Finally the 2016 AFL seasons has started and as always the start of the season asks us series of questions of the coming season. Will Hawthorn win their 4th straight premiership and elevate them to one of the greatest teams of AFL history? Will Carlton put their 2015 misery behind them? Will Essendon put the drugs saga aside and develop a young team into a competitive side? Will Collingwood players stop partying long enough to play a game of football.
You would think the game of the round would be between last’s year’s Premiership winners and this year’s premiership contenders Hawthorn and their long time rival and un-write-offable Geelong Cats, but you would be wrong. Yes it will be an interesting game. Will the Hawks be able to continue their winning form over the past few years with the loss of Lake in defence and Hale at the bounce? Will the Cats return to their devastating best now that they have got Patrick Dangerfield and the Selwood boys? But it’s not our call for game of the round.
So what is the most interesting game for the first round of the AFL season?
Well, that’s easy. It’s the Sunday afternoon game between Western Bulldogs and Fremantle Dockers at Etihad Stadium.
Why you ask?
Fremantle have been on the precipice to win a premiership for the last few years and with local rival West Coast beating them to the grand final last year they will want to win back the dominance in the West.
Fremantle has the greatest player in the game at the moment and last year’s Brownlow Medalist Nat Fyfe. His skills and strength were on display in last’s year finals as he battled an injury but still managed to play a pivotal role in the team’s premiership tilt. Now rested over the summer, he should be back to his devastating best.
Last year Pavlich was widely expected to retire, but instead he decided to go another round this year. This tells us two things: firstly that Pav believes they are close to winning a premiership; and secondly that Fremantle are struggling to develop a young player up front.
The Western Bulldogs had a stellar 2015 season. They broke back into the top 8 (6th) after finishing 14th the previous year. Doggies picked up some big scalps last year including West Coast (Round 1), Richmond (Round 2), Sydney (Round 5), Collingwood (Round 17), North Melbourne (Round 22).
In their last game against Fremantle (Round 7), they let it slip in the first quarter but where able to fight their way back into the game and give the then premiership contenders a fright by leveling the scores 22 minutes into the final quarter.
Doggies captain Robert Murphy is now 33, and just like many other one-club rising stars he would of been sold on staying with the Western Bulldogs with the promise of captaincy and premierships. The well-liked captain probably does not have many years left in the tank and the team will be keen to send him out on top (similar to North Melbourne last year).
The Doggies had a good trade season recently picking up 2 x premiership player Matt Suckling from Hawthorn who probably has the best long range accuracy kicks in the game. Suckling will bring ‘big game’ experience to the Doggies and valuable knowledge to the leadership group in the young doggies team.
Another reason to watch this game is purely to watch the exciting 168cm tall, 19yo Caleb Daniel take on the Freo big boys.
But really this game in a battle of coaches and coaching styles.
Former Fremantle star Paul Hasleby has labelled Ross Lyon the second best coach in the league.
If you have seen Ross Lyon’s ‘Do you understand’ press conference at the end of last season you would ‘understand’ that Ross Lyon ‘understands’ more than anyone else the problems facing the Fremantle’s forward line and their inability to score large wins. He ‘understands’ that even though they have the best player in the competition in Nat Fyfe he can’t be everywhere at once (although he gives it a good shot).
It’s ‘understandable’ that when you have a team the can’t pile on the points the next best option is to restrict the other team from scoring a pile of points. Last year Fremantle finished with a for and against of 118% (West coast finished second with 148% and Hawthorn third with 158%). It would be hard to find another team that has won the minor premiership with such a low percentage, which suggests that Fremantle is probably one of the best all time defensive teams.
Western Bulldogs finished the 2015 season with a for and against of 115%, only 3% points behind Fremantle. As a developing side they have the ability to choose how they want to play the game.
During the 2012-2014 seasons Luke Beveridge was the defensive assistant coach at the high scoring Hawthorn side. Several games in the 2015 season (Round 4, Adelaide 125-68)(Round 12, Brisbane 146-74) (Round 18, Essendon 127-40) (Round 19, Port 128-64) (Round 20, Melbourne 153-55) suggests they are developing into an attacking side but with Beveridge’s knowledge of defence they should develop into a well balanced team.
His second year at the Kennel proved to be a good move for the Doggies and the team’s surprisingly good form earned Beveridge the 2015 AFL Coaches Association, Coach of Year Award ahead of Ross Lyon who won in 2009.
So this game will begin to answer two questions. Did the Western Bulldogs have a lucky 2015 season or will they continue to develop into a contender and are Ross Lyon’s Fremantle Dockers the real deal or on the downward slide?
I’ll be keen to find out. See you at the pub.