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AFL Finals Focus: Fast, furious and fantastic

You have to be pretty special to leave Fremantle in tatters.

The Dockers’ defence has been the rock upon which their return to the finals has been based. With intercept markers, brilliant positioning and a perfect set-up orchestrated by Justin Longmuir, the purple choker has suffocated teams as powerful as Geelong and Melbourne this season, and brought with it a finals run for the first time since 2015.

At the MCG on Saturday night, Collingwood made them look a rabble. Tearing that carefully executed system to shreds in the first half with electric ball movement, the most daring play any side has executed this year and an uncharacteristic clearance dominance, the Magpies could not have been more impressive in securing their ticket to a preliminary final.

Only some errant kicking and a last-quarter fade-out, with the Pies conceding five junk time goals having turned one eye to their clash with Sydney next week, reduced the margin to 20 by the final siren. But make no mistake: this was a beatdown of epic proportions. The Pies ran the Dockers through a meat mangler at the ‘G, with Craig McRae leaving his last real contender for coach of the year status in Longmuir with head in hands by the end.

The Pies have often been compared to Richmond this year, and it’s true that the style McRae has them playing is modelled on what secured the Tigers three premierships from 2017-2020. It’s a game more focussed on controlling the chaos rather than eliminating it entirely, surging the ball forward, winning critical contests and essentially battering the opposition into submission.

There are some pretty important differences in personnel, particularly in defence – I reckon it’s easier to be brave and adventurous when you have Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes and Nick Vlastuin covering the back – that make what the Pies have achieved this year even more impressive.

The Pies, like the Tigers, don’t have a lot of time for contested possessions – indeed, McRae’s men rank last in the stat this season, and would have been thrilled to more or less break even with a 141-151 split against the Dockers (Freo got on top in the last minutes to unbalance that stat).

But like the Tigers as well, they tend to control the ones that matter – they only really need to win one hard-ball get to wrest the ball free of a contest, and suddenly you’ve got Jordan De Goey, Josh Daicos, Jack Crisp or one of a dozen other blokes surging the ball forward in acres of space.

It’s a game built on, quite literally, dash and dare. The Magpies are quick in thought and deed: electric when surging through the Dockers’ previously formidable defensive set-up with a wave of black and white runners, equally fast in racing back to clog up their D50 when it’s their turn to defend, and just about instantaneous as they collectively all realise it’s time to go.

Jack Crisp’s incredible, 100-metre sprint through the middle of the MCG was as emphatic a tone-setter as you could have asked for, even if it didn’t amount to a goal. A lesser side – hell, even many other properly good teams – would have settled for a chip kick sideways and a chance to set up further afield and try to score through their structure.

The Pies don’t do that. When Crisp had the ball, not for a second did he consider any other option but going balls to the wall straight up the guts.

There’s a point about halfway through the run where I think a less adventurous team – even, say, Geelong – would have looked to move the ball laterally, and kick out to the advantage of Will Hoskin-Elliott down the wing.

Note as well that not a single Pie ahead of the footy thought to hunt a cheap kick by leading wide, perhaps forcing a Joe the Goose type situation where their Dockers opponent needed to get in Crisp’s path. They’re all running just as hard as he is, all surging towards goal.

In the end, the Dockers did well to escape it without a score – for that, you can thank Michael Frederick’s magnificent chase on Crisp right to the end, putting on just enough pressure to force him just too close to Alex Pearce to head all the way home.

The Magpies had nine possession chains begin in their defensive 50 in the first 15 minutes of the match. Five of them – more than half for you fractophiles out there – got all the way to their attacking 50. Keep in mind that the AFL average is 21 per cent this year, and the Dockers even lower at just 19.

Crisp sums up this frenetic approach – his move to a more on-ball role has been an inspired one by McRae this year. He’s the perfect inside-outside player: capable of winning the hard ball and being at the bottom of the pack, but even more dangerous when he’s the one on the end of said hard ball and sprinting inside 50.

By the time he kicked truly after winning a holding the ball free kick in the second term, he had 12 disposals, 356 metres gained, and everyone left chasing best-afield honours.

He’s got such a fitting name, too: everything he does, and everything the Pies have done this year, is just so, well, crisp.

Playing this way is absolute anathema to Freo: it’s everything they fear coming up against, and everything they’re incapable of defending.

There’s a clip from Freo’s win over Geelong in Round 7 this year that perfectly sums up how and why they’ve been so good this year. It only shows the end product, but it doesn’t show the minute and a half the Cats switched the ball hither and yon across their defensive 50, trying to find a way through the Dockers’ set-up ahead and failing.

Eventually, Jake Kolodjashnij cracks, bites off too much, and it’s the easiest thing in the world for Blake Acres to intercept, run to 50, and kick the goal.

