Beating the Dees: What can other teams get from the Dockers playbook?


Logically, it’s easier to win if the opponent’s best player has no influence, so why isn’t this strategy used more often?

“Without giving too much away, tagging can sometimes tear your hiatus apart,” said Crows coach Matthew Nicks after their round 10 win over the Dees last year.

Even pro-tag coaches are cautious about deploying them, wary that overuse can hinder a team’s long-term development and take away its surprise value.

There is also the concern of being a player in their team’s defense. St Kilda Great and Western Bulldogs AFLW senior coach Nathan Burke is baffled by this reasoning.

“I don’t agree with that whole one man down thing,” said Burke, who played from 1987-2003 when the tag was common.

“The fact that you can stop their number 1 ball catcher starting chains of four to five possessions and getting others into play does more than someone who might not be standing in a hole in a zone.

“To say you’re a man in your zone defense, push up a half-forward or bring a wing closer. If one person makes a huge hole, I don’t know what the rest do.

“Every time it is effective, a team wins the game. The most important thing you want to do as a team is you don’t want to give the other team what they want. What they want is for Clayton Oliver to get a whole bunch of possessions and permissions from the middle and start the attack from him. Don’t give them what they want.”


Such is May’s ability to guard space as well as an opponent, the Dockers sent regular backman Griffin Logue forward to defend him, effectively sacrificing an attacker. The role became redundant when May suffered a concussion minutes into the game, but the Demon’s absence was clearly felt as the Dockers emerged after halftime.

Steven May suffered a concussion early in the loss to Fremantle, leaving a large gap in Melbourne’s defence.Credit:Getty

Since McDonald was not available, the knock-on effect meant that Jake Lever had to take the number 1 forward instead of the second, Petty the second instead of the third and so on. When Petty was injured, Matthew Taberner, who ran back from Jayden Hunt, stood 11 kilograms, 11 centimeters and a free kick that led to a goal.

Freo’s first three goals in the second half came either from marks to big forwards or free kicks from defenders under pressure. Their little forwards – Lachie Schultz and Michael Frederick kicked six goals – enjoyed the soft drops of the marker matches with no May to either turn up the pressure or score.

“The most important thing for me was that they got the ball deep,” said an assistant coach. “Get it to 70 and then attack the goal field and let it hit the ground. Their ground players got to work because of that.”


Goals-per-50 stat can be misleading for teams forcing repeat entries when the zone is more congested, but the Dockers’ scoring percentage of 40 (12 goals from 30 entries) after halftime is more than double the season’s This average of 18.

That the Dockers, 12th for runs scored, could do so much damage should encourage other clubs, Burke said.

“You wouldn’t say it’s a star-studded forward line,” Burke said. “There are many teams with better forward lines than Freo. Look at the saints with [Max] King, [Tim] Membrey – that’s better than Freo’s.”

Beating Gawn, Jackson

In 2019, the Port Adelaide pair of Scott Lycett and Paddy Ryder physically targeted Gawn. Human bulldozer Shane Mumford did the same last year when he cast a vote in the AFL coach award for a 10-ball possession game.

The Crows didn’t let Gawn mark unopposed by sending Reilly O’Brien with him to force a match. Sean Darcy had his biggest impact on Luke Jackson when he was proactive in finding space. The cherry was his target and his goal after flowing forward from a central bounce.

Teams need to find a way around Max Gawn, says Nathan Burke, the great St Kilda.

Teams need to find a way around Max Gawn, says Nathan Burke, the great St Kilda.Credit:Getty

“He runs back and stands in a hole and has little respect for his opponent,” Burke said of Gawn.

“You have to find a way to get him out of what he wants, and be smart about kicking the ball around him. It amazes me how often they kick the ball to him. Hopefully parties start to see the Gawn/Jackson combination understand and they don’t continue to play into their hands.”

Clearance and pressure kings

In four of the Dees’ five defeats in 2021-22, they were beaten by an average of more than nine in the interruptions. When Carlton beat them in the preseason, it was also due to a skewed clearance count. The exception came in the one-point loss to the Crows, where they won the clearing 23, but allowed their opponent 45 more undisputed possessions.

Butchered by the Dockers 11-3 from the centre, their undermanned defense was put under pressure. Also, the Dees couldn’t handle the pressure of the Dockers around the ball. As one assistant coach put it, they rely on the player holding the tackle and braking the ball during the match so that others can guard the exit to either apply more pressure or force a ball. In 2022 football jargon, their “match method” is strong.

Fremantle's pressure on the ball carrier is a major factor behind their success this year.

Fremantle’s pressure on the ball carrier is a major factor behind their success this year.Credit:Getty

“Imagine the center circle around the ground,” Burke said. “They’ve got guys who are good at and under winning, and the outer circle they’ve structured really well. When a handball goes out [from the opposition]they hit him really good, and if it goes one more low, they hit him good too.

“Both Geelong and Melbourne struggled to get through it effectively. While they’re defensive, it’s not because they flow back, it’s the way they structure themselves, who they’re standing next to, which allows them to read very quickly before it gets handballed.”

There are rich dividends when teams do this right. The Dockers outperformed the Dees on revenue by 35 points.

Be brave

The Dockers lost all fluidity in their ball movement in the second term as Melbourne gained the upper hand in the match. They played “bang”, said Burke, as St Kilda did in the first half against the Dees when they were concerned about the “slingshot” effect of flipping the ball.

The Dockers reversed the game numbers in the second half, leaving more holes in Melbourne’s defence.

“If you can be really good in the game and get the ball forward, they can be exploited,” Burke said. “If you’re not sure, the Melbourne way could hurt you. You have to be brave and brave and face them.”

Nathan Burke

“You play goalkeepers, it plays into their hands,” Burke said. “We saw St Kilda do it in the first half which, after speaking with Brett Ratten, was not their game plan.

“If you can be really good in the game and get the ball forward, they can be exploited,” Burke said. “If you’re not sure, the Melbourne way could hurt you. You have to be brave and brave and face them.”

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