Mark Duffield sits down one-on-one with Fremantle coach Ross Lyon as the club prepares for a crossroad season.
MD: At the season launch you talked about 2016 as a crucible for yourself and the club. Can you explain to your fans what you meant?
RL: In the context I used it it was a hard period that can help forge you. It probably was a furnace. High expectations, low results and a lot of pressure coming on. Then we gathered ourselves. It was a no-brainer where we needed to head. That was done with the executive of the club. I have had a couple of crucibles in coaching before. Nothing will ever match how difficult and how fierce the pressure was in the first year and a half at the Saints in 2007 and the first half of 2008. It wouldn’t even come close to that in terms of being attacked and not performing and learning on the job. This was full of disappointment and frustration with a lot of lessons to be learned. You study leadership and you see great leaders historically, there are lots of failures along the way. The world is littered with historical figures that have had failure, failure, failure and then gone on to succeed. It can define you in a way according to how you learn from it and how you respond. I am not going to play the victim and I am not going to make excuses so from there it is about learning and growing. I think this club has had some really hard times and it is how you learn and how you grow. I went and did a course in the off-season. I got feedback from my player group, from our coaches and made some changes. It doesn’t guarantee you anything going forward but I have learned a lot. It was a period of reflection and self analysis of not only myself but of the whole football program and our coaching group and how we were structured.
MD: Can you share any of those learnings for public consumption?
RL: Some of those things are on public record. What went wrong? We asked our players and they fed in. When you get to AFL football you can work on your skill and execution but it is by degrees from there. Your core skill set takes about 10,000 hours to master. I have never been one to focus on skill level. We work on it and we acknowledge it but for whatever reason it crept into our vernacular and our coaching about execution of skill and we shifted away from things that you can control with effort, intensity. The players noticed the shift and said let’s stop talking about skill execution and let’s value what we always have which is collective effort and great preparation and teamsmanship and those sort of things. The other thing, our training program and our football sessions shifted and became longer and more instructional where as typically it had always been sharper and done at a high intensity. Slight changes with how I communicated with them (players) or maybe in the media. Those sort of things were picked up on. I thought it was fantastic from our player group. When I took that and had a look at it I thought they were right there and that had been a shift. And really they (players) said, not hard enough on us. Re-align your focuses. That was really good feedback for me. In a sense they affirmed me. Publicly we said that David Hale came in and Brent Guerra. Hawthorn were the best ball users and offence in the competition. We took some things. We have been moving the ball, when we have been winning it in JLT two and three really quite efficiently from centre back. So some of those things are kicking in but (last year) it maybe became more than we wanted it to become in some areas. The players said what you believe in Ross, we believe in. They affirmed me again. It was good to be helped to find your true North and what your player group want from you.
MD: Another thing you said at the launch – that you couldn’t tick off the three tenants of your coaching last year – fit, available and on the same page. Is that what you meant by that?
RL: Yeah, which is about the gameplan installation and really driving that through. When we analysed that we did less walk-throughs, how we taught was a bit different and how early we got to it. We got to it earlier, more repetition, re-aligned our installation to how it had been done with some improvements.. With the nature of the teaching and the talking and the longer sessions we lost some of our intensity of run. We tried to get all of our running done with footballs and as much as the aim was quite noble it actually affected some of our high end spread. We have had intensity in our footy sessions, less talk, more highly organised but we have topped it up with some running and our conditioners have thrown in some high-end 150m runs and so on. We would like to think we have worked hard to address the fit bit. Available? Some of that is out of your control and some of it isn’t, we have already run into some headwinds there. And on the same page – previously we would like to think we have always been able to tick those things off and I think it was evident to everyone that we were a hesitant team at times under pressure – less instinctive than Fremantle had been under my tenure and our coaching team’s tenure.
MD: You have never been a coach of really high scoring teams but you averaged 71 points for last year and were under 10 goals in 11 of 22 games. Matthew Pavlich retires. How do you generate more scores this year?
