FREMANTLE head into AFL season 2017 on the back of a hellish 2016 campaign, their worst under Ross Lyon by a mile.
The Dockers finished third-last, had star Nat Fyfe and ruck behemoth Aaron Sandilands sit out big portions of the season and saw the inspirational Matthew Pavlich play his final game.
So 2017 shapes as a rebuilding year for Fremantle, as they look to get themselves back in premiership contention.
But after pulling in some big-name recruits during the trading period, some think the Dockers’ slide won’t last long.
We took a hard look at Fremantle and came up with five burning questions that need to be answered.
1. Can the new blokes play?
Well, obviously. Bradley Hill is a triple premiership player with Hawthorn, Cam McCarthy is a first-round draft pick who kicked 35 goals in his second year. Joel Hamling, meanwhile, did a sterling job of limiting Lance Franklin’s influence in last year’s Grand Final. Shane Kersten looks a more speculative acquisition, the big West Australian returning home after three years on Geelong’s list, where he manged 41 goals in 37 games. McCarthy looks a player, but he might find it tough with the opposition’s best defender sweating him at every turn. Hill joins his brother Stephen, and if both can find their best, Fremantle’s running brigade – including Lachie Neale, Nat Fyfe and possibly Harley Bennell (see question 2) – would make any side sweat.
2. Will Harley Bennell get on the park?
Fully fit, Harley Bennell is one of the best players to watch in the AFL. Blessed with sublime skill and pace to burn, the former Gold Coast Sun could set games alight. But Bennell hasn’t played a game of AFL footy since August 29, 2015 – more than 18 months ago. With setback after setback on his troublesome calf, there have been serious doubts as to whether the 24-year-old will ever reach those heights again. Coach Ross Lyon launched an impassioned defence of Bennell – who was frequently in the news for the wrong reasons on the Gold Coast – last month, saying: “Harley is a good person, very emotionally intelligent and an incredibly hard trainer.” Fremantle fans will be hoping he can live up to his potential.
3. Will Nat Fyfe be a good leader?
Fyfe is without doubt one of the best players in the AFL, but will that necessarily translate to being a good leader? There were stories circulating last year that the 25-year-old Brownlow Medal winner was not the Dockers’ most popular player. Add to that the fact his contract is up at the end of the year, and you could have the makings of a turbulent time should those negotiations drag on. Fyfe did say that if his contract issues were becoming a distraction, he would “look to do something pretty quickly”, but with massive offers sure to be on the table, don’t be surprised if the boy from Lake Grace finds it tough to focus.
4. How much do the old hands have left?
While season 2017 may be about introducing the next generation, Fremantle will rely plenty on their older heads to be competitive this season. But Father Time is catching up quickly to the gutsy Hayden Ballantyne (29), Garrick Ibbotson (29), Danyle Pearce (30), David Mundy (31), Michael Johnson (32) and Aaron Sandilands (34). Mundy and Sandilands are still producing good footy, but for how long? Ballantyne is already missing until mid-season with a bad hamstring injury, and Johnson was hit with an off-season assault charge. Lyon is not one for sentiment, and with all but Pearce from that group out of contract at the end of the season, he could opt for another round of heavy spring cleaning at season’s end.
5. Can they make a good start?
Confidence is vital, and so much for Fremantle depends on their Round 1 clash with Geelong at Subiaco Oval. Should the Dockers come up short they then face a road trip to tackle Port Adelaide, a home game against the reigning premiers Western Bulldogs before a trip to the MCG to play rising Melbourne. Should they start the season with a few losses on the trot, it’ll be a case of history repeating for the Dockers, and Lyon will have his work cut out to keep the players engaged – the oft-discussed ‘buy-in’. But a win against the Cats, who made a preliminary final last year, and there will be a spring in the step down in the port city.