The next step is the hardest one
With 15 rounds of the 2011 AFL home and away season behind us, it’s time to analyse how Fremantle has fared, and look ahead to the challenges that await.
At the conclusion of the 2010 season, in which the Fremantle Dockers had defied expectations and predictions to finish sixth, coach Mark Harvey said that taking the next step would be the hardest part of his side’s quest to achieve sustained success.
As the 2011 season dawned, the football world expected Fremantle to continue heading in an upwards direction, which ultimately meant becoming a top four side.
For a number of reasons, the season has not been smooth sailing so far.
Injuries have played the biggest part in Fremantle’s stop-start performance in 2011.
The pre-season was punctuated by a number of the side’s key players either hurt or struggling to get out on the track, which meant the team battled to enter the season with any kind of momentum.
Anthony Morabito went down with a season-ending knee injury last December, while Alex Silvagni, Roger Hayden, Matt de Boer, Garrick Ibbotson and Tendai Mzungu were all out of action before a ball had even been kicked.
Add to that, a number of players who were forced to have restricted pre-seasons and 2010 midfield sensation Michael Barlow was still a fair way off from resuming.
Despite all this, the club got off to a winning start, with victories in four of the first five matches – the same record it achieved after five games in 2010.
In fact, the only loss came against Geelong in round 2, a team that remained undefeated until round 15.
And even then, only wasteful kicking in front of goal cost Freo any chance of a win.
The club would suffer heavy defeats in four of the next five fixtures, and the injury list just seemed to get longer every week, peaking at 15 players after round 10.
Nick Suban, Adam McPhee, Hayden Ballantyne, Michael Walters and Antoni Grover all missed matches at some stage of the season.
The one that hurt the most was the toe injury to superstar ruckman Aaron Sandilands in round 9.
Freo’s record without big Spider hasn’t been all that great in recent years.
The next to go down was David Mundy in round 12, who had been having an even better year than his Doig Medal winning 2010 season.
Sandilands and Mundy have been at the forefront of the club’s rise up the ladder – they were the second-most successful ruck/rover combination in the AFL for effective hitouts in 2010.
The loss of Mundy in the midfield was tempered somewhat by the long-awaited return of Barlow in round 13.
It didn’t take long for the 23-year-old to find the ball, leading Freo for disposals in a bad defeat to Melbourne.
But Barlow would miss the next two games after pulling up sore from his comeback match.
Two wins, albeit against two of the bottom three sides at Patersons Stadium, sends Freo into its bye week with an 8-6 record and a bit of momentum.
The club sits in sixth position, the same it finished 2010 in.
And despite the injuries and topsy-turvy form, there are still many positives to be garnered from the first 15 rounds.
Freo has unearthed a gem in second-year player Nat Fyfe.
Fyfe has averaged 25 disposals per game playing as a midfielder and is even being mentioned in the same breath as Brownlow Medal.
The 19-year-old may not have received an opportunity to shine in the midfield had all of Freo’s stars been on deck.
And more recently, Jon Griffin has seized the chance created by Sandilands’ absence to show he can be a quality AFL ruckman.
His effort in the round 15 victory over Gold Coast was superb.
Another to rise in the face of adversity has been Greg Broughton.
After struggling to find his best form in the backline this season, Broughton has exploded into action since necessity forced him to move into a midfield role in round 14.
The road ahead for Fremantle is treacherous.
A trip to Sydney in round 17 is backed up by our first home game after the break – a massive Carlton Mid Derby against West Coast, who currently sit in fifth position on the ladder.
In fact, all of Fremantle’s remaining four home games are against teams higher than it.
Top four sides Hawthorn and Carlton also visit Perth, while the final home game in round 23 will provide Harvey’s men with the ultimate test – 2010 Premiers Collingwood.
The team has already found out that, as Harvey warned, no matter how big the step from 14th to sixth was, the next one will indeed be the toughest.