RL: I think it is reflective. We were 18th in everything. We went from number one in contested ball two years in a row to bottom two. We went from being the first or second defence for four or five years in a row to the bottom two. Offence – we struggled everywhere. But also after round five we were making decisions to play players like Darcy Tucker. He was a first year player. Our loyal servants like Tendai Mzungu, Matt de Boer, Dawson at times went out. Mick Barlow a couple of times. History tells you what occurs when you have a number of first and second year players in the team and we had seven or eight of them. We played everyone we had. If we had more of them they would have played. We feel like our ball movement in our last two games has been quite strong in our scoring. We lost both stoppage score counts which would never have occurred previously and we outscored teams on possession game which is where you want to be really because the stoppage stuff you can fix up. The possession game is harder to fix. A lot of the work we did last year is now a bit more instinctive. We have got our backs running again. I think part of the problem is that our backs weren’t running – Sutcliffe and Ibbotson and those guys got caught in the technicalities of everything and stopped running. They were kind of stagnant. We addressed that in our last two games of the year. In the Bulldogs game the backs really started to run again. And you need some players there (in attack) as well so Kersten, McCarthy, Apeness unfortunately has a PCL will be out a minimum of six and they can take time. Griffin is up and running and looks threatening and scores tend to come from dominant midfields.
“The Bulldogs went into a finals series with the 12th ranked attack and were the sexiest team alive.”
MD: You are renowned as an elite defensive coach. The AFL in all of its messages say that they want attacking football and they not only want the game played that way, they want it legislated that way and umpired that way. Does that ever cause you to contemplate a change in your own methods and philosophies?
RL: I think it is convenient for everyone to forget the 2009 Saints were top four attack all year and scored 100 points more often than all but one other team. I still had the same principles then as I do now. There have been periods here when once we get going we have been able to score. Then it is about interpretation and spin on things. The Bulldogs went into a finals series with the 12th ranked attack and were the sexiest team alive. Sometimes it is about emotion and where you are coming from – what mindset you are coming from when you analyse someone. It doesn’t worry me. There were times when we could score. I have heard experienced coaches pan the AFL grand final. Others say it was an incredible experience and an exciting grand final. But it was really low scoring wasn’t it. It was a lot of scrimmage. Fundamentally we are supportive of the AFL commission and the game and we want the fans engaged. But I don’t want it to become basketball where there is 140 to 130 and it isn’t a contest and no-one is playing on anyone. When you get legitimate fierce contests everyone loves it and they are nail-biting. We would give up some defence to get some attack. In a real sense the Bulldogs defied history because what they did well was turn it around in their first two finals. They came in and kicked 100 points against West Coast and kicked 100 points against Hawthorn. It is unusual to be able to shift it quickly but they did it and all credit to them. And they were able to stand up in an arm wrestle against the Swans.
MD: Aaron Sandilands is 34. What is a realistic expectation for Aaron and what he can do?
RL: Probably (play till he is) 44. Ten years. Make us all happy.
MD: Do you see him as still somewhere near his peak?
RL: Yeah. he is really impressive. He beat his 3k time by about 30 seconds I think. He is amazing. He brings his work boots. He doesn’t say a lot. He could easily have been a captain of this club. He is an absolute pleasure. It was a significant and nasty injury last year. He was just tough. He just comes and works and he is low maintenance and he is successful off the field. We just want him to keep playing. He is a great leveller. He is a great temperature check for me. He is really supportive of me. Because of his size and shape he is unique and the demands of the game are challenging. When he does hurt himself with soft tissue it tends to be a little bit bigger but how he looks after himself and how he prepares – while he has got that passion and preparation, I think he has got a few years in him. In saying that the game is so brutal you have got to take things a week at a time. We will judge him. We would love him to go on but Aaron will make that call. The incentives are there. It is a well-paid profession and if you can keep yourself going it is worth it for your family and for your business. I think there is a lot to keep Aaron going but let’s assess it at the end of the year. He is moving incredibly well. He is a threat forward. Zac Clarke is done for a fair bit of the year. Apeness is hurt. We have got Jon Griffin and him going. So we have got a really competent other ruck. Aaron is a threat forward which we saw against Collingwood and young Sean Darcy we think is going to be a really good player. We are fortunate we drafted him because our list has got some holes and we are a bit thin in the ruck. Aaron is beautifully skilled. In lane work he doesn’t miss. We wish a few others could kick it like Aaron.
