In the Fremantle changerooms on the Gold Coast, first-year coach Justin Longmuir stood like a teacher at the front of a classroom as his seated students — not one eye deviating — soaked in every word.
The Dockers had just posted their highest score of the season and dismantled North Melbourne by 64 points to claim a seventh win from their past 12 matches.
They are emerging and — while they will not play finals in 2020 — the future looks increasingly bright.
“That’s (the players listening to Longmuir) a terrific sign … that means the player want to learn, they’re buying into what he’s trying to teach,” Essendon premiership player Adam Ramanauskas told ABC Grandstand.
“They’ve just had a great win and usually it’s taps on the back and ‘rah, rah, rah’.
“They’re focussed, they’re listening, they want to improve … Michael Walters, he’s just kicked three goals, he’s sitting in the front row and his eyes have not left Justin Longmuir.”
By contrast, North Melbourne’s new coach Rhyce Shaw understandably struggled to look his players in the eye after a performance he described as not being of AFL standard.
While Longmuir fronted his triumphant players, Shaw and his assistants lingered in the coaches’ box pondering how to respond, what to say and what to do next.
North Melbourne has lost 13 of its past 14 matches and on Saturday played without the spirit that has long defined the proud and under-privileged club.
Saturday afternoon was a match between two sides looking to re-emerge under new leadership but it only served to show the enormous gap in progress between the two.
Yes, North Melbourne has endured a horror run of injuries to key players, but against another developing side — and in ruckman Todd Goldstein’s 250th match — the Roos’ performance was truly awful.
Tackles didn’t stick, players didn’t chase and insufficient pressure was applied.
While North Melbourne has difficult list decisions to make, Fremantle has already assembled many of the pieces for future success.
David Mundy and Nat Fyfe remain key contributors, but the Dockers midfield is now benefitting from the youthful exuberance of Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cera and the likely rising star Caleb Serong.
Critically, Longmuir has given this young group a sense of ownership and backed them in.
A club long reliant on the ruck dominance of Aaron Sandilands has found a promising replacement in Sean Darcy and the Dockers’ defence has become highly dependable, even despite the absence of key players including Joel Hamling and Alex Pearce.
Brennan Cox hurt his shoulder but remained a pillar against the Kangaroos and Luke Ryan further enhanced his claims for All-Australian selection with his intercept marking and constant repelling.
Longmuir is well renowned for his defensive smarts and has immediately stiffened this aspect of Fremantle’s game style after a 38-point loss to the Giants last month, the club’s heaviest defeat this season.
On Saturday, there were glimpses of what the forward line could produce as well. Walters and Lachie Schultz were dangerous, Matt Taberner continued his career-best season and Jesse Hogan kicked four goals, his most productive return as a Docker.
The key forward has endured a spate of injury and off-field troubles, which have threatened to reduce his career to one of wasted potential.
Hogan kicked over 40 goals in a season three times before he had turned 23. He is now only 25 and could yet have an enormous long-term impact for the Dockers.
Fremantle plays the Western Bulldogs in Cairns to end a season of significant steps forward and fans will be justified in thinking the side is a legitimate chance to contend for a top-eight finish in 2021.
Giants roll the dice on Coniglio and fail
While optimism surrounds the Dockers, last year’s beaten grand finalist Greater Western Sydney has slumped to a worryingly low ebb after a five-point loss to Melbourne that will likely see the Giants miss the finals for the first time since 2015.
Like many, I was gobsmacked by the decision to drop first-year captain Stephen Coniglio, whose form has certainly dropped but not to the extent that he is outside of the club’s best 22 players.
The images of Coniglio sitting on his own, glumly watching the game on Saturday night, were uncomfortable. He looked ostracised and helpless, a leader unable to influence the fortunes of his side in a critical game.
Geelong premiership captain Cameron Ling told ABC Grandstand his omission was a huge mistake.
“I cannot believe what the Giants have done … dropping their captain Stephen Coniglio,” Ling said.
“He’s 26 years old … you do not drop your captain. It just undermines his leadership going forward from here.”
Giants coach Leon Cameron did not back away from the decision despite the narrow loss to the Demons.
“If there have to be more tough calls next week, there will be,” he said.
Cameron now has a conundrum in deciding whether Coniglio returns for Friday night’s must-win-clash with the Saints.
If, as expected, the captain comes back in, what did he do to earn his place and what message does it send to the playing group?
The dropping of Coniglio was a statement designed to jolt a highly talented but floundering team into action, a bold move that failed. The captain has lost face and so has the club.
Neale copping unnecessary attention
It means the Lions secured the double chance and are assured home finals at the Gabba, where this year’s decider will be played at night on October 24. A huge opportunity has presented itself.
Sydney made Brisbane earn it. Just four days after Lions coach Chris Fagan drew attention to bruises and scratches on the body of Lachie Neale following the win over Gold Coast, his star on-baller was again the subject of some questionable attention against the Swans.
Sydney’s Ryan Clarke did a superb job in restricting Neale but routinely took his eyes off the ball, blocking or holding Neale without possession.
Only once was he penalised by the umpire. I’m often surprised by teams that don’t deploy defensive run with players on the opposition’s most damaging midfielder.
Taggers are an important part of the game, but they have to play by the rules. If they don’t, officials are obligated to intervene.
Despite a quiet performance, Neale is two votes clear of Port Adelaide’s Travis Boak in the ABC Footballer of the Year award standings with a round to go.
If he claims the award, Brisbane’s outstanding number nine will join an honour role that includes his highly decorated contemporaries Patrick Dangerfield, Tom Mitchell, Dustin Martin and Gary Ablett.
We will wait and see if the umpires agree with our experts and whether Neale joins the quartet as a Brownlow Medal winner too.