The Pies wouldn’t be caught dead playing like the Cats did there. Yes, this Freo is a slightly diminished version from the one that went to GMHBA Stadium four months ago and emerged with a famous victory; but even so, the Magpies daring to actually run at the Dockers’ set-up, rather than try to kick through it, over it or around it, is exactly what the purple haze don’t want to see.

To be fair to Freo, they’re not alone: few sides could hold firm against the Cats like this. It’s like holding Helm’s Deep against ten thousand Uruk-Hai: your best chance is to hope a wizard and his tree friends arrive at the last second.

It’s one thing, though, to play with an aggressive mindset: it’s quite another thing to both execute it moving forward, turn it into something dangerous, and cover your rear well enough that a turnover doesn’t undo all your good work and usher in doubts.

This is where speed comes in: the Magpies surely must be the quickest defensive-running side in the competition. They don’t need to have numbers stacked behind the ball at all times, as teams like the Dockers do: they will back themselves to the hilt that, should a team turn it over, they’ll be able to get back first and force a contest.

Turn it over against the Pies at your peril, as Frederick discovered when he dropped a mark on his own attacking 50 and saw the ball rocket away from him to the other end of the ground in a matter of seconds. But when the shoe is on the other foot, more often than not, Dockers players found themselves in a dangerous spot, with the goals beckoning ahead of them… but not a single decent option to kick to amid a sea of black and white.

Failing to work hard defensively cost the Western Bulldogs dearly against Fremantle last week, with leading lanes opening up everywhere for the Dockers’ forwards to pop into. Without that, the Dockers basically needed to win difficult contests to score – and only Lachie Schultz seemed capable of doing that with any regularity.

That’s how they’ve been able to get away, for most of the season, with Moore and Howe as the key defensive pillars. Force either into a one-on-one contest against a big, strong forward – mostly Howe, because Moore has improved out of sight this year in those – and they don’t exactly inspire confidence.

The key is that they rarely, if ever, leave Howe high and dry punching above his weight. He’s only been involved in 58 defensive one-on-ones all season, losing 17 of them – less than half of the AFL leader, Harris Andrews (131).

Matched up on Rory Lobb at the MCG, Howe was giving up substantial height and bulk – but the one time in the first term that the Dockers targeted him, Nathan Murphy was close enough while still guarding space on the lead to get across and spoil away.

The strength of that is that both Howe and Moore are elite interceptors, and are able to turn defence into attack with a strong mark when they don’t have to be defending a forward. From there, the rest of the team snaps into gear in a flash.

The Magpies have a swathe of midfielders willing to work hard into defensive 50 and clog up space – interestingly, of the Pies’ starting midfield group, all of Crisp, Scott Pendlebury and Brayden Maynard (yep, he attended the first bounce) have spent significant recent time as backmen. They know how important it is for the midfield to lend a hand.

It’s why the Dockers, despite a reasonable 14 first-quarter inside 50s, only two behind the Magpies, had just one point to their name. And why the Pies had four straight goals on the board – and it could have been more, if not for two superb one-on-one wins by Brennan Cox on Ash Johnson, with the Magpie goal side on both occasions.

It really took Freo until the last quarter to correct course and move the ball with more speed and dare; by that point, though, the match had gone, even if a touching late goal to David Mundy running in from 50 proved the play had merit.

As for moving forward, the Magpies’ forwards share Howe and Moore’s knack of reading the play early, and knowing exactly where to go. For much of this match, most of them set up across the high half forward line, even up to the wing, when the ball was in their defensive 50. As a result, when the Magpies broke, they could freely go quickly knowing there was space aplenty ahead.

Sometimes, like in Crisp’s case, the play was to drag their defenders away from the running man and open space. At others, they held their ground on the wing, leaving the Freo backmen badly out of position a long way towards goal, with a one-on-one – more often than not the dangerous Jamie Elliott – with a paddock of space in front of them.

The discrepancy was clear – when the Magpies steamed forward, they found themselves with so much space for the forwards to work in; even when the options weren’t plentiful, there was normally an obvious option to take.

For example, a Patrick Lipinski intercept mark on the wing saw in the second term saw him faced with one forward, Elliott, ahead of him against two Dockers – Brennan Cox and Luke Ryan. He knew instantly a long ball in would see one of them shepherd Elliott away, and leave the other to mark – and Cox and Ryan do this for a living.

Instead, he held the ball, ran his measure, and kicked in front of Elliott. It didn’t need to be a perfect kick, but as the ball scrubbed inside 50, the quicker Elliott had a good five metres on Cox. With Ryan not close enough to impact either, having set up for the high hopeful ball, it was enough time for Billy to wreak havoc.