MD: You seem really upbeat about Darcy – that if you had to use him this year he would be ready to play?
RL: He will compete. That is the first thing. He has got some real power. He came in as a big boy. He went to Xavier College. Strong academically, strong country family. He has got good work ethic, good belief and he is willing to compete. He will get exposed at times, but we put him in. He has impressed everyone with the way he competes and the power that he has got. He has got plenty of work in front of him but we think over time he will get there.
MD: Michael Johnson physically has struggled to get through seasons. Do you have to prepare him differently pre-season and do you have to manage him differently in season?
RL: He has at critical times. We probably didn’t rotate our backs enough in 2012 and 2013 and that put our backs under some pressure with their calves and so on. We have adjusted that and we have gotten on top of that. When he did the hamstring that was a mechanical thing where he got pushed and hurt that tendon. He has had a really good summer. Jason Weber and the team have worked hard to strengthen his leg. He has had a good lot of work put into him over summer and then in-season it is about managing him the right way. There are things you can’t control. You need a bit of luck after you have worked as hard as you can and that is probably where he is at but he is really important to us.
MD: How has Cam McCarthy fitted in and what can you reasonably expect from him?
RL: It has been seamless. He virtually hasn’t missed a session. He is an incredibly hard trainer. He is a quiet kid who has earned respect the right way and it was good to see him get some return for his hard work. He is still building. He hasn’t played much footy. I don’t put it in terms of a quantity but if you have got five or six guys kicking twenty plus goals you are going to be in pretty good shape and I think he can kick twenty plus goals no problem.
MD: Is there a similar expectation on someone like Shane Kersten who has played a little bit more footy?
RL: He has played a little bit more. If we are playing well and giving them enough supply. If we are up and about, a few of those guys could kick forty plus. But I don’t want to put too much expectation on anyone. There is no-one to just draw the ball like Pav did. Everyone is getting an opportunity.
MD: Is that a plus. Matthew was such a presence perhaps the ball went to him when there were other options?
RL: There is no doubt that at times we went to Matthew too much. When you have focal points that are dominant, it can be Buddy or whoever – the game has changed so much that if you are just going to one, teams can get back on the one. Out of respect or belief that they will get it done you go to those players. It (the post-Pav era) makes it easier to choose the best option.
“There is no-one to just draw the ball like Pav did. Everyone is getting an opportunity.”
MD: With Griffin playing well can you start the season with McCarthy and Kersten as your two main tall forwards?
RL: We think we were a bit clunky in the early JLT game (against West Coast). We did it on purpose to give everyone opportunity but we knew we were going in big. If you look at invasion sports around the world most forwards are explosive and are quick and can turn, so you have got to be careful. If you are playing two ruckmen they can share the load – the big anchor target. Michael Apeness has gone down but Brennan Cox has got real speed and Tabs is mobile. We think we have got a little bit to work with but we like speed and agility no doubt.
MD: What pleased you most about the three games of the pre-season?
RL: Not much from game one. Really our ball movement over the other two games. Our midfield, our competing, our sharp hands. I will exclude the first one because there was a lot that contributed to that. Our response – our team dynamic, our team effort and the continued growth of some young players. The ball movement in JLT two and three was really strong. Collingwood were pretty strong and I thought at times we were really good there. Carlton off a six day break had rested six of their best and they brought them in and had a big crack. At times we were in a commanding position in that game but we need to see that for four quarters so we are still building a bit. I flew over and watched Geelong and the first half they were sluggish and the second half they were super. I think it is going to be an even comp. Our dynamic, our teamsmanship has been really strong. The group coming together after a really difficult season – footy clubs when you are not winning are really difficult. People who had been strong contributors, great drivers of the culture here have gone. But others have come in. Brad Hill has been bubbly, Hamling is a real competitor, Kersten and McCarthy. They have brought in hard work with them. That has been important. Our team dynamic is really strong.
MD: Assistant coach Mark Stone said Harley Bennell was going to be round four, round five or round six?
