Standing tall, small, deep, high – Luke Ryan’s malleability has left him searching for that perfect place in defence.
Undersized but not undaunted, the past two seasons have seen Ryan march his 186cm frame to the last line of defence.
Not this year.
Key defenders Brennan Cox, Joel Hamling, Alex Pearce and Griffin Logue are all fit and firing at the same time, a luxury that has brought on weekly selection headaches.
It’s forced Ryan to fashion an identity shift, the 26-year-old equally a victim and beneficiary of his flexibility.
“I haven’t really cemented my spot yet in terms of what I want to do this year,” Ryan said.
“It’s the first time in about three years I reckon we’ve had our key defenders fit and available.
“My role has changed a bit. One week I’m tall, next week I’m small. I’m deep, then I’m up high. It’s a good problem to have I guess.
“The last two years playing tall, I’ve always been needed at long, down the line contests.
“But going a bit smaller, I’ve had to work on crumbing and blocking out other small blokes and my positioning. I’m enjoying the challenge at the moment. It’s a good learning for me.”
Deemed one of the league’s best six defenders in 2020, All-Australian status came with the pressure to back it up.
But that burden irks Ryan and the pursuit of his desires.
“I don’t care about any of that, to be honest,” he said.
“I don’t care about best and fairests or All-Australian blazers. They’re just a bonus.
“I just want to play finals footy so whatever role that is, deep, tall, small, I’ll do to make sure we have the right team balance and we’re playing Freo footy.”
Ryan lights up discussing the next generation instead, heaping praise on emerging defenders Brandon Walker and Heath Chapman who hold the keys to Fremantle’s future fortunes.
“I’ve always said Chappy is probably my favourite player I get to play with. He’s going to be one of Fremantle’s best backmen I reckon, probably ever,” he said.
“He’s so courageous and strong and tough for a kid. He’s so composed. Nothing fazes him. It’s pretty cool to see. I love watching him go about his business.
“They’ve improved so quickly before my eyes. I remember when Don (Walker) first came to the club, he was a way off (selection) and he’s come on really quickly and is probably in our starting seven defenders.
“The work they do off the field and what people don’t see is really impressive.”
Second-year backline coach Matthew Boyd has risen to the task of blending old and new.
And with the midfield and forward line on the same page, it’s aided the Dockers’ defensive evolution.
“We’ve been a pretty good defensive side for a couple of years but it’s been about connection between lines,” Ryan said.
“We want to be a team that’s hard to play against that never gives up. We always want to push to the end and limit scoring as much as possible so when teams come up against us they think ‘oh no we have to play Freo again.’
“We’re building that brand, it will take some time but we’re getting there.”
We’ve got our two big boys in Brennan Cox and Alex Pearce so they’ll handle them. They’re a pretty good forward line so we’ve got to be on our toes.
Fremantle face another test of their maturity at Marvel Stadium on Sunday, seeking to end a five-game interstate losing streak against Essendon which dates back to 2010.
And Ryan may have to stand tall yet again, with the Bombers boasting in-form forward Peter Wright and rotating ruckmen Andrew Phillips and Sam Draper.
“Peter Wright is probably one of the best forwards in the comp at the moment in the form he’s in and the two resting ruckmen which a lot of teams are doing,” he said.
“We’ve got our two big boys in Brennan Cox and Alex Pearce so they’ll handle them. They’re a pretty good forward line so we’ve got to be on our toes.
“If we’re going to play finals footy, we need to win away games. I think we’ve matured a lot more. We’re a lot more structured and team-based. It’s going to be a good challenge.”