My Dad hates the Dockers. He thinks that their clogging up of the game and the focus on low scores is a poor excuse for what footy should be about.
But I am fascinated by them. My first good look at the Ross Lyon Dockers – a full two years after the fact – was the 2013 finals series. Their win over the revived Geelong of that year was a magnificent triumph of focus and ruckwork.
The Fremantle v Sydney Preliminary Final will not be remembered as one of the great ones, particularly given the seismic Hawthorn-Geelong curse-buster the night before. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen on an AFL field anything like what happened there in the second quarter.
For a while I’ve suspected that for all the strategies, the winner of most ball sports is simply the team that is able to consistently get more players to the loose ball than the other team. Then the possession, run and chances on goal happen accordingly.
The second quarter featured this to the extreme. Fremantle had blown a dominant first quarter with 2.9 on the scoreboard. In the second Fremantle packed their front half of the field with all 18 of their players. Each loose ball or Swans player with possession attracted about four Dockers swarming towards it, all quarter.
Imagine trying to do anything with three or four guys all around you – it’s impossible. The Swans were smothered. They did not register a possession inside their forward 50 until the last minute of the quarter.
Fremantle kept their three defenders in a line and pushed up to the halfway line, like a soccer defence, and when the ball spilled to them they would kick it across that line to spread play and get started again.
With the Purple Haze crowd baying for blood, this was more an event to be witnessed than described. It was breathtaking and I couldn’t take my eyes off it. A journo jokingly described it a day later as ‘going back to Little League football’: everyone just runs towards the ball, with no positions.
The slight downfall was that with everyone pushed into the one front half of the field, the attacking isn’t so clean because there’s no space to be fancy. This was a criticism faced by the legendary Spanish soccer team recently too. With everyone constantly pressed forward or defending on the opposite team, there was no room for flowing attacks.
Nonetheless the suffocation by The System eventually created five goals for Freo. At halftime, 7.11 to 2.2, the game had been put away.
Such pressure, I suspect, requires tremendous fitness, mental concentration, and adrenaline. It wasn’t sustainable over a complete three-hour match. Freo eased off after halftime and they and Sydney broke even the rest of the game.
Fremantle had made the 2013 Grand Final with key position players Pavlich and Sandilands missing for long stretches of that season. Thanks to Fremantle’s discipline and the swarming, numbers style of their play, their absences had been covered, much like a Lyon-coached, Riewoldt-less Saints had pushed on in 2010.
I occasionally noticed Freo try to implement The System the next week in the Grand Final but they didn’t pull it off. The MCG was too big; they were too nervous; Hawthorn were disrupted but clearly had more moments of poise than the Dockers.
51 weeks after that Preliminary Final the Purple Haze crowd got together to watch Fremantle vs. Port Adelaide at the same Patersons Stadium. Nat Fyfe, who had been just one of the worker ants in 2013, was now receiving the love come the 2014 Finals Series, crowned that season’s AFLPA MVP the week before. He scored two goals in the first quarter against Port.
They were fascinating opponents. Freo’s rise was almost exactly mirrored by Port Adelaide one year after, each on the smarts of a genius new coach. Both clubs had gone from nowhere to seventh and an unexpected finals win in Melbourne, and a year later to a business end showdown with the Hawks, exactly one year apart from each other.
Port, however, had done it in a different way, the opposite way to Freo: by moving the ball and setting players free. It was glorious to watch. But in the second quarter of their 2014 semi-final in Perth it was identically blunted in the way Sydney had been the year before.
A minute before halftime, Freo were up 6.11 to 2.5, almost identically to the year before. Almost everything had happened identically to the 2013 Sydney Preliminary Final. Fremantle’s style was working again. The commentators wondered if Freo hadn’t put it on the board, but their dominance had been so total that it seemingly didn’t matter.
But it did matter. Chad Wingard snared a goal with one of Port’s very few trips forward right before the siren and after halftime Port’s free-flowing, goal-scoring play unexpectedly blew away Freo’s patented system. Freo’s Purple Haze pressure had been unsustainable.
Fremantle began 2015 with a slightly different style and won 16 of their first 18 matches but faded badly towards the season’s end. Still, they won their first minor premiership and had in Nat Fyfe their first Brownlow medallist.
It all came down to a hugely-hyped home preliminary final against the super team of the era, Hawthorn, who had beaten Freo in the 2013 Grand Final. In a magnificently fought contest, the difference in the two clubs’ forward lines was the difference, just like in the grand final. At the final siren the air was heavy with the sensation that Freo’s major chance for a premiership had passed.
The Western Bulldogs arguably used several Fremantle tactics in their unbelievable 2016 flag win, such as swarming numbers to the ball and a forward-line press without the ball to keep the ball locked in the attacking half.