Fremantle is no longer out of mind
Out of sight, out of mind – that’s been underrated Fremantle’s powerful start to the new season, unless of course you are closer to the Indian Ocean than the east coast.
On the eastern side of the country the Dockers are rarely spoken of as serious challengers to Collingwood. They are certainly not rated by most in the same way as Geelong, Hawthorn or even Carlton and Essendon.
Last year the Dockers, for so long second-rate citizens behind West Coast in Western Australia, flew under the radar early before injuries cruelled any meaningful deep finals participation.
Led brilliantly by coach Mark Harvey after Fremantle entered 2010 a perceived basket case, they remained in the top four for 15 of the first 16 rounds before staggering due to a growing collection of battered and bruised key players.
But the Dockers did manage to win their second finals match in 16 years in the competition.
So when they started this season at the Gabba with six of their best 22 unavailable and a host of players short of a gallop including Stephen Hill, Nathan Fyfe, Hayden Ballantyne and David Mundy, Fremantle was considered vulnerable and ready for a dive.
The Dockers have won three of their first four rounds including away wins to the Lions and the Crows and were very good in their only defeat – against unbeaten Geelong in Perth by 11 points.
Not only has Fremantle been exceptional in rising above its undermanned predicament, it battles consistent travel and an unfavourable quirky draw which includes playing fresh teams Adelaide, North Melbourne and Western Bulldogs (on Monday night) between rounds three and five, who will have all come off byes in the previous round.
Despite being without Michael Barlow, Anthony Morabito, Roger Hayden, Alex Silvagni, Garrick Ibbotson, who came on late as a substitute last weekend in his first game for the season, and highly-thought of newcomer Tendai Mzungu, the Dockers have hardly missed a beat.
Fremantle looks to be even better than at the corresponding time last year when it had the same win-loss ratio, and mainly because of the emergence of developing players Chris Mayne, Greg Broughton, Fyfe and Ballantyne. Much-maligned former Bomber Adam McPhee has also been a revelation as a forward target.
And in the absence of Chris Tarrant, who has been Collingwood’s gain, credit must be given to Fremantle’s back-line warriors Luke McPharlin and Antoni Grover, who have so far not put a foot wrong.
Instead of being off the pace, the fourth-placed Dockers are in better-than-expected form and should capitalise on the next month with four games against bottom half of the ladder clubs the Bulldogs, Richmond, West Coast and Port Adelaide.
Expect them to be imbedded in the top four before the middle of the season.
The bulk of Fremantle’s injured players are scheduled for returns in the second half of the year when the club faces its toughest test, both in the quality of opposition it will meet and in a challenging fixture, including four six-day breaks – three after travelling – and three matches in succession over 12 days between rounds 18 and 20.
Barlow, who is finding it hard to get power back into his legs following multiple fractures last year, is expected to resume in the WAFL in the middle of the season.
Hayden is scheduled to recover from a foot problem by round 12 and Silvagni (illness) should become available early next month.
But it is the quicker-than-anticipated return of the little-known Mzungu from a pre-season knee injury that has the Dockers excited. He, too, will become available next month for a role across half-back before easing into the midfield.
Fremantle is away from the mainstream, but out of mind? Not any more.
The Dockers may well become Collingwood’s biggest hurdle in its quest for back-to-back flags.