Fortune doesn’t always favour the brave in footy – there’s nothing more fatal in the modern game than turning the ball over when at full flow, as suddenly the blokes chasing you become the ones in front of the play.

But the Pies have solved this threat in the simplest, most elegant way possible – they rarely, if ever, lose that critical contest. Not every kick hits its target; but they’re consistently able to get the ball to ground. At the MCG, they denied the Dockers their usual flood of intercept marks, brought the ball to ground, and kept willing and willing the ball forward until the dam wall broke.

It’s where Mason Cox, despite relatively ho-hum stats and game time, makes his mark. While certainly given more opportunity than against Geelong, where he spent 54 per cent of the match on the bench, he still ‘only’ finished with the 10 touches and a goal.

But he’s not just a backup option for Darcy Cameron in the ruck: he’s the guy who brings the ball to ground when the Pies have to kick it long.

He does the same in attacking 50, too: when the ball hits the ground there, it’s Jack Ginnivan on hand to rove the spillage and pile on more goals, as he did for three of them on Saturday night. As good as the Dockers’ defence is in the air, they can be vulnerable when the ball hits the ground in a dangerous spot. It did that a lot.

Cox doesn’t take a lot of contested marks unless he’s really feeling it, but some of his clever taps in a contested situation to Pies players on the outside were the next best thing.

He will be critical against the Swans, who in the McCartin brothers have two of the game’s best interceptors. With no true key forward monster for either of them to need to lock down to, either, it’s imperative for the Pies to not allow them to rule the skies down back. If they can bring it to ground, the Magpie goalsneaks will have their chance.

But what will truly be giving John Longmire pause for thought, and what really cruelled the Dockers more than anything else in the semi final, was the Magpies’ power at the contest. It has been a weakness for them all season – they rank last, as I said before, in contested possessions, even if that discrepancy has a few caveats given the way the Pies play – but it was a strength on Saturday night.

Matching the Dockers for contested ball isn’t a huge thing – Freo rank in the bottom ten in that stat, and only had 67 or so more than the Magpies heading into the year – but what was significant was where the Pies were winning it.

Against a side ranked sixth for clearances this year, with the Magpies way down in 12th, the Pies ran rampant at the coalface early, when the match was there to be won.

They had an 11-6 clearance advantage by quarter time; while it would close from there, the Pies only tying the stat 33-33 by full time, the damage had been done.

The issue for Fremantle is that their strategy, of not surrounding the ball with players but instead forming a sort of fence around the contest (for more details see my write-up of their game in Round 19), works fine against teams like the Western Bulldogs which base their game plan around winning the contested ball and not much else.

It doesn’t work as well when a team like the Magpies comes to town. The Pies have a similar set-up to the Dockers – they don’t care much about the contested ball, and are careful to leave runners outside and on the end of handballs out of traffic.

It meant that Caleb Serong wasn’t fighting two or even three opponents where winning it is a bonus and losing it is coverable, as he did brilliantly with 10 clearances against the Dogs in the elimination final, but instead just De Goey or Pendlebury.

Serong was far from awful, but whenever he did clear it, there was none of the precise penetration or breakway speed he showed so brilliantly in the elimination final. And when the Pies got it, De Goey and Crisp could do just that with concerning frequency.

In the end, the margin flattered Freo. Were it not for some junk time goals, or the six consecutive behinds the Pies kicked in the second quarter (after kicking six straight goals before then), having won 14 of the last 17 inside 50s of the half, this would have been a royal thumping. And aside from Brennan Cox’s efforts in the first term, you couldn’t really credit Freo’s defence for much of that wastefulness.

The Pies will want to get that out of their system before playing the Swans, but it never looked likely to be costly against Freo.

As for Freo, it has been an exceptional season, and while they were outplayed, out-thought and dismantled in the semi-final, it shouldn’t take the gloss of their 2022 in the least.

Longmuir has executed a perfectly orchestrated rebuild: get the pieces together in the first year, form an identifiable game style in the second, and make the leap into finals.

Now it’s time to add further strings to the bow. Add a second gear to this team, a desire to take the ball on. Get more games into Jye Amiss, who could be their key forward answer with a bit of time should they, as expected, lose Rory Lobb. And maybe consider investing in another big-bodied inside midfielder (unless Neil Erasmus is ready to rock and roll in 2023 in that role).

There’s so much to like about the Dockers, but they’re not the finished article yet.

Nor are the Magpies, but their strengths are so spectacular where the Dockers’ are only rock solid. Fremantle give you nothing, unless you’re really good; this Collingwood team just takes what they want anyway and runs you through with a sword just for good measure.

They were fast. They were furious. And most of all, they were f—ing fantastic.

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