AT THE end of 2009 Fremantle’s midfield had a giant problem. Ruckman Aaron Sandilands was the game’s dominant big man – named as the sole ruckman in the All-Australian side – yet his ground level players were floundering. 

For all his dominance in the centre square and at stoppages around the ground, Fremantle was a bottom-four side in scores from stoppages and a bottom-four side overall at the end of the season.

However, as Sandilands approaches his 150th game, against Richmond at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, the improvement in Fremantle’s midfield has been stark.     

Based on Sandilands’ performances this year, and the improvement he has driven in the players around him, the game’s tallest player may have made his biggest leap in effectiveness yet.

“Hit-outs to advantage is the stat,” midfield coach Barry Mitchell told afl.com.au this week. “Sometimes you get your hand on the ball and it doesn’t mean much.

“To put it to your team’s advantage and for that player to get some advantage over his opponent is a major part of winning clearances and scoring from clearances.”

Sandilands has lifted his hit-out numbers from an average of 33 in 2009 to 36.5 this season, with his improvement in the all-important hit-outs to advantage stat telling.

The 27-year-old has lifted that key indicator from 7.4 per game in 2009 to 10.1 this season, with midfielder David Mundy and rookie sensation Michael Barlow benefiting.

Mundy is averaging 4.1 clearances a game, up from an average of 1.8 in 2009, while Barlow averaged 3.7 clearances and 27.8 possessions before a broken leg ended his stunning season.  

“It’s his ability to direct the ball to them,” Mitchell said. “The players love playing with him because he’s very good at doing that.

“A lot of teams have to put tactics in just against him, a lot of third-man up, second jumpers, because of his ability to direct the ball.”

Sandilands this week made special mention of Mitchell, who arrived at Fremantle at the end of 2008 after assistant coaching stints at Carlton and Hawthorn, coaching the Hawks’ VFL affiliate Box Hill in 2008.   

“Barry Mitchell’s been sensational,” Sandilands said. “This is his second year at the club and I’ve got a really good relationship with him. He’s brought a lot to my game.”

In a short space of time, Mitchell and Sandilands have driven a rapid improvement in Fremantle’s midfield and the coach doesn’t hide his respect for the club’s vice-captain. 

“It’s only my second year at the club, but since I’ve been here he’s been such an honest [footballer],” Mitchell said.

“If you look at the way he goes about it from his pre-season through, he’s just so honest. He’s obviously a very good player, but it’s his effort and his honesty that we as a club love.”

Sandilands, who debuted in 2003 and last December committed to Fremantle until the end of 2013, thanked the club for allowing him to play 150 games and qualify for life membership.

Mitchell hopes Sandilands has six good seasons of football left in him. 

“In these days of players changing clubs, he’s played all his football here,” he said. “So he’s come through the hard way, he’s getting better and better each year and I’m sure [playing 150 games] means a lot to him.”

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