plan for improvement.
How do you assess your season up to the break?
We’ve given ourselves an opportunity to capitalise on something. We’re finding more and more, barring really Geelong and perhaps St Kilda for that matter, that if you’re around the 60-70 per cent winning strike rate then you may give yourself an opportunity in the second half of the year to capitalise on that. That’s where we’re at.
What would have been realistic expectations for you coming into this season?
Just that the team was going to advance with our game plan and also the experience that we needed to get into a lot of the younger players – to see that evolve.
You made the comparison during the pre-season to the Baby Bombers. Can you expand on the similarities you saw between the groups?
That was more because we’ve got around six guys up around 28-plus, we’ve got 20-odd players between 18-22, so that was the comparison. There are some big differences; the Baby Bombers didn’t travel every second week for a start. It was more on age demographics than anything.
Can you identify the single biggest driver for where your improvement has come from this season?
I think physically we’ve got better and we’re definitely running out games better. We’re not at our peak yet from that angle. I think we’ve been really competitive and we haven’t been blown off the park; all our margins that we’ve been beaten by have been 15, 18, 23, 36. So we’ve gone from a side that won six games last year and had some big differences in losing margins. At this particular stage I think we’re narrowing the gap.
You say the players are bigger and stronger, could that biggest driver of what you’re doing be Jason Weber’s sports science team and what they’ve been able to achieve with the players?
I think as the years go on that’ll continue with (Chris) Mayne and (Rhys) Palmer in their third year, and then with second-year guys like (Stephen) Hill and (Nick) Suban. Some of our mature-age rookies are already there, so that’s helped us. If you have a look specifically at some of the players we recruited, (Anthony) Morabito, (Michael) Barlow, (Alex) Silvagni, even (Jay) van Berlo and (Greg) Broughton, these guys are bigger in their body and stronger, so it’s been a directive from our recruiting area as well.
If we look at each line, the midfield combination firstly of David Mundy, Michael Barlow and Aaron Sandilands, did you expect that to come together so successfully?
Mundy’s been a plan in progress and he’s probably in his third year of midfield and we’re starting to see a direct benefit of that. Barlow’s a guy who’s slotted straight in now and he’s had three or four years at VFL level to get to grips with stoppages and how those sorts of things work. You never envisage that a player is going to have that sort of output and it’s given us another player that we can possibly use in other areas, knowing that Mick can hold his own in that area of the ground.
How have you seen your defence improve this year?
We probably haven’t had that together, with (Antoni) Grover out for the first six weeks and then (Luke) McPharlin and Broughton have been out just recently. It’ll be interesting to see if we can get them all together at one particular stage to see their real output. Defence ultimately, a lot of it’s the direct result of pressure, and you’d have to say our pressure’s been really good.
That leads to the forward line, the pressure there has probably been a highlight. What sort of work has gone into getting that part of your game up and running?
Our pre-season was specifically planned around our game plan and that’s the direct benefit out of that.
How have you assessed the side’s road form?
We’ve managed to break down a few barriers and we’ve been dealt a very difficult hand. We’ve lost a couple obviously but if we continue to sustain that (road form), that’ll be a key driver behind the season and the success of the season. They’re all things that you look at from a coaching aspect and see that your team is dealing with the attitude and the lack of support or unfamiliar landscape that often presents itself on the road. We’re managing to overcome that. Are we completely there? Probably not. But as long as you continue to have something to fall back on, the belief will be there.
Have you tried to innovate on the road this year? Do you bring in speakers or old footy contacts to address the players?
All of that. You try and replicate conditions, get motivational [speakers], change different times of when you go and when you come back. So it’s been all of that.
The young players and their ability to step up and contribute quite seamlessly, how significant has that been in your improvement?
They’ve given the side excitement, but the strength of the team will be when the opposition has to worry more about the young players than they do the older players.
Has that remained or developed as a strength of your coaching, working with these young players?
The fast-tracking and the ability to teach a player to have the ultimate amount of tricks in their game, to advance their own output from a team aspect is so important. I was looking at something the other day, just some of the guys who are in form at the moment – (Sam) Gilbert, (Jack) Riewoldt, (Lindsay) Thomas – a lot of those guys are in their fourth, fifth or sixth year. Riewoldt was around pick No.13 or 14, but the rest of them around 30-50. They would have all had their deficiencies along the way and they would have been inconsistent, but now they seem to have it right. That’s the trick to coaching; making sure you have a team that can have a number of guys like that evolve.
