Flirting with form

Flirting with form is fraught with arrogant danger.  Last weekend, Ross Lyon selected his Fremantle team with 12 players rested, ill or injured.

It is the wrong time of year to be giving players the week off.

St Kilda, with just four wins for the year, capitalised and strode to victory by 71-points.  The win allowed the club to farewell three veterans, Stephen Milne, Jason Blake and Justin Koscitzke, in style.

Lyon might’ve expected his rookies to become heroes.  Victory, with twelve men missing would be testament to Fremantle’s depth.  Instead, they were exposed.

No club can rest multiple players and win.

Clearly, Lyon didn’t care about the result.  Final were assured, the double chance secured.  St Kilda could do what they pleased.

And they did.

In the post game interview, Lyon was adamant that the risk was worth it.  ‘You play the percentages, he said.  ‘Sometimes it doesn’t work your way.’

Resting players is now part of the AFL routine, but it can be a gamble the week out from the finals.

Coaches need to manage the workload, but flirting with form hasn’t exactly been successful this close to the finals.

In 1994, Carlton rested a host of players, including Greg Williams heading into the last round.  They gave their opponents, Essendon, who wouldn’t make the finals, a free win.

Had the Blues won, they would’ve finished on top.  Instead, they finished second and went on to lose both finals.

Their coach, David Parkin, was criticised for his policy.  The criticism lasted a year.

During Lyon’s press conference, Geelong was still trying to hold out Brisbane at Kardinia Park.  A journalist said the margin was eight points with about ten minutes to play in the last quarter.  The inference was obvious.  If Brisbane wins, Lyon might’ve sacrificed second spot on the ladder and a home final.

Lyon shrugged.  He’d taken a risk.  The results of other games were meaningless.

‘I understand everyone’s interest and we’re paid to make decisions,’ Lyon said.  ‘If you wear an AFL jumper or you’re an AFL coach you get critiqued every week.  There’s no right or wrong with this, it’s just a value judgement.’

When Lyon was coaching St Kilda in 2009, he rested nine players in round 19 for the game against Hawthorn in Tasmania.  St Kilda won by 25-points.  It was just the second time since 1970 a team has gone unbeaten through nineteen rounds.

The next week, Essendon knocked off the Saints by two points.  In round 21, they lost to North by five points.

The week off, it could be said, wasn’t enough rest.  Or it disrupted their momentum.

But St Kilda was always going to finish on top in 2009.  Lyon was more concerned with player management than winning every game.

Unfortunately, the Saints lost the premiership to Geelong.  It was a game St Kilda should’ve won.

The best intentions of player management hadn’t worked.

Lyon was drawn into a parallel between the Hawthorn game in 2009 and the St Kilda game in 2013.

‘It was nine (players back in 2009) and we lost the next two,’ he said.  ‘I was acutely aware of it.’

Despite being acutely aware, he still gave St Kilda the win, and Matthew Pavlich and Aaron Sandilands weren’t rested.  After a season interrupted by injury, they needed the run.

‘To (rest) this amount (12 players) and at this time for me wasn’t an experience I had,’ Lyon said.   He was guided by the medical staff and took the risk.  He didn’t care what the AFL industry or the media thought.

‘If we go down and lose (the final to Geelong) and play poorly that will come back,’ he said of the criticism.  ‘The people who care about it are the people who wrote it.  Its tomorrow’s fish and chip paper.’

Besides, the players who were rested didn’t have the weekend off.  They trained hard, sprinting, gut running and ball work.

‘Our head conditioner stayed behind with them and worked them really hard,’ Lyon said.

Toward the end of the press conference, a journalist told Lyon that Geelong had won by a point.

Lyon smiled.  ‘That’s nice, see.  Good judgement,’ he said.  ‘I get the interest. It’d be a different conversation if they lost.’

Had Geelong won, the conversation would’ve been different.  The criticism would’ve been vicious.  If the Cats were playing Hawthorn, Lyon might’ve rested the players anyway.