RL: I am unaware of that and I am surprised he put a number on it because I haven’t got one for you. He is progressing really well. We don’t know ourselves. He is high end sprinting. He is feeling really good. From here it is just about volume of sprinting now. It will be early rounds. What is early rounds? It is as confident as we have been in his body but we are still jumping a few hurdles. In a sense we are holding our breath. He is so explosive that the aponeurosis gets challenged when you are hitting these speed zones. We have done his rehab a bit differently. We have ramped him up slower so he has got a bigger base. There is no doubt Germany was fantastic for him, identifying some issues with his body and the treatment. He is really starting to get going. We are, for Harley, holding our breath because he has worked so hard. But we also know how important he is to us. When he comes back – if he keeps progressing – he will play early rounds. Is it four, five or six? I am not exactly sure. It certainly won’t be any earlier. It could be around there. It could be a week or two later.
MD: How do you manage him back?
RL: We have got the running profiles of all the different positions. To think he is going to come in and be the Harley Bennell midfielder – he is not conditioned to that. We will get him there in the end. But he can play – he is an offensive threat. Where Walters is playing deep – like Rioli, he can play deep and go for spurts on ball. That is what we envisage with Harley. He can play close to goal and he can free up Fyfe to go forward for periods by going midfield for five or six minutes. He will be an offensive threat and give us some real speed in our front half.
MD: Would you expect him to spend two or three weeks at Peel?
RL: Yes, he knows that. I have had that conversation with Harley. He is high-end Harley, he is in pretty good nick really. If you see him now, round the mounting yard or the saleyard, he is a group one special.
He has grown. he understands his chequered history. Gee whiz, young men, risk takers, plonked on the Gold Coast, money at the fingertips. I can’t speak highly enough of him. He is working really hard, I hope he gets through and I would love him to be a ten year player here. The strength on our list, Harley, two Hills, Fyfe, if you exclude David Mundy who is getting older. Darcy Tucker, Neale, Langdon, Connor Blakely. You throw Harley in there – he is only about 24. He can be around for a while. It is our strength in a sense. We need to build around that.
MD: Do you have a group of players like Tommy Sheridan, Hayden Crozier and perhaps even Nick Suban who is a little older – who need to take a step this year. They still haven’t nailed down positions?
RL: We felt Tommy had. He probably wasn’t at his best last year but he has had a good summer. Hayden Crozier was always that skinnier kid when he was taken and his footy maturity has taken longer but he played really well in the WAFL at the weekend. You are right. we need him to come on because we have invested six years in him now. Nick Suban is a 100-game player and the way he kicks the ball is important. His last year wasn’t (great) but he wasn’t the lone ranger. They are really important players to come on. Otherwise you are just chasing your tail. You need to add to what you have got, not add and lose.
MD: Where do you see Griffin Logue playing eventually?
RL: Key defender, roll off defender. He is really athletic, He competed pretty well (last weekend) but the challenges of AFL football – he has got to do a bit of an apprenticeship. There are some dangerous forwards around that can turn you around. The speed of your decision making needs to be quicker. But we saw some really good signs. He isn’t going to walk in and take AFL football apart. He is going to have to learn some stuff, but there was enough there. We can see why our recruiters picked him. Now we need to train him up.
MD: What is the latest on Alex Pearce?
RL: He has got another two weeks in his boot and then it goes back to the surgeon. From there it is whatever the surgeon says. At the earliest (he won’t play until) late back half (of the season). That has been a disappointment obviously. What is a threat to us this year already? Clarke for the bulk of it, Hayden Ballantyne for the bulk of it, Apeness for the bulk of it, Alex Pearce for the bulk of it. Uebergang probably for the year. For where we are at – we are transitioning – it puts us under more pressure than we would like to be. It is not ideal.
MD: Nathan Fyfe – if the contract drifts into the season there will be conjecture. Are you concerned about that and are you confident that he will stay?
RL: I have been asked about that. I have been through it before with great players. I am not here to share my view on what he would do because that would just create a headline. We take Nathan at his word. He sees himself as a Fremantle player. I don’t know what his intention is – if it drifts on or it doesn’t. We have people employed to do that job. My role is to create an environment, to coach him and coach him hard and help him to be the leader he wants to be and it will take care of itself. It is not a distraction for me. I have been through it before with great players. Nathan is a wonderful person but he is entitled to explore all of his rights and it would be remiss of him if he didn’t.
