SOUTH Fremantle is attempting to make it back-to-back premierships and after only missing top spot by one kick in the finish and with key players set to return for the finals run, the Bulldogs appear as though they will be tough to stop.
Coming off breaking through to win the premiership last year on home turf at Fremantle Community Bank Oval on the back of reaching three preliminary finals and a Grand Final over the previous four years, the Bulldogs have backed up well in 2021.
They have qualified for a sixth consecutive finals campaign under coach Todd Curley and done so with a 13-5 record to finish in second position.
That would have been first if Peel kicked one more goal to beat Subiaco on Saturday, but it was also only a few goals away from being third with Claremont breathing down their necks in third spot.
South Fremantle hasn’t really been at full strength all season but that appears to be changing with Jake Florenca, Zac Dent and Brock Higgins returning leading into the finals, and now Matthew Parker and captain Dylan Main back in the hunt to play finals although Ben Rioli looks further away.
South Fremantle have always proven to be a well-rounded side with no particular obvious weakness. They show strength offensively and implement high pressure defence to create a challenge for their opponents across the field.
One particular strength is their clean and concise ball movement that more often than not, leads to a major. This is owed to the team’s well refined, fast paced running play that prevents competition from keeping up with the ball.
While South Fremantle certainly has more strengths than weaknesses, there is one particular aspect of their game that have surfaced in recent rounds that could keeping from claiming a finals win.
As mentioned, the team always tries to come out strong and claim a fast lead that, at times, is enough to keep them ahead to the end.
However, late season match ups with fellow finalists West Perth and Swan Districts saw South Fremantle allow the opposition to crawl back and in the case of West Perth, overcome a 40-point deficit and claim the win.
Whether this is purely an endurance exercise or not, there is no doubt the heat will be turned up from this point, so it is vital the Bulldogs play a full four quarters, siren to siren to maintain strength and not fall behind.
South Fremantle is actually the most accurate team coming into the finals as well so if they can get the ball into their forwards, they generally finish well more often than not.
THE SEASON SO FAR
South Fremantle celebrated last year's premiership in Round 1 with a solid win over West Perth at home but then lost to Claremont in a Grand Final rematch.
The Bulldogs responded with a solid win at home over Peel in Round 3 and then after a COVID-19 enforced break, defeated Subiaco at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.
The Bulldogs then held on in a thriller against East Perth in Round 6 leading into the State Game, and then upon return suffered a shock upset at the hands of Perth by 20 points at Mineral Resources Park.
South Fremantle responded solidly to beat the West Coast Eagles by 66 points a week later before overcoming East Fremantle in a competitive WA Day Foundation Derby.
South Fremantle then suffered another surprise loss to East Perth the following Sunday at Leederville Oval ahead of a Round 11 bye.
The Bulldogs bounced back in Round 12 to beat Perth by 34 points at Fremantle Community Bank Oval and then after another COVID break, returned to beat Claremont in a remarkable one-point thriller.
South Fremantle continued its good run with a good win a week later over Swan Districts at Steel Blue Oval but in Round 16 was perhaps the most disappointing performance of the season from the Bulldogs with a 44-point loss to Subiaco.
The Bulldogs hit back in style to hammer the undermanned Peel by 116 points and then also thrashing East Fremantle by 61 the following week leading into the Round 19 bye.
South Fremantle then found itself overrun to lose to West Perth in Round 20 and it was almost the same story against Swan Districts a week later, but they finished the season with a solid 45-point win at home against the West Coast Eagles.
KEY WINS OF THE YEAR
South Fremantle's one-point win against Claremont at Fremantle Community Bank Oval in Round 14 ensured the Bulldogs held that mental edge at the venue against the Tigers on the back of the remarkable Grand Final win of last year.
The Bulldogs maintained their dominance against arch-rivals East Fremantle in 2021 with wins by 16 and 66 points to mean they have now won the past 12 derbies heading towards 2022.
South Fremantle should have taken heart from an early season win at home over Subiaco, but that was overwritten with a 44-point loss to the Lions in Round 16 at Leederville Oval.
The Bulldogs also beat Swan Districts a couple of times in 2021 in Rounds 15 and 22 to have won nine straight against the black-and-whites.
