Fremantle formula frustrates foes

It was the “Rumble in the Jungle” 1974 heavyweight boxing title bout in which Muhammad Ali famously adopted what came to be known as the rope-a-dope strategy.

Ali was the underdog against title-holder George Foreman, whose punching power was legendary. But instead of exposing himself fully to a barrage, he allowed Foreman to pin him up against the ropes, which absorbed much of the energy of his opponent’s blows.

Eventually, Foreman wore himself out, and Ali, lethal on the counter-attack, cashed in, eventually winning by a knockout in the eighth round.

And last Saturday at the MCG, while the sport was different, and the spotlight and stakes considerably less, the AFL might have seen a pretty good approximation of that famous bout in Fremantle’s defeat of Richmond.

The Tigers in their present form are by no means football’s version of Foreman, but Ross Lyon’s Dockers, closing in on the top four, are doing a fair impression of Ali’s rope-a-dope. In its 20-point victory, Fremantle emerged in front in barely a statistical category bar the one which mattered most.

The Dockers had nearly 100 fewer possessions than Richmond, smashed for uncontested ball and beaten in the contested game as well. The Tigers had more marks, more tackles, more clearances and significantly, 51 inside 50s to just 37. Yet by early in the final term, they trailed by nearly 40 points.

Fremantle’s capacity to soak up pressure inside its defensive 50 (read the ropes) as Richmond attempted to find a way through, then burst out of defence to score itself, was remarkable.

At quarter-time, Richmond had had the ball in its forward half for 67 per cent of playing time, but trailed by 10 points. By half-time, Richmond had gone inside 50 on 29 occasions to just 15 for a return of just 5.9, a score for only 48 per cent of its entries.

Fremantle, meanwhile, had kicked 7.5, the comparative percentage a whopping 80. Consider that figure in the context that North Melbourne, the AFL’s No.1 ranked team for percentage of scores from entries, is currently going at 51.9. Not too shabby from the Dockers.

After the game, Richmond coach Damien Hardwick lamented his side’s failure to take its opportunities, the Tigers finishing with 12.13. That’s becoming a weekly mantra, though, from defeated coaches whose teams consistently return low and inaccurate scorelines against the Dockers.

As has become the norm, Freo is ranked No.1 in the AFL for fewest points against. But interestingly, only two sides have scored more goals than points against Lyon’s watertight defensive unit, the scorelines including a miserable 5.16 (by Collingwood), 7.12 (West Coast) and 6.15 (Western Bulldogs).

The aggregate score against the Dockers is 117.144. Only Melbourne has had more inaccurate opposition, and the Demons, the AFL’s lowest scoring team, don’t yet hurt teams enough the other way, Freo on average booting 26 more points per game.

Fremantle’s defence forces teams to shoot from wide and from afar. Opponents are consistently under pressure with hurried snaps rather than set shots, averaging just 8.9 marks inside 50 per game, again the second lowest in the AFL.

So adept is the Docker defence at denying scores they’re happy enough to let the opposition come to them in the back 50, like Ali, absorb the blows, then strike on the rebound. Two goals during Fremantle’s decisive third-quarter burst against Richmond underlined that capacity perfectly.

First, skipper Matthew Pavlich took the ball on a half-back flank, so many players by then sucked into the Tigers’ forward 50 that he was able to take three bounces before sealing the deal from 30 metres out.

Then Hayden Ballantyne was able to mark just 30 metres out to kick one of his six goals after having, like all his teammates and their opponents, pushed hard down the ground near the Tigers’ goals, then worked just as hard back towards his own as another Richmond attack broke down and was rebounded.

No-one had disputed the quality of Fremantle’s defence under Lyon. But perhaps it’s also becoming more apparent that the efficiency of the Dockers’ own scoring, currently ranked fourth for percentage of goals from inside 50s, also has a lot to do with how well they defend.

Sapped by the fruitless pursuit of scoreboard pressure, the Dockers’ opponents then get worked over the other way, regularly leading to simple Fremantle scores from unattended marks in front or acres of space in the Dockers’ own 50 creating enough “gimmes” from handballs over the top.

Like Ali against Foreman, it’s not always pretty to watch, but it’s difficult to argue right now with the results being attained by the Dockers’ own imitation of the “Louisville Lip’s” famous strategy.

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