“My role is to create an environment, to coach him and coach him hard and help him to be the leader he wants to be and it will take care of itself.”
MD: Have you detected a change in the way that he plays. He is handballing a lot more and bringing players around him into the game?
RL: Some of our players were hanging onto the ball too long. Nathan analysed himself and thought I can give the first give more often. I wouldn’t link it to leadership but his first gives, his instinctive gives have been a feature.
MD: Some clubs are clearly rebuilding, some are clearly contending. It is almost like you have to walk a line where you do both. You want to play finals but this is a three-to-four draft process. How do you balance and manage that?
RL: It is not difficult in any way. I would be shocked if there is an AFL club in the competition that doesn’t aim to play finals. I would be mortified. Where you aim is where you land. Anything is possible and you coach to the standard you aim for. You can’t possibly aim for pure development. Every club would aim to win every week. What happens is you have got to get those games (into young players). If your senior players aren’t here you don’t play them. You have got to play what is in front of your eyes. It is not difficult at all. Powers above me, the list management and list manager will make decisions. They give me a list or 45 and I would expect Fremantle’s members and the board expect me to set high standards for us to aim high and train appropriately. There is always a dual narrative going on and you see that with other clubs that have made decisions on senior players. We would have to defy history from where we finished to jump to winning a premiership. It can be done but we are aiming as high as we can. We would love to play finals. We have still got a core of senior players that are good. In a real sense we would like more first year players on our list but you have restrictions on how many you can get. It is a build. it is easy to keep the older people and keep playing them when you are winning. But when you are losing more pressure comes on. That is what occurs.
MD: It was an eventful summer for the club with a couple of off-field incidents. Michael Johnson’s seemed like an aberration but Shane Yarran’s came on top of that and he is no longer here. Did you have to speak to the players about behaviour?
RL: We don’t put our head in the sand but I think in four and four and a half years – for want of a better term, we were incident free. Unfortunately over a six week period we had a couple of events. Do four situations, maybe three, erode a culture? I wouldn’t have thought so. Cultures are built over a long period of time with people and the way we do things. The way we do things hasn’t changed here. It was a sharp reminder. If it had kept going people would have been entitled to say it is continuing on. But I think you can isolate it to a six week period with some uniqueness. Look at Joel Selwood. When you are winning it gets plastered over. Geelong have had some issues. When you are losing one and one makes 111. To answer your question, did I address it? I said if this keeps going, what sort of club do we look like? We have had a strong summer. The age profile, young men 17 to 34. We know with young males their brain doesn’t mature until they are 23 or 24. And they live under a lot of scrutiny and in a real sense they out-perform their cohorts in society. They are a model for excellence on the whole, AFL players. I understand bad negates good. That is the world we live in. We did speak about it and say we need to put our best foot forward from here.
MD: Is this the first real re-build you have had to do over the course of your career?
RL: I wouldn’t have thought I walked into a perfect list here. If we weren’t able to bring on Sutcliffe, Neale and Spurr out of that first draft we wouldn’t have been able to perform as we did. Did this list out-perform its potential? I think you could argue that. The Saints had some ageing players when I went there. Hamill was there and didn’t play a game, Thompson had been a great player but was gone, Fraser Gehrig was hanging on. We had some draft picks, Brooks, Watts, early round picks.
We are aiming high but we are all in for the four years. I like the opportunity. It is exciting and I am really pleased. It is going to be that challenge of high standards and aiming high and continuing to build over a fair period of time. Nathan is a key to that because you would love to go through that with Nathan and Lachie Neale and Stephen Hill. You need your core players. You want to do it at a fully resourced club. You want to do it where your recruiters are right because there is not a footy program in the world that is a panacea for poor recruiting. Our recruiters understand that. To be successful everyone has to play their part and the quicker everyone gets it right the quicker you can do it. I am really excited about it. I am committed and I feel I have a really good skill set to bring it together. Anyone who thinks you don’t teach and develop on all football lists is naive at best. I can be judged, it is a judgment business. We will work our way through it.