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How Michael ‘Sonny’ Walters is rising to challenge as Freo’s forward line general

IF YOU’RE after proof that Fremantle star Michael Walters has embraced his forward role this season and the defensive requirements that come with that, look no further than the critical third quarter of the Dockers’ best win this season. 

At the MCG a fortnight ago against reigning premier Melbourne, Walters set the tone for his team after half-time with a thumping tackle on defender Jayden Hunt and followed up with several desperate chases. 

By three-quarter time, Walters had amassed a massive 23 pressure points for the term from those defensive acts and plenty more like them as the Dockers went on a stunning eight-goal-to-one run. 

For forwards coach Jaymie Graham, it was another example of both the mindset shift Walters has made this season and how his focus on competing hard and applying pressure is benefiting the Dockers. 

“‘Sonny’ has led the way in that area from the start of the season, talking to ‘JL’ (coach Justin Longmuir) about embracing the forward line role and getting to work on what’s important to him for a small forward’s game,” Graham told AFL.com.au

“He’s really embraced the pressure side of things and the way he competes, which we’re seeing some real consistency in. 

“All season we’ve been rapt with his attitude towards that. He’s shifted his mindset towards things he can control, and the rest has taken care of itself.”

Andrew Brayshaw and Sam Switkowski congratulate Michael Walters during Fremantle’s clash against Carlton in round six, 2022. Picture: Getty Images

The beauty of Walters leading from the front with his pressure is the impact it has on the rest of the team’s forwards, including the big men, with Rory Lobb adding the ability to pressure opponents to his game.  

Heading into round 13, the club had an AFL-high seven players ranked inside the top 50 in the League for total tackles inside 50, with the next best boasting five (Adelaide, Brisbane, Port Adelaide and Richmond). 

Lachie Schultz (18 tackles inside 50) was ranked No.5 in the competition, with forwards Sam Switkowski (16), Walters (12), Bailey Banfield (11) and Michael Frederick (10) joined inside the top 50 by midfielders Caleb Serong (12) and Andrew Brayshaw (10).

Lachie Schultz tackles Callum Wilkie during Fremantle’s clash with St Kilda in round two, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Walters will return from minor hamstring tightness this week, while Switkowski is also back after a two-match suspension, boosting the pressure crew for Saturday’s clash against Hawthorn at Optus Stadium. 

“As a forward line, all the smalls have really tried to bring things they can control,” Graham said. 

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“We feel the good forward lines do have multiple threats offensively, but they also find other ways to score, and that’s through pressure and I think all our small forwards have bought in.”

Walters stepped aside from the Fremantle leadership group this season, creating room for more youth under captain Nat Fyfe and allowing emerging star Serong to take his place. 

Michael Walters and Caleb Serong after Fremantle’s win over Melbourne in round 11, 2022. Picture: AFL Photos

Coach Justin Longmuir said at the time the club still needed Walters to be a leader of the forward line, and he has delivered in the first half of the season. 

“All our small forwards and younger forwards do look up to ‘Sonny’, so when he’s displaying the actions we want to see, it does lift the other boys around him,” Graham said.  

“Internally with our line meetings he’s been fantastic. He’s experienced, so he voices his opinion, he’s got great alignment with the coaching staff, and he just leads by example with the way he trains.

“We’ve seen a real consistent approach and a really consistent message he gives all the other small forwards.

“But then he’s actioning it himself, which is important. It’s not all through his words but also his actions.”

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