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Battle of the backs

Ben Collins  April 12, 2013 10:09 AM

The Fremantle/Essendon blockbuster at Patersons Stadium is the biggest clash between the clubs since they met at the same venue in the 2003 elimination final, and possibly their biggest home-and-away contest ever.

But despite the fanfare that goes with a Friday night stoush between two undefeated clubs boasting some of the game's most exciting talents, it's shaping as a battle of defences, albeit not necessarily the dour kind usually associated with negating tactics.

That's the view of two men who have an intimate understanding of the psyches, systems and personalities involved – Robert Shaw, an Essendon assistant coach from 1998-2005 and Fremantle's football operations manager from 2006-08, and Adam McPhee, who retired last year after representing both clubs.

Shaw and McPhee can't split the teams. Both tentatively cite Freo's home-ground advantage but believe it could prove negligible given Essendon's recent good record on the road. The Bombers beat the Dockers by 24 points in Perth in round 13 last year.

"It's a mini-milestone game for both sides," Shaw said.

"They're meeting at a good time. Both are very fit and in very good form, and they both have the opportunity to make a critical statement."
McPhee believes both clubs have the potential to make the top four this year, and are equally well-placed to do so. Essendon is atop the AFL ladder by virtue of its huge percentage, while Freo is fourth.

Shaw agrees where Fremantle concerned but feels Essendon is more likely to be a fifth-to-seventh side at best.

Given Essendon's penchant for free-flowing, high-scoring football and Freo's defence-first focus under coach Ross Lyon, it's tempting to label it a clash of contrasting styles. Shaw and McPhee dismiss the idea.

However, Shaw still believes a significant contrast exists, in that the teams are at vastly different stages of their execution of team defence.

"In his second year, Ross is still teaching Fremantle the style he mastered at St Kilda but he has established a really strong trademark with their defensive set-ups, and they've nearly perfected it," he said.

"On the other hand, Essendon have been one of the loosest teams in defensive transition over the last five years, and they are very mindful of developing that area but it's still a work in progress."

McPhee, though, believes the Bombers are "very capable" defensively.

"It's easy to be critical of how Melbourne played last week but Essendon was exceptional with their team defence," he said.

"They also capitalised on their defence by attacking from it, which is the way modern footy is played.

"Essendon wasn't challenged defensively themselves, but they know that on Friday night they'll come up against a team that will try to strangle them."

Shaw believes the key to this contest will be how Essendon navigates Freo's strangle-and-slingshot method, which often creates goals for players surging into an open forward line.

"Essendon can win the game providing their 'press' or 'wall' is in place when Fremantle win back possession and start their transition from defence to offence," he said.

"Essendon won't want to leave the old 'Pagan's Paddock' for guys like (Matthew) Pavlich and (Hayden) Ballantyne to run into."
Shaw and McPhee agree that Essendon could gain a distinct advantage with ruckmen Tom Bellchambers and Patrick Ryder to stretch both Freo's big-man brigade of Jonathon Griffin and support man Kepler Bradley, and backline.

In fact, the Bombers' resting ruckman in attack could prove pivotal. Shaw believes Essendon will try to isolate the alternating talls deep on Zac Dawson.

Shaw also expects Michael Hurley to be tracked by Freo's best defender Luke McPharlin, which could result in another potentially Bomber-favoured match-up with Michael Johnson having to oppose the nimbler Stewart Crameri.

In addition to team defence, both teams boast accomplished taggers. McPhee would give stopper Ryan Crowley the job on Bombers skipper Jobe Watson, while Shaw would consider tagging Brendon Goddard instead.

"It'll be interesting what Ross does about the ball distribution of Goddard, who never wastes a kick," Shaw said. "Does he try to stop the source or the supply?"

Shaw says Essendon tagger Heath Hocking should be assigned David Mundy, who he regards as Freo's best player because of his "outstanding delivery".