His focus was on winning a premiership.  The result was irrelevant.  Resting players was a necessity.

That Fremantle lost to mediocrity is embarrassing, but Lyon probably won’t even review the game.  He’d be confident his men will rebound mentally from the dreadful loss.

Lyon did what he thought will win Fremantle a premiership.  For one round he flirted with form.  It leaves the ego bare.

He can’t flirt anymore.


If you’ve never watched a Ross Lyon press conference, you should.  He looks like a man about to deliver a punch line.  The smirk seems embedded on his face.  He is a great media performer, a pleasure to watch.

Check out the link below.

About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…


  1. It’s hard isn’t it. To strike a balance between travel and fatigue, and the desire to keep players playing and retain winning form. I think what Lyon did in concept was wise, but 12 players far too much. Better stretch it out over the final few weeks, and bring all in fresh.

    Winning form, is winning form, and a loss is never helpful going into a final. I recall playing the final game of a hockey season against the top side who had secured top spot, double chance and promotion. We had missed out on the 4. They rested most of their best players, we fired up for a final game and won 7-0. They sledged us throughout about what would we be doing next week, but critically, one of ther better players was scathing of his club’s decision to rest and flirt with their form, seeing it as a reversal of their season’s plans.

    They went out in straight sets.

    I agree Matt, Lyon seems surly but always on the cusp of a gag. I am strangely drawn to him, interesting bloke, unbelievably focussed


  2. Andrew Fithall says

    What about the emotional decision made to play four brothers in the same team in the last home-and-away game of 1990? Which meant more deserving players missed out on a game that week. But it was only one week. Oh hang on – the team finished on top of the ladder so under the final five system they had the next week off as well. And then there was a draw in week one of the finals which meant, under the rules at the time, a re-match the following week. So another week off for that team. Four weeks between senior games. That ended well. Seeya Sheeds. Loved your work.

  3. Andrew Starkie says

    always a dangerous move, flirting with form. Footy Gods don’t like it.

  4. Bit of ‘post hoc ergo Proctor & Gamble’ going on there, Andrew F? Of the four Danihers, one was the team captain, and another the key defender. As for the remaining two, yes it was a swansong for Neale, but Chris held his spot through the finals and was rarely left out on form again for the rest of his career.

    A leisurely stroll through AllTheStats (and a couple of first hand memories) and I also found the following:

    Essendon made five changes to the team that had unconvincingly beaten Footscray in the second last round. In, besides Neale and Chris, came Kevin Walsh, Peter Somerville and Ian McMullin. Out went Tony Antrobus and Bill Duckworth, about a dozen games between them for the season and neither destined to play for Essendon again, a hobbling Mark Harvey who had not finished the game against Carlton two weeks before and probably shouldn’t have played the game in between, Paul Salmon (whose direct replacement, logically, was Somerville), and Michael Werner, who didn’t return until 1991.

    Two blokes who never played again, two regularly-injured injured regulars, and a hot-headed forward. Which of those five a) could, and b) did, ‘undeservingly’ lose his spot to Neale Daniher, c) with dire consequences for later in the season?

  5. Skip of Skipton says

    I heard a Geelong player (Christensen?) talking to K-Rock after the Brisbane game, and he said they knew that the Saints were pumping Freo and that might have contributed to the lack of performance late in the game. If Freo were beating the Saints I doubt Brisbane would have been within a bulls roar.

  6. Michael Viljoen says

    After the win, do we now declare Ross Lyon a genius?

    I support a coach who is aiming to win a premiership, rather than trying to just win a match. That’s where his obligation lies.

  7. Neil Belford says

    The flirting is over Mike.

  8. Hi Neil,
    This is why Ross Lyon is a coach and I am a critic…
    Lyon, of course, is currently a genius.
    Though I did not like his performance in the press conference. He was rude – no flirting to be seen.

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