Mark Duffield: Derby biggest of the lot
After West Coast beat Geelong 10 days ago, coach John Worsfold dismissed talk of a top-four finish because there was simply too much football to be played.
Some wise footy head once told us that a week is a long time in the game. On the weekend we found out that quarters are a long time.
West Coast drifted in and out of the clash with St Kilda on a quarter-by-quarter basis and let slip a golden chance to snatch four priceless points on the road.
What it means at the end of the season we don’t know, but we do know Worsfold was wise not to start talking about top-four berths eight weeks out.
Then in Sydney yesterday, Fremantle toppled the Swans and went from being the team in the eight most likely to drop out to the one team outside the top five with some prospect of climbing into the four.
West Coast are still right up there despite their skittish form on Saturday night. The Dockers are four points further back, with home games against West Coast, Hawthorn and Carlton to come.
Both of the WA teams have a game in hand over the two Victorian clubs. Viewed in that context, next week’s derby has suddenly assumed massive proportions.
What was perceived as the tough draw that would finish Fremantle off has become a window of opportunity.
One thing is clear, the Dockers are far from finished. There is still no guarantee of September for Mark Harvey’s side, but the razor’s edge they have been walking on for the past five weeks has suddenly been revealed as a double-edged sword, with one side of the blade pointing up.
Somewhere in the middle of a season-long injury epidemic and wavering form, Fremantle have won four of their past five games.
They leapfrogged Essendon and the Swans on the ladder but to just look at the table does not quite do justice to what Fremantle have achieved this year.
This has not been about their best team, or even their best football. It has been about a mountain of grit and enough steel to snatch four precious away wins.
Games played without a lot of your best 22 or even a couple of your very best players are damn hard to win in this equalised competition.
Just ask Geelong, who were unbeaten until three weeks ago but lost consecutive matches without Joel Selwood and laboured for nearly three quarters before getting past Brisbane yesterday.
Or Carlton, who lost defender Michael Jamison and have become extremely wobbly.
Fremantle have battled issues of both quantity (until yesterday there have not been fewer than five of their best 22 absent for any game this year) and quality (Aaron Sandilands and David Mundy for the past month) with their injuries this year.
Even your wins can get a bit dramatic under those circumstances and it is fair to say several of their wins have not been without drama – the late scramble over Brisbane, the last-quarter lapse against Essendon and yesterday’s lapse against Sydney.
But where Fremantle of the past might have fallen away and lost those games, only Hawthorn have managed to climb past the faltering Dockers this year.
The depleted Dockers may give their opponents a chance during games but they continue to give themselves a chance over the season.
Harvey and his men deserve enormous credit for what they have done.
West Coast will start favourites in next week’s derby and rightly so. The Eagles will probably regain Daniel Kerr from soreness and Fremantle are highly unlikely to have either Sandilands or Mundy back.
The Eagles have been terrific for most of this year – blown away only once and then by Collingwood.
Their form on Saturday night against St Kilda was baffling because for the first time this year in the first term against the Saints, they did not show the same willingness to run as their opponent.
The result was a 36-point quarter-time deficit.
They then applied themselves, got their guns into the game and got their foot on St Kilda’s throat at three-quarter time, only to let them wriggle free again.
If a quarter is a long time in footy, a week is an eternity and by this time next week one of our teams will be banging down the door to the top four and the other will be worrying again about their spot in the eight.