By Chris Pike, Originally posted WAFC here
ROB Wiley learned plenty about his East Fremantle team in his first season in charge in 2016 and now he's looking for the Sharks to take the next step and improve on their consistency in 2017.
Wiley returned to Western Australia from Carlton to coach East Fremantle last year. The Sharks started the season impressively including big wins over the two teams that finished in the top two positions on the ladder at the end of the home and away season, Subiaco and South Fremantle.
That saw East Fremantle sit in a good spot with a 7-4 record after Round 12, but the Sharks lost seven of the last nine games from there to finish just one game and percentage out of the finals. And that was only due to an eight-goal Round 23 loss to East Perth.
Injuries along the way to Brock O'Brien, George Hampson, Matthew Jupp, Cam Eardley and the departure of Josh Simpson didn’t help, but Wiley learned a lot about the WAFL and his team in his first season back in WA.
Wiley was impressed with the standard of the competition that he saw last year and saw plenty to like, and plenty to learn from, with the way the Sharks went as he looks for them to grow further in 2017.
"We are 12 months further on from when I started and we've been able to continue to work on the style of footy that we want to play, and we have lots of new faces and there is a good vibe around the place," Wiley told Sportsday WA.
"When I first started at East Fremantle I said I wanted the boys to enjoy their footy and we needed to build a culture where we would be good enough to firstly get success and sustain it. I went into the WAFL fully understanding that it's semi-professional and that guys worked, guys studied and some of them both work and study so you need some flexibility to accommodate that.
"I knew what I was getting into and I was pleasantly surprised last year. I thought the standard of competition was very good and that's why we need to improve. We just missed out on the finals last year and we needed to improve in a number of areas that we identified both as a coaching staff and leadership group. We've tried to work on that this pre-season."
The Sharks will be buoyed with the return from Collingwood of Jonathon Marsh.
Wiley is particularly excited by his addition and he will either end up a significant help to Jupp, Sam Read, Dylan Winton, Ryan Lester-Smith, Andrew Stephen and Jayden Schofield down back. Or be another option in attack with fellow recruit Jesse Mirco, Matthew Watson and Brett Peake.
"It was a real bonus to get him back. As a contracted AFL player, you might think in years to come Johnno Marsh might come back to the Sharks but he was disillusioned for a number of reasons. But since he walked through the doors he has been amazing," he said.
"He has trained hard, he has been able to drag a lot of the young guys who he had some connection with through the colts to help them train much better. Connor Regan is one who has been outstanding on the training track and Miles Franklin too, and they are both good mates with him.
"He is that big-bodied player that we didn’t quite have last year so he ticks a lot of boxes for us. He is loving his footy at the moment and the biggest thing for us is where do we play him to get the most value out of him."
Two players that Wiley got the best out of in 2016 undoubtedly was Lester-Smith and Schofield.
Both players have always been enormously talented, but it was roles in the back-line where they can set up play, provide run and carry, and use the ball well that suited both of them perfectly.
The result was career-best form for the pair with Lester-Smith averaging 19.4 possessions in his 20 games while Schofield cemented his spot after starting the year in the reserves with 22.9 disposals a game.
Both of them are now 76-plus game WAFL players and Wiley can't speak more highly of them.
"I've only been here 15 months and both Ryan Lester-Smith and Jayden Schofield have been outstanding. Their energy on the track, their willingness to improve has been fantastic, and they are the modern day backmen," Wiley said.
"Both are attacking players who find the ball, and use it really well. They are still both very young men as well so they have a lot of improvement, but they will certainly be a huge part of us in trying to get the back-line right and the way that we play going. If we can get the ball in their hands more often than not, they will set us up going forward."
One player who turned out to be a real bonus for Wiley in 2016 was veteran Brett Peake.
Having retired at the end of 2014 and sitting out of the WAFL in 2015, Wiley was able to talk him into a return and it turned out to be a masterstroke.
Peake went on to kick 40 goals for the season, 18 more than the next best at the Sharks, and even starred in his first appearance for WA kicking seven goals in a thumping win over Tasmania.
Wiley is hoping for more of the same in 2017, but it's his leadership and example he sets that is even more important.
"He has been fantastic again and we have a pretty young squad, so having his experience around is outstanding," he said.
"He's now a dad as well so that's a first for him, but he will be fronting up again and we look forward to that. He played some great football for us last year and not only does he want to do that again, but he mentors a lot of our young guys and they really look up to him."
It was hard to not notice the influence that a fully healthy, or an absent or hurt, George Hampson had on East Fremantle in 2017.
When he was up and going, he was able to play in the midfield and dominate to get the ball forward while also then spending time in attack as one of the most dangerous players around goal in the competition.
With him firing, the Sharks not only would win more often than not but do so emphatically. However, he was again limited to 14 games through injury and Wiley is hoping to see him stay on the park more in 2017.
"He seems to always have an injury or two, but he has worked really hard in the gym coming into this season to make sure he can be more consistent about getting on the park," he said.
"There's no doubting his talent and he is a really important player for us, and he has a lot to offer and is fairly young. His focus is on getting his body right and if he can, he will again be a very good player for us and help us climb the ladder."
As always, there are players to move on coming into a new season as well with James Bristow and Mitch Boyle moving away from the Sharks, but Wiley hasn’t given up hope that Brock O'Brien could still make an appearance.
"Jim Bristow decided he wanted to travel this year, Brock O'Brien had surgery towards the end of last year and he's still struggling with that a little bit so he has decided to pull back," Wiley said.
"The door is always still open to Brock and we are hoping he can come back. Mitch Boyle also got a job up in Geraldton so he's moved there, but basically the rest have stayed and we've added to that list."