MATCH UP WITH FELLOW FINALISTS
South Fremantle doesn’t have the greatest recent history against Subiaco, but they certainly are not alone in that. The Bulldogs did beat the Lions in Round 5 of this season and in their only meeting of 2020, but it hasn’t been pretty outside of that.
Subiaco won the most recent clash in Round 16 and then prior to those two losses had won eight of the last nine clashes with the Bulldogs including a 96-point Grand Final hammering in 2019.
Subiaco has won the last six finals played between the two teams with South Fremantle's last win coming into the 2009 Grand Final.
It's a different story with Claremont with South Fremantle having won six of the last eight match ups, including the last meeting in Round 14 this year at Fremantle Community Bank Oval and the Grand Final last year.
In terms of finals, Claremont won last year's second semi-final but South Fremantle won the Grand Final along with the qualifying and preliminary finals of 2019. All four of those games were played at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.
South Fremantle had won five straight against West Perth since a shock preliminary final loss in 2018 but that run ended in Round 20 with the Falcons overrunning the Bulldogs at Provident Financial Oval.
But still, the Bulldogs have won 14 of the last 16 against the Falcons including last year's preliminary final and the qualifying finals of 2016 and 2018.
Then there is Swan Districts who South Fremantle has beaten the last nine times and hasn’t lost to since Round 2, 2017.
Last time Swan Districts played finals in 2017 that run was ended with an 80-point win for South Fremantle in the first semi-final at Fremantle Community Bank Oval.
PLAYERS TO BE EXCITED ABOUT
Mason Shaw – Stepping in as captain in the absence of Dylan Main, Shaw is not only a team leader but a weapon on the field. Finishing second in the Bernie Naylor Medal race behind West Perth's Tyler Keitel with 48 goals, he has heavily contributed to the team’s winning form this season and will undoubtedly look to continue this trend in the finals.
Cody Ninyette – He is dubbed 'The Ninja' for a reason, Ninyette is a forced to be reckoned with. While he is also high on the league goal tally with 41 to his credit including four last week, Ninyette is a ball of energy who consistently give a strong performance. He plays to his best every quarter of every game, right to the final siren and it’s certainly a leaf his teammates could take from his book heading into the finals.
Zac Strom – The reigning fairest and best winner in a premiership season, Strom has shown his strength again in 2021 largely settling on the wing. He had a slight hiccup with a finger injury but the versatile big man has returned strongly with a new spark that has seen him dominate with and without the ball. His diversity on the field comes through on the park, helping to score but also reclaim possession when the side falls behind the ball.
KEYS TO WINNING
Plain and simple, South Fremantle just needs to repeat what they did last year. They’ve proven they have the capacity to win and there is no reason they can’t do it again.
Blending back in the key players is going to be key to South Fremantle's finals run. Getting players the quality of Jake Florenca, Zac Dent, Brock Higgins, Dylan Main and Matthew Parker back is exciting, but they have to ensure they blend back in without hurting the team chemistry.
However, as long as South Fremantle's defence continues to hold up as well as it has all season led by Noah Strom, Jason Maskos, Chad Pearson, Blayne Wilson and when he's back there, Blake Schlensog, they are going to be tough to beat.
With the depth of weapons they have in the middle and then a forward-line with talls Mason Shaw, Jimmy Miller and Blake Schlensog, and smalls Cody Ninyette, Manfred Kelly and Brandon Donaldson, this is a South Fremantle team that is going to take some stopping this finals series.
South Fremantle finished the season as the third best attacking team in the competition averaging 85.3 points a game, but the second best defensively conceding a remarkably low 65.7. Highlighting their defence, the Bulldogs have only given up 12 goals or more twice in 2021 and those were both in the first two games.
The Bulldogs are averaging 329.3 possessions a game this season while their opponents are picking up just 304.6. If they have 25 more disposals throughout the finals, it could be a big difference.
South Fremantle enters the finals as the most accurate team in the competition kicking 230.131 when you don't factor in rushed behinds at 64 per cent. Even with rushed behinds, they have gone 230.155 at 60 per cent to be the only team to get to that 60 per cent barrier in terms of accuracy.
The Bulldogs have been the best first quarter team this season, outscoring their opponents by 160 points across the 18 matches. They are ranked second in second quarters, third in third quarters and then only ninth in last terms where they have been outscored by a total of 58 points.