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Saturday, June 23, 2018

Mark Duffield: Jury still out on Fremantle Dockers rebuild

If you are looking for a phrase to bear in mind when assessing Fremantle’s progress in their rebuild it is the one you will hear AFL coaches trot out after either a big win or bad loss: It is never as good or as bad as you think it is.
Impatient Dockers fans will argue the six wins have come over Essendon, Gold Coast, the Western Bulldogs, St Kilda, an injury-hit Adelaide, and one on the road over cellar dwellers Carlton. Not a likely finalist amongst them.
But Fremantle’s poor away record is also a product of who they have played.
The big defeats have come against Port Adelaide, Richmond, Collingwood and Sydney, with a 31-point loss to Greater Western Sydney.
If you throw in the eight- point western derby loss against West Coast, with North Melbourne the only interstate visitors to beat them at Optus Stadium, Fremantle’s conquerors make up six of the top eight, with the Giants a wild-card in the run to the finals.
The Dockers are about where we thought they would be — not bound for September action, but not bound for a wooden spoon either.
Somewhere near the top of the bottom six, or near the bottom of the middle six.
And the key is not how many games they win or lose anyway, but how many players they find.
To that end Adam Cerra, Andrew Brayshaw and Bailey Banfield get big ticks, and at least two should have Rising Star nominations.
Fremantle’s best win was without doubt against Adelaide because, while the Crows had significant injury issues heading into the match, the Dockers were without Nat Fyfe, Aaron Sandilands and the Hill brothers, Stephen and Bradley.
Two of their best three players were kids: Cerra and Brennan Cox. Banfield and Brayshaw were rock solid.
Cox has a Rising Star nomination and both he and Luke Ryan have built on promise shown in 2017, while Ed Langdon and Connor Blakely are now entrenched in the club’s best 22.
Langdon may even be in the top five of the club’s best-and-fairest count this year.
You add these to Joel Hamling, Alex Pearce and Nathan Wilson and the rebuild takes shape.
But the success or otherwise of that rebuild will still be defined as much by remaining question marks as it will be by the ticks.
Can Griffin Logue become an elite defender at the top level?
We don’t know yet because his second season has been cruelled by injury.
Can Sean Darcy replace Aaron Sandilands?
We don’t know because of a significant injury interruption after a promising debut season last year.
Can Michael Apeness’ body hold up? Too early to say.
Was Matt Taberner’s early season form a flash in the pan or has he come to terms with AFL football? Too early to say.
Taylin Duman, Stefan Giro, Mitch Crowden? All promising, but too early to say. We see good signs from Darcy Tucker, but do we see them often enough?
And then there are the mature-age question marks.
Will Harley Bennell’s body ever hold together for long enough to make an impact and will it come soon enough for him to earn another contract?
Is Cam McCarthy a “could be” or a “never will be”?
Is Shane Kersten finding his feet in defence, or just prolonging the uncertainty about his future?
We do know some things for certain.
Fremantle have moved past Danyle Pearce and are phasing Michael Johnson out.
And some things are almost as certain.
Hayden Ballantyne needs strong form over the back half of the season to be there next year.
David Mundy and Sandilands might both be there next year, but both could be gone by the end of 2020.
Ballantyne’s influence is waning but Mundy and Sandilands are still significant factors in whether the Dockers win or lose games.
Rebuilds are notoriously hard to assess and can often look wrong even when they are on the right track.
West Coast won just 16 of 66 games between the end of 2007 and the start of 2011.
They won the club’s first wooden spoon. Of current players only skipper Shannon Hurn, Mark LeCras and Will Schofield were in place at the end of the 2007 season.
But by the time they started 2011 Josh Kennedy (2007 trade), Nic Naitanui ( pick No.2, 2008 draft), Luke Shuey (pick No.18, 2008 draft), Brad Sheppard (pick No.7, 2009 draft), Andrew Gaff, Jack Darling and Scott Lycett (picks four, 26 and 29 in 2010) and Jeremy McGovern (2011 rookie draft) were at the club.
The nine players who list analysts would assess as the Eagles’ A-graders were in place seven years ago.
McGovern didn’t play until 2014. Sheppard didn’t play well consistently until 2015.
The Dockers are making progress, and that progress is being supported by the strong performance of their best players.
But how many of those unanswered questions they can put ticks to will determine how far and how quickly they climb.