The West

History says Lyon knows how to win round one
Ross Lyon. Pic: WA News

Fremantle coach Ross Lyon's record suggests he understands the vagaries of round one of the home-and-away season better than most.

Under the Lyon ethos, where "cobblers cobble", it is the players who play while he just coaches.

But the reality is that he shapes as a key ace in Fremantle's pack ahead of a tricky round-one showdown with Collingwood at Etihad Stadium on Friday night.

Lyon-coached teams have won six of seven games in the opening round. His only loss was when St Kilda were pipped by eventual premiers Geelong in the dying seconds of a low-scoring defensive classic at the MCG in 2011.

His opponents have hardly been easy beats.

At the Saints he faced the Cats once, Sydney three times and Melbourne once. At Fremantle, he oversaw an epic win over Geelong at Patersons Stadium in round one of 2012 and a hard-fought derby win over cross-town rivals West Coast last year.

Pre-season form can be worrying or misleading.

Brisbane were stellar in the NAB Cup of 2013, but royally flogged by the Western Bulldogs in round one.

Countless premiership fancies have staggered through February and March and yet still managed to flick the switch when it started to count.

Conversely, Adelaide found out last season that worrying early signs really were a portent of things to come.

It is hard to know what to make of Fremantle's pre-season form. Lucky for them, their coach is likely to make more sense of it than most.

The Dockers were under-prepared and horrid first time out against a revved-up West Coast.

They were workmanlike and solid for three of four quarters in their win against the Western Bulldogs last Wednesday week and competitive but still beaten by the Eagles eight days later.

Fremantle will not worry about the venue - even though Collingwood are clearly comfortable at Etihad Stadium since Nathan Buckley took the reins from Mick Malthouse, winning five of six matches.

The Dockers have also won five times in six attempts there under Lyon and the loss, when they left half their team out against St Kilda in round 23 last year to ease the travel burden on key players ahead of finals, scarcely counts.

But while premiership fancies can stagger through February and March and still flick the switch as they close in on April, the problem for Fremantle is that this is still only early March.

One of the last two teams to finish 2013 and hence start their pre-season, will be one of the first two to start the home-and-away campaign against a team with three weeks head start.

That is fine if your build-up has been glitch-free but Fremantle's hasn't. Zac Clarke looks set to miss after a knee injury sustained at an off-season festival. Nat Fyfe is expected to play but will go in with little match practice after injuring a knee in the first game against West Coast.

And the AFL Tribunal will decide if Michael Walters plays after he was reported for unduly rough play on West Coast's Brandt Colledge last week.

If Walters is suspended, his absence could be significant. Collingwood struggled to defend quality small forwards last season - including Walters when the teams met at Patersons Stadium.

The player who grew into their small defender's role was Marley Williams, who has stood down from playing after being found guilty of assault last month.

Their best small defensive option of recent years, Heath Shaw, has left for Greater Western Sydney and the Pies would struggle to cover two ground-level forwards of the quality of Walters and Hayden Ballantyne. They may not have to.

Clarke's absence would also sting. Buckley has a decision to make on whether to play Ben Reid in the back line, where he shores up tall defensive options, or attack, where he could stretch Fremantle's back men.

With Clarke out, that is an easier decision to make.

Perhaps the biggest decision Lyon faces ahead of this match is how he wants this game played.

He has told us for much of the summer that he would like his team to be about two goals more productive in games this year, and there has been a focus in its last two matches on moving the ball quickly.

But Lyon has another option that may make the Magpies less comfortable. His Dockers might have won their round-one matches with as many as 16 goals in the last two years, but Lyon's Saints also won against the Swans in 2008 with as few as six.

It is a fair bet that Fremantle's coach will want this game played more like lock-down strangulation than free-wheeling shootout.

He needs the four premiership points from this game. Those two extra goals a game can wait.

The West Australian

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