The Fremantle Dockers came into AFLW season 2020 as a bit of an unknown. How would they cope with their loss of key players through expansion? How would preseason injuries impact their structures? Could they really maintain the high quality football they produced last year? It didn’t take long for them to prove that they’re as strong as ever, and even less predictable.
Ahead of their match up against the Western Bulldogs, I jumped on a call with Fremantle coach Trent Cooper and young ruck Mim Strom to discuss how they’ve adapted to that loss of talent, their resilient attitude, how they’ve bounced back from some close shaves and Mim’s experience as a first year player thrown immediately into the fray.
I wanted to ask about losing Steph Cain just minutes into the season. Your midfield strategy must have had to change pretty intensely to cover her loss?
Yeah, absolutely. She’s our player that probably sets us up the best, [she’s] really good at that, very smart player, just a smart person. Literally it was about four or five minutes in, and that came off the back of Aine Tighe doing one in the scratch match as well. Three out of our starting six midfielders weren’t available from five minutes into round one, ’cause Ann McMahon probably would have been in there as well. So yeah, had to change things but [I’m] pretty comfortable with the changes we’ve made, with Ebony Antonio coming up to a wing, that took a few weeks to happen but I’m pretty comfortable with where we’re at now and we support Steph but really we look forward this year to doing the best we can.
And was that part of Katie-Jayne Grieve playing more midfield as well?
That had started just before that. She was always a midfielder. To be honest, we probably weren’t sure she’d get into the side for round one because our inside mids are reasonably strong. She’s so quick we’ve always we’ve tried to develop her into an outside player, but just at training she was basically in the B team on the inside mids and was killing it, we’ve gone, “well, this is probably what we’re gonna look at”, then we played West Coast in some match simulation and we left out Bowers, Miller, and the two Antonios didn’t play, so Grieve played inside mid in that game and then when she was best on ground in that game, meant she held her spot from there, and she’s been really, really good.
Yeah, and tackling like a beast.
Yeah, she’s always been really hard and she’s had to refine her technique, and she’s done that really well so everyone would be raving about her tackle numbers if we didn’t have Bowers.
Yeah, I looked at it yesterday, she has like double the amount of tackles the next best person the league has had.
Yeah, it is amazing. The best thing about it is she does that and sets the example. So Katie-Jayne comes in and goes, okay, well, that’s what you have to do, and Jas Stewart comes in and her tackle numbers are quite good as well. So all our young players come in and learn off Kiara that that’s the standard. That makes coaching a lot easier, when you’ve got someone displaying the defensive side of the game.
It’s quite interesting that you mention having that B list of inside mids that you could go to, particularly when you did lose Hooker last year, who would have been in the top group.
Yeah no doubt. I think Hooker’s probably won more votes in the association than Erin Phillips over the three years. But what it did is it made our midfield probably a little bit less predictable. We share the load more. You look at numbers, I think we’ve won two games where no-one’s had more than 13 touches, so we really do share the load through there and I think it makes it hard to play against because opposition sides can’t say “if you kept them out of the game, you’d be okay”, because we’re so even through there.
Yeah, I think in a piece I described Fremantle is a game of whack a mole?
Mim’s laughing because I actually mentioned that in the team meeting, I said that’s a great way for us to do it, because yeah, we’re an even and that’s what we want to be, so I quoted that line in the team meeting.
Amazing! Talking about having lost players though Mim, you’ve kind of had to take on that main ruck role straight off the bat with injuries and expansion and all that sort of stuff. Have you had any kind of strategies to come up against more experience to be able to last the length of the game and still have any impact for the consistent length of the game?
Yeah it was a bit of a whirlwind going into that starting ruck position but the club was so supportive and they brought in Aaron Sandilands to help me develop my ruck craft, that’s been super useful. He’s just like an extra eyes on the gameplay and helps me, you know, strategize and use my strengths up against the rucks and yeah, obviously they are more experienced, but I’m just gonna try my best and work to the best of my abilities to do the best for the team.
Yeah, you’re quite good at ground level, as well as in the air, is that something that you’ve worked on with Sandilands to make sure that you’re impacting on the ground, not just when it comes to the aerial ball?
I think in AFLW the rucks are very important to be, you know, following up their work. And I think growing up I wasn’t too tall, so I was always trying to be a midfielder as soon as the ball hit the ground, I think that’s really helped me. Obviously, Sandilands helped me develop that further, which is awesome. But yeah, I think that’s one of my strengths.
And talking about the movement between round one where you looked really strong, but maybe didn’t make the most of the ball inside 50. Since then, I think last week was the first week that you had a worse efficiency inside 50 than your opponent since round one. Is that something that you really looked to fix? Because you did have the territory battle won, you just didn’t necessarily put foot down.
Yeah I think so. Our forward line probably functions better with less inside 50s and the ball coming out of our backline because that gives us more space. We don’t want to play like that because if we’ve got the ball in our forward line then opposition aren’t scoring so we’re more than happy with that first game. I thought we controlled that first game against Geelong, but they had their whole midfield back there, it was really hard to score. Same against St Kilda, they had a lot of spares back there which made it hard for us to score but at the same time, sides aren’t scoring against us when they do that. So we decided to highlight that, and it’s probably gonna be more like death by a thousand cuts, than a big, big margin. But if the game opens up, then we’re capable of scoring quickly at different stages as well.
