THE QUESTION around how Fremantle was going to replace leading goalkicker Rory Lobb and consistently kick winning scores in 2023 has faded into the background this pre-season. When Nat Fyfe emerges as a permanent forward in round one, it may be put to bed completely.
Instead of looking at Lobb’s 36 goals and ruck support last season and seeing an asset that will be tough to replace, Fyfe’s impressive pre-season form combined with Luke Jackson’s arrival has added a new element to a forward line that will have ample height and options against St Kilda in the season-opener on Sunday.
For bold tipsters, the dual Brownlow medallist is being spoken about as a chance to be Fremantle’s first 50-goal forward since Matthew Pavlich in 2012. Predictions aside, it is clear he’ll be a significant problem for opposition defenders.
Isolating Fyfe with his opponent will be one of the Dockers’ biggest attacking weapons this season. Since 2018, the 31-year-old has won 42 per cent of the one-on-one contests he’s been involved in – the third-best win rate of the top 100 targets in that time.
Lobb had his strengths as an accurate kick and versatile tall who could contribute in the ruck, but his retention rate as a forward was just 37.1 per cent (ranked No.43 of the top 50 forward targets in 2022).
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Fyfe’s challenge will be continuing his record as a nightmare one-on-one match-up when he is opposed to elite defenders, rather than midfield opponents he has dragged forward.
But he should be backed to help the Dockers cover Lobb’s loss as a forward target who can retain the ball inside 50.
The other element Fyfe brings to Freo’s attacking group is unpredictability after a season that saw Lobb targeted 140 times – ranked No.10 in the competition, with Matt Taberner (89) ranked No.2 at Fremantle from 13 games.
Ball movement and finding more avenues to score was a focus for the Dockers this pre-season, with coach Justin Longmuir noting the need to bridge the gap between the team’s best and worst.
The aerial presence of young star Jackson, a fit-again Taberner, and in-form youngster Josh Treacy will give the team options and should lead to less predictable forward entries.
Then there is Fyfe, whose emergence as a forward this pre-season has been rapid, kicking three goals in each of his past three hitouts – an intraclub match, match simulation against Adelaide, and the Dockers’ pre-season game against Port Adelaide.
The Crows’ clash highlighted the difficulty teams will have matching up on him, with Tom Doedee, Jordan Dawson and Brodie Smith all spending time on Fyfe, who kicked his goals both from marks on the lead and general play.
Against the Power, he kicked three outstanding goals from general play, showcasing his point of difference compared to the Dockers’ other targets in a match-up with Power defender Tom Jonas.
“He’s going to be a tricky match-up,” Adelaide assistant Nathan van Berlo said after the first pre-season game. “Whether it be a key defender or one of those hybrid talls, teams are going to have their work cut out.”
The answer to how Fyfe has transformed himself as a player so quickly is obvious to new Fremantle captain Alex Pearce, who watched from close range as his former skipper matched up on defender Luke Ryan for most of the pre-season.
“The effort he has [put into] learning the forward craft with discussions on the track or within his forward line group, it’s not surprising for me knowing how much he wants to improve and get the most out of himself,” Pearce said.
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“He obviously knows how to play the game and knows how to play forward, but he was always a midfielder who went forward and would just play off instinct.
“Now he’s playing forward and has to work within that group. He’s had the goal of learning to be the best forward he can be, and to see him go back to school and learn a few new skills has been really motivating for everyone.”