This is not just another derby. After today, one WA team will be 4-3 and in touch with the top four, the other 3-4 with little margin for error.
West Coast could steady against Greater Western Sydney, but they then have a bye, Collingwood, North Melbourne and Hawthorn to follow. Fremantle have Port Adelaide and Geelong immediately ahead. Precarious could become dire quickly.
History says WA teams can get on a roll and storm home after scratchy starts. History also says that mid to late-season recoveries are hit and miss and usually require containing the early damage on the win-loss ratio to around the 50-50 mark.
In 2012, Fremantle were 6-7 after 13 games, but rattled home to win eight of their last nine games. In 2006, they won their last nine. A bonfire, a few beers and some soul-searching at chairman Rick Hart’s place after 13 rounds sparked a turnaround that led to the team’s first preliminary final berth.
But in 2005 and 2007, the Dockers were forced to play catch up and never caught up.
West Coast retrieved a poor start to a season in 2004 when 4-6 became 5-8 before they won eight of their last nine. But last year, 1-4 became 9-13, the injury-marred season enough to finish John Worsfold’s coaching tenure.
The way that both teams have arrived at 3-3 is concerning.
The 2014 season looked rosy for Fremantle after they shrugged off a mixed pre-season to belt Collingwood in Melbourne by 70 points in round one and rival Hawthorn as premiership favourites.
But they lost players to injury and suspension against Gold Coast in round two, got shredded by the Hawks in round three and have looked vulnerable since.
Their consecutive losses against Sydney and North Melbourne have been marred by poor skill execution. Fremantle’s 55 inside-50 entries against North created just eight goals as their forward structure crumbled in the absence of small forwards Hayden Ballantyne and Michael Walters.
We wondered just how many defenders Kangaroos coach Brad Scott could pile up around Matthew Pavlich before the Dockers would stop kicking the ball to him. Pavlich was constantly one versus two and occasionally one versus three yet remained the Fremantle midfield’s target of choice. The previous weekend against Sydney, the Swans generated seven more scores from three fewer inside 50s.
The first burning question for Fremantle: Are they capable of looking for targets other than Pavlich? The skipper is in reasonable nick, but faces Eric Mackenzie and Darren Glass tomorrow. Two or three goals would be acceptable from the veteran, but the Dockers need to find other sources.
The second burning question: Can those “other sources” deliver? The return of Ballantyne helps but the support cast is fraying. Walters is gone. Chris Mayne (two) and Matt de Boer (one) have kicked just three goals between them this year.
West Coast took care of business in rounds one to three against the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and St Kilda, but their season turned south with injuries and a trip to Geelong. They were goalless in the last three quarters there. Late-match fades were not three quarters long against Port Adelaide and Carlton, but they did cost games.
Port outscored the Eagles 3.3 to 1.2 in the final term, Carlton kicked 5.1 in an extraordinary burst to trump West Coast’s 1.8. A 24-point lead with nine minutes to go was passed with three minutes left.
In an eerie reminder of 2013, the Eagles have two current issues — inaccuracy and midfield muscle.
The first burning question: Can their smaller midfield stand up to a Fremantle engine room that has pushed it around in the past two derbies?
West Coast’s midfield was smashed in the losses to Geelong and Port Adelaide, the inside-50 count in those two games running 125-73 against them. Matt Priddis and Matt Rosa have been excellent and Luke Shuey solid, but Shuey faces nemesis Ryan Crowley tomorrow, while Sharrod Wellingham has been dropped.
The second burning question: Even if the Eagles hold their own in midfield and give their forwards equal chances, can the forwards take them? West Coast have kicked 23.39 in their last three matches. Primary targets Josh Kennedy and Jack Darling have each kicked 6.10 in the past four games. The Kennedy stutter might be gone, but a scatter has taken its place.