A rare positive for Fremantle on a dark Saturday night against Hawthorn was youngster Zac Clarke’s contribution as the team’s lead ruckman.

But the fact that the developing 21-year-old had to take on the No.1 role is a big reason why Fremantle is now on the verge of falling out of the top eight after a 51-point loss to the Hawks.

With dominant ruckman Aaron Sandilands (toe) still sidelined and Jon Griffin withdrawn late on Saturday with an ongoing hip injury, Clarke became Fremantle’s main man in the ruck.

He battled hard for 16 possessions, 23 hit-outs and five clearances, but Fremantle’s midfield has been built around the dominant presence of Sandilands and the team is crying out for his return.

Opposition teams are no longer on the back foot against Fremantle at stoppages, and the Hawks’ 42 clearances on Saturday night had a much bigger say on the outcome than Fremantle’s 51.

Sam Mitchell (nine clearances), Brad Sewell (six) and Liam Shiels (seven) were the visitors’ most effective stoppage players, while Nat Fyfe (seven) and Michael Barlow (six) stood out for Fremantle.

Clarke has proved in the last fortnight that he is a player capable of contributing at AFL level at this early stage in his career, and he also had five inside 50s and a goal on Saturday night.

Still, he conceded Fremantle was dictated to against the Hawks.

“We came out here expecting to play well and we didn’t do what we were supposed to do, so we’re a bit flat,” he said.

“We didn’t come out in the first quarter and play like we needed to. We obviously let them dictate early and it carried on for the rest of the game.

“I think from a midfield point of view we actually weren’t too bad; I thought we fought it out pretty well.”

Fremantle is unlikely to be boosted by Sandilands or key midfielder David Mundy for next Friday night’s clash with St Kilda at Etihad Stadium, and Griffin remains in doubt.

In the eight games that Sandilands has missed this season, Fremantle has won the clearances just three times. It lost the important centre clearances against Hawthorn 13-8.

Clarke, who has played eight games this season in a variety of midfield roles, acknowledged the team would benefit from the return of its star ruckman, but said he enjoyed the challenge on Saturday.

“I found out earlier in the week that [Griffin] was a chance not to play and got around the fact that it might be me all day,” he said.

“It is tough. I had a chop-out from [Michael Johnson], but it’s still pretty tough running out a full game solo in the ruck.

“Obviously it’d be good to have both of them [Sandilands and Griffin] out there, because they’re both quality players, but I do enjoy a challenge and getting a run and getting some quality minutes in.”

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