We don’t often talk about what you enjoy in the job, is that an aspect you enjoy, developing young players?
It is. On top of planning and breaking down the opposition and making sure our game plan’s not getting picked off.
What have been the big messages you’ve tried to drum into them; planks that they can build their careers on?
Never forget where you’ve come from. Perhaps teams you’ve played in haven’t been successful, so always strive for the ultimate success. That’s the message.
The club tipped a lot of resources into a revamped development academy, headed by Simon Lloyd. Have you seen good results in the fast-tracking of players because of that?
You’d have to say yes, but the ultimate resilience of it is the long-term. The output and consistency of it will be long-term. To see guys that have been first-round picks or second-round picks, to make them firstly work, but then it’s the latter picks and the rookie picks and the development of those guys that complements everything.
You spoke very strongly at the Doig Medal last year, imploring the senior players to pull the younger guys along with them and get some success at the end of their careers. Have they taken that on board and contributed to the young players’ improvement?
They have, they’ve been there for them and a lot of their output has been probably to the maximum. The young guys then say, ‘Okay, if it’s good enough for them to be playing that way, then in what way can we contribute?’ They’ve been contributing through desire.
So does that remain a clear driver in your footy department, to get these first to third year players up to speed while Pavlich, Sandilands, McPharlin, Tarrant are still playing?
We’ve got to make sure the older players get recognised through success.
Who would you identify as the most improved players at the club?
I don’t like to talk about individual improvement. I’d rather reward it and talk about it internally. It’s about what they do for the team that’s so important. If you ask me from a team ethic point of view, the significant roles that certain players play, there’s two ways to look at it: Stephen Hill is demanding a lot more attention from the opposition, which can take the attention away from some senior players. Then you look at Jay van Berlo, who has been given some big jobs in the last four to five weeks on players like (Andrew) McLeod and (Brent) Harvey. Big roles. We’ve had some issues with injury recently, and the team’s been really competitive, so they’re the sorts of measures that you look at.
So where you’re placed now, is it a big month coming up after the break for the club?
We’re starting to get a real logjam between second and 10th, and I don’t think there’s going to be a lot in it at the end of the day, I think there’ll be one or two games between them. It’s going to be interesting to see how it all unfolds, particularly after the break, a lot of sides will have mounting injury tolls. It holds for a fascinating second half of the season.
Is there anything in particular you want to see more of from your side in the run home?
Just whether we can still maintain the pressure that we’ve been applying.
On Rhys Palmer, what level do you think he can get to in the second half of the season?
It’s always interesting, first year back from a knee reconstruction is always difficult for the majority of guys that do it. We think Rhys can get back to what he was doing in year one, but we understand sometimes it takes a little bit of time.
Aaron Sandilands, how will he be managed through the last nine games?
He’s constantly managed and Michael Johnson will come back into the side soon. Between Kepler (Bradley), Aaron and Michael, we’ll be able to manage it.
Pavlich, how have you rated his leadership and form so far this season?
He doesn’t like talking about accolades and how people perceive him, but he’s regularly been spoken about in glowing terms by external people who pass judgment on players. It’s a huge compliment for him.
Are you looking forward to seeing him on the biggest stage, if the side can get there?
Yeah. He needs it and we need it. Just to find out about the group and see if we can put enough pressure on the rest of the competition to give ourselves a chance.
Adam McPhee’s played a couple of effective tagging roles now. What contribution has he been making through the season to keep him in the side?
In this industry when someone forms an opinion, we all run with it. I don’t see that. You back your players in. Provided you know they’re going to be the right player for the team you back them in. No-one can ever judge externally what the mental capacity of a player is in the team. The understanding of that is so important.
Michael Johnson’s drama, how do you think the club and the playing group came out of that?
I think it’s an issue that other clubs have dealt with before with us being the latest one. It’s not how we’ve passed judgment on it, it’s how we can make sure that we don’t go through it again. And to make sure that Michael understands careers can be long and short and, depending on the issue, they can finish quite quickly. I think he’s understood that.
Do you think his return to the 22 will be seamless?
There’s always the old philosophy in coaching of whether he needs to earn back his spot or whether we need him.
Which way do you think it will go?
I think we know that Michael is a headache for the opposition.