Yeah, we saw that in the first quarter last week, didn’t we?
Yeah, I think because Brisbane sort of dominated possession in that quarter. But we managed to slingshot really well and at one stage I think we had six inside 50s for five goals so we’re capable of doing that if the conditions are right, but we’re also happy playing in that front half, having multiple re-entries and maybe not scoring as much but we still think if we’re doing that, we’ll be winning more games than we lose.
Yeah and the efficiency last week as well in the first quarter—am I right in saying that Sabreena Duffy’s first six touches were all scoring shots last week?
I’d say so, because she had ten touches for the game—had nine kicks and eight out of the nine were scoring shots. Might’ve gone back to her old soccer days as a striker. She does know where the scoreboard is that’s for sure.
Oh, it’s scary. You mentioned the Saints game there as well. Obviously, they played that hyper defensive game that they did to Melbourne the week before. After that game, what sort of changes did you make coming into the next week? Because they did kind of find you out almost in a kind of a weird way. But then you bounced back well and truly.
Yeah, when we looked at it, we could have easily scored eight goals in that game. We had got through a few times, just made some really basic errors that we don’t normally do. And to be honest, our mindset was more to play in that game, than the way the game was played out, and I don’t think we were really switched on for it and we’ve changed a few things with our travel. I think it was probably, everyone’s had a flat game this year in the AFLW, we just happened to get away with ours. As far as learning, we learned a little bit, but we know that we’re really resilient in close games. We’ve proven that over the last couple of years and also just not to get frustrated, we know sides are gonna do that to us so to play and not be frustrated. So that was probably the big lesson for us out of that.
Yeah, my team (my beloved Dees!) didn’t get away with their game against the Saints, which I’m sad about.
Yeah, and they should have won that game too but it looked like they really got frustrated and panicky.
The 1-8 can happen because if you’ve got so many spares, what happens is then you have to shoot from wider out. So it’s not necessarily Melbourne. It’s the way that they do things at St Kilda which will frustrate sides but it also means that it’s hard for them to score, so you’ve just got to play the game like that.
Mim, on the travel, I’m curious how as a first year player coming in, you’ve adapted, and I know with the conference you’ve probably spent a bit more time at home than West Coast has, but having to travel across the country multiple times. And the time difference would have an impact as well. How are you coping with that sort of stuff?
I think the club is really good in preparing us, make sure we eat right, sleep right, to perform to our best, but I love travelling to be honest. To get away with the girls and play some games, and I think it’s a really good team bonding.
Oh, that’s amazing. And you’re all, I mean, you were here yesterday, right?
So you usually have that couple of days to kind of settle in before heading off to the game.
No, we don’t. The AFL only let us come one day before which we think’s a really big disadvantage for WA teams because we lose hours flying. When other teams come our way, they get three hours, we lose three hours. If we’re flying to the normal times, we’d get into the hotel about 6pm and then we’re actually playing at 10:10am Perth time the next day. That’s why this time we’ve paid a bit extra ourselves to get across the day early, with just the players and skeleton staff, and the rest of the staff will come across today. We want to see if this makes a difference to our performance, I think it’ll show tomorrow and I think everyone’s in a better state. Mim can speak to it.
I think it feels a lot better preparation at this stage.
That seems insane that you don’t get the extra day coming from WA.
Yep, it does. Because all the boys do, the boys will get the two days. Sides coming to WA, they can get two days because you get the day after, but we don’t need the day after because of the time difference, but at the moment that’s the way it is. But we’ll be pushing for that in the off season.
That makes your season even more impressive, I guess. Just one last thing. Having such a good season and coming off a really strong season last year, do you feel you’ve had to manage expectations a little bit as the wins have ticked over?
Not really, because the club’s just so supportive and just loves everything that the girls are doing. So the club’s really supportive and we don’t feel any extra pressure to perform. If anything I feel that the girls put pressure on themselves to perform, but even that’s not so much to do with the win loss, it’s just the way the girls are. Particularly our senior ones have got really high expectations on themselves and their performances. The trip back from St Kilda was like we’d lost by six goals because they were really disappointed with their performance. If anything is just managing those expectations. Externally, there haven’t been too many put on us at all and we know there are great sides over here—North Melbourne, Melbourne, Carlton—that we haven’t played yet so we’re not buying into Premiership favourites or anything like that. We know we’ve still got a lot to do and just enjoying doing it at the moment.
Yeah, just unfortunately not in front of anyone.
Yeah, that’s yeah that’s disappointing, disappointing for the fans because that’s one of the best things about AFLW is the fan engagement. But the girls are also used to playing in the WAFLW in front of not too many people as well so I don’t think it will affect performance too much.
Yeah. Thank you so much for having a chat. I really appreciate it. Unfortunately it couldn’t be in person but understanding the reasons why. Have a great game tomorrow. Good luck. I’ve tipped you guys.