How Freo’s backline would handle St Kilda’s tall forwards was already the main talking point heading into their comeback win against St Kilda at Metricon Stadium – and that was before Fremantle were forced to withdraw their tallest available defender in 195cm Brennan Cox before bounce down.
The switch meant the 193cm Taylin Duman would come in as a late inclusion and start the game on the 202cm Max King, while 187cm Luke Ryan lined up against 190cm Tim Membrey and 188cm Ethan Hughes was on 194cm Jonathan Marsh.
Heading into the clash, St Kilda ranked second in the AFL for marks inside 50 averaging 11.4 per game, and the contest appeared to be going to script as the Saints piled on seven goals to one in the opening term.
The onslaught was no real fault of the backline. Freo were getting dominated in the midfield and backline coach Michael Prior said the footy ‘was coming in pretty hot’.
To make matters worse, talented half back Hayden Young, who has already shown he can be an aerial threat, came off the ground with an ankle injury.
But as Freo’s midfield got on top from the second quarter, the defence was able to get to work and execute their roles.
“I think St Kilda took about seven marks inside 50 for the day. From that regard, and not having any key defenders to pick from this week, it was an outstanding effort by the boys,” Prior said.
“We saw that they supported each other in the air and didn’t allow them to take those marks, meaning St Kilda had to find other ways to score.”
After Young came off, the coaching group was forced to look to other lines to find someone to pitch in down back.
“Youngy’s shown that ability in the air. To lose him early was disappointing so we had to play Adam Cerra at half back after quarter time,” Prior said.
“He’s played some good footy for us at half back so his versatility really helped us when Youngy went down.”
While Duman had arguably the toughest ask of the day on King, he led the game with nine intercepts.
Prior said the key was making sure the workrate of Freo’s backs was good enough that no player was left alone with an opponent.
“Even though they were a foot shorter than our match ups, the mentality was to work together, and they did that,” Prior said.
“We didn’t want any one v one contests in the air and we had guys rolling off their opponents and supporting.
“If they crumbed and kicked a goal, we had to wear that. I think from that point of view, we did really well.”
Prior said intercept defender Luke Ryan had been crucial to Freo’s ability to combat their tall opponents, with the likes of Alex Pearce, Joel Hamling and Griffin Logue on the sidelines.
“Luke’s been so important to us since we restarted after the shutdown period,” Prior said.
“He’s played a really vital role for us with the lack of talls that we’ve got at the moment, he’s having to play on those bigger guys and he’s doing really well.
“We know Luke, last year and probably the year before, his best position was rolling off and playing on smaller guys and using his kick and rebound.
“In saying that, he’s been sensational for us and we’d be stuck if he wasn’t there at the moment.”