Man in the middle
Fremantle’s midfield has made an inconsistent start to the season but the group is capable of improving quickly as star ruckman Aaron Sandilands returns, new stoppages coach Mark Stone says.
Sandilands has missed Fremantle’s last two games with a calf injury, but he declared himself a certain starter against Port Adelaide at Patersons Stadium on Sunday after training strongly this week.
He will look to ignite a midfield that Stone said had been “steady without being great”, with key clearance players David Mundy and Michael Barlow building form after subdued starts to the season.
“We’ve been a bit inconsistent as a midfield group and we’ve performed well in some games and not in others,” Stone told fremantlefc.com.au.
“We performed well against Carlton but we were badly beaten the week before against St Kilda, and we were probably beaten against the Gold Coast. We’re just a little bit up and down at the moment.”
Stone joined Fremantle last September after four seasons as the Sydney Swans’ stoppages coach, and he has had to manage interrupted pre-seasons for Mundy, Barlow, Anthony Morabito and Nick Lower as well as the recent loss of young star Nat Fyfe.
A continued focus will be gaining maximum return on hit-outs generated by Sandilands, with Fremantle currently ranked No.1 for in the competition for hit-outs (average of 50) but No.8 for clearance differential (+5).
“It’s not where we want to be, but it’s an improvement on last year,” Stone said.
“Aaron’s got to continue to work on his craft and make sure that his taps are going to the places we want them to with the right touch, and the midfielders have also got to get into the space that we want them to.
“While we’re fairly demanding of them understanding each other and working together at every opportunity they can, we have to be a little bit patient.
“We’re hoping that comes together pretty quickly as the games go by and they develop a greater strength with understanding and chemistry.”
After experiencing soreness in his rebuilt left leg, Barlow played the first two games this season as Fremantle’s substitute before Mundy returned from an ankle injury in round three, also in the green vest.
Stone said the key midfielders were “building” and their best football was ahead of them, but they had work to do before they joined the AFL’s elite.
“We think their form will start to build and hopefully we’ll get the best out of them in the near future,” Stone said.
“But if you look at it on data, elite midfielders are players like Scott Pendlebury, Dane Swan, Chris Judd, Marc Murphy – these guys are elite and the numbers stack that up and support it.
“We don’t think our guys have got those numbers on the board, but we’ve got to aim to become elite. That’s what should drive us, to get to those levels.”
Another ongoing issue for Fremantle’s midfield this season will be whether to play two genuine ruckmen, with Sandilands and Jonathon Griffin both now available.
Sandilands said on Thursday that he was looking forward to eventually playing alongside Griffin for the first time, and both players would “have to spend some time forward and have an impact up there” to make it work.
Stone said the ruck structure could change during the year depending on opposition, the stage of the season and player management.
“The other factor that comes into it is how do we best use Aaron in terms of his load,” he said.
“Is it better to have a big ruckman to work with him to reduce his load, or is better to use a forward then maybe utilise the bye weeks and things like that to give Aaron a rest?
“It’s also about what is best for the team overall, rather than what’s best for the midfield.”