In a season where many pundits have lambasted the style of football being produced by even the best teams, Saturday night was supposed to provide all of us some salvation. For Port Adelaide, it was their chance to prove themselves against a worthy opponent, no disrespect to their previous adversaries. In their way stood Chris Fagan’s Lions, a team playing with the same dare and enthusiasm as the Power and also looking to consolidate themselves as a genuine premiership threat.

Billed as undoubtedly the match of the round, and perhaps the most anticipated contest of the season, it was the hometown Lions that made an emphatic statement, crushing the Power under their foot and never relenting. Here is the Mongrel’s review of Brisbane’s 37-victory over Port Adelaide.

 

THE BACK STORY

After falling out of the finals in straight sets in 2019, the challenge for the Lions in season 2020 was to prove that their first finals appearance since 2009 was no fluke. Looking back on a mediocre performance against the Hawks in Round 1, and suddenly the questions came thick and fast. But old Fages wasn’t concerned and used the COVID-19 shutdown to instil his young charges with a confidence that they could beat any team they came face to face with. After a round two battle against Fremantle, Brisbane confronted two weeks of teams so down on form and confidence that many wondered if the Lions had actually faced anyone decent.

Enter Port Adelaide. A team that has flirted with success for too long and delivered virtually nothing, to the point that Hinkley could’ve faced the axe if the Power had produced another wasted year. This team has taken all before them in season 2020, and after crushing everyone in their way, amassing a staggering percentage of 236%, but like the Lions, had yet to confront a significant challenge, leading to some to question whether their ladder position and percentage were a true reflection of the team.

 

THE GAME

This was supposed to be the game of the season. Both teams play fast, free flowing football that emphasized attack over defence. What actually happened was maybe the biggest letdown thus far this season, and only one team came to play and prove themselves. The first quarter ebbed and flowed, but danger signs appeared early for the Power, and although they were clearly the better side around the ground, their forward line struggled. Darcy Gardiner was a constant road block to Charlie Dixon, and the Power found themselves a point behind at quarter time, despite venturing forward more often that the Lions, as well as nailing seven scoring shots to three. Brisbane had lost midfield bull Cam Ellis-Yolmen, and if the Power could correct their wayward goal-kicking, the game would firmly be on their terms, given their first quarter ascendancy. Trailing in the inside 50, tackle, contested possession and clearance stats, the Lions needed a spark to kick-start their momentum.

After the first break, the Lions exploded, and Port Adelaide’s tall defenders were suddenly being pillared left, right and centre. It was noted pre-game that Brisbane vast array of tall forwards would give their undersized opponents trouble, and so it came to be in a barnstorming second term. Dominating the middle of the ground, Brisbane were able to give their tall targets ample opportunites to assert their aerial supremacy, and it seemed that the more ball that entered the Lions forward 50, the more likes of Clurey and McKenzie panicked and allowed far too much space for McStay and Hipwood to do their damage.

Hinkley wanted to see some fire and toughness from his men in the second half, and for small bursts the Power responded, but every time they tried to build enough momentum to mount a comeback the Lions would answer back with a settling goal and a sustained surge that killed Port off before three quarter time. The final score line does not do Brisbane justice, as their inaccuracy cost them a larger victory margin. Yes, Port Adelaide were just as disappointing in front of the big sticks, but it was the first quarter that the Power were at their worst inside forward 50, and had they been more accurate, the Power would’ve given Brisbane some scoreboard pressure in the second term when the Lions were at their attacking best.

So what does this mean for the boys from Alberton? Was this just a bad night, or do they have some real deficiencies that will ultimately cost them a flag? It seems an almost certainty that if Port are to go anywhere this season, they will