As the AFL community at large turns its attention toward the seemingly unstoppable Hawks and bookmakers continue to shorten their odds of the Flag heading to Glenferrie Oval for a third straight year, the early favourites in Fremantle, despite still sitting on top of the ladder, are looking a little tired after their 9-0 start to the season.
Few could deny that the Dockers’ results since the bye in Round 12 – even the unconvincing wins over bottom-4 opponents – are proof that their stamina is flagging. But if history is anything to go by, then all is not what it seems when the Dockers cross the white line in mid-to-late season.
Whilst at the helm of St Kilda, Fremantle coach Ross Lyon was well known for punishing his Saints on the training track in the lead-up to the finals and July-August was when the pain began (for the players and the fans).
In Round 16, 2009 the Saints were a game clear on top of the ladder (sound familiar?). They comfortably beat top-8 sides Adelaide and the Bulldogs, then in Round 18 only just snuck past a Sydney team languishing in 11th spot, then went on to lose two of their final four matches against opposition either vying for 8th spot (Essendon) or out of the race entirely (North Melbourne). The Saints went on to finish on top of the ladder in the home-and-away, but lost to Geelong on the big day.
It was a different story in 2010 when the Saints under Lyon had just gone down to Collingwood in Round 16, they drew with Hawthorn in Round 17 and were sitting outside the top-4. With their position in the 8 anything but a certainty, Lyon said in an interview that the team weren’t in a position to “flatten out” in matches due to training overload. Interestingly, 2010 was the closest the Saints got Premiership glory, drawing with Collingwood in the first Grand Final before being soundly beaten the following week in the rematch.
By 2013 Ross Lyon had made the switch west and the Dockers, despite sitting in 5th, had the luxury of a soft draw leading into the finals. A review of the results and comments from Lyon would indicate that the 2nd-year Dockers coach brought forward the timeline for his punishing training burst in order to make a tilt for the top-4. Coming off what Lyon called a “really heavy training load”, the Dockers lost to Richmond at the MCG in Round 16, then proceeded to win every match until Round 23 when (the team’s position in 3rd assured) Lyon elected to leave most of his stars in Western Australia and team which more closely resembled the Dockers WAFL Reserves than the best-22 were handed a thrashing by the struggling Saints at Aurora Stadium. That the Dockers caused one of the upsets of the season the following week in Qualifying Final against the Cats vindicated Lyon’s decision to not only leave the stars at home the previous week, but also the heavy training load in June-July.
Perhaps their result in the Grand Final against the Hawks two weeks later suggests the heavy load went a little TOO early to pay the ultimate dividend.
This year, given the Dockers are a game clear on top of the ladder, two games clear of the 3rd-placed Hawks and have a run home which the coach could conservatively pencil in as at least 4-5 wins, one suspects Ross Lyon has his players’ pushing themselves harder than every before at every training session right now (several weeks later than 2013). The extra training load will likely be a factor in every match up until the last few when the whip will have been put away to allow the players’ bodies to build up strength ready for them to explode into the last couple of home-and-away rounds and the Qualifying Final.
With the exception of very few, the members of this Dockers team will still feel the pain of the 2013 Grand Final loss to the Hawks and with their position on top of the ladder, they will each know what it takes to not only get to the big day, but also how it feels to get there only to fall short. The Dockers are hungry.
Feeling the training load most of all will likely be the Dockers youngest and oldest players. Possibly the reason for the drop-off in form of Captain Matthew Pavlich. Is this the mighty Docker’s last season? Will the thought of seeing the greatest player their club has ever seen go quietly into the night without having tasted Premiership glory drive them to take it now?
Only time will tell, but one thing’s for sure – we shouldn’t write off the Dockers just yet.