FREMANTLE coach Justin Longmuir had two priorities when he arrived at the Dockers on the Monday following the 2019 Toyota AFL Grand Final. One related to on-field, the other was off it.
On-field, the coach wanted to embed a new gameplan that found the ideal balance between attack and defence. The off-field priority was to shift the culture, with the 40-year-old given a clear mandate to change the way the Dockers went about their business.
For some clubs, 2020 was a year in which changing culture and embedding gameplans appeared to be an uphill battle in the face of shutdowns, hubs, and significant training and contact restrictions.
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But for Longmuir, who tries to see the positive in everything, those same challenges allowed the Dockers to fast-track their develop both on and off the field and set up an anticipated rise up the ladder in his second season.
"In some ways it made things easier," Longmuir told AFL.com.au.
"When you're trying to build connection in the group and you're trying to get our players to care and support and fast-track each other, to be away for eight weeks was a real benefit.
"Some clubs probably saw it as a negative, but as a footy club we looked at it through a positive lens and I think it helped accelerate the relationships within the playing group and my relationships with the players.
"It also helped fast-track our style of play. We were able to spend more time with our players and I think we saw the benefits of that later in the year."
There has been "a big shift in the way we go about things around the footy club", Longmuir said, as he seeks to build an environment where players and staff feel comfortable being themselves and push the boundaries.
"I want them to make mistakes at training and I want them to be a part of the learning environment," he said.
Defender and leadership group member Reece Conca last year described the culture change at Fremantle as the "biggest win" the club had in 2020.
The club facilitated weekly "culture sessions" last year where an external sportsperson would speak to the players about their career and experiences.
International cricketers Mitch Marsh, Matt Wade and Ashton Agar have been among them, while the Dockers' senior players have taken a bigger role in sharing the lessons they've learned with younger teammates.
This year the sessions have taken on a new structure where the players work with an external consultant on forming and embedding their trademark.
Using "every minute of time to embed a new style of play" had also been successful and received a big tick from Longmuir's players, who have praised the coach's ability to get them all on the same page quickly.
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"It's ridiculous how good it is now … everyone knows it inside out," Lachie Schultz said this week.
The Dockers' defensive strength will remain their priority in 2021 after ranking fifth in the AFL for points conceded last season. Offensively they ranked 16th, but Longmuir saw enough in the latter stages of the season to build on this summer.
"I think we've got to be really careful … in footy sometimes you focus on what you can't do a lot and all your focus goes into that," the coach said.
"We want to make our defence even better. We want to make sure we defend the ground even better than we did last year and we want to concede less scores.
"So we want to maintain our strengths from last year while improving on a few focus areas and making sure we become a better, well-rounded team."
Longmuir's defensive focus has to do with both his coaching philosophy as well as the strength he sees in Fremantle's backline stocks.
Returning pair Joel Hamling and Alex Pearce will be available for round one after long returns from injury, club champion Luke Ryan can play multiple defensive roles, and Brennan Cox has been the Dockers' form tall defender this pre-season.
Second-year half-back Hayden Young will also be prominent and has impressed the coach in the lead-up to the AAMI Community series after an interrupted 2020.
"He's an elite overhead mark and he's an elite left foot kick and we've seen those two things … but we've also seen all the little things around those strengths being worked on," Longmuir said.
"He's become a more well-rounded player and a well-rounded man."
Draftee Heath Chapman has also caught the eye and could play "anywhere in our backline", Longmuir said, but the Dockers will be "really patient and take care of him".
The midfield is where much of the intrigue has been at Fremantle this pre-season as prized youngsters Andrew Brayshaw, Adam Cerra and Caleb Serong continue building chemistry as a centre-square trio.
The young stars, who are crucial to sending dual Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe forward in 2021, have formed a tight bond and "want to take this club forward".
"They push each other to improve on and off the field, and that sort of attitude is going to take us a long way as a footy club," Longmuir said.
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"They're really clear on their direction to each other to be able to put each other in different roles and different positions around stoppages, and they're selfless.
"They really respect both sides of the footy – offence and defence – and they buy into those two areas as well as the contest. I just see a group of players who want to take this club forward."
Part of the motivation for building a strong culture for any football club is to aid player retention, and Serong (2023), Brayshaw (2025), Young (2023) and Liam Henry (2023) all extended their contracts last year. Out-of-contract Cerra is the club's priority signing this year.
"I think people want to stay where they feel like they're having a big impact on and off the field," Longmuir said when asked about the role culture would play in retaining talent.
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"I think they want to stay at clubs where they feel like the club is allowing them to be the best version of themselves.
"I feel as a footy club we've put some steps in place to make sure everyone at the footy club feels that they're getting developed, feels that they're getting a say in their own development and feel like they're having a say in the direction of the footy club.
"We've got a long way to go, clearly, in all aspects of on-field and off-field development, but I feel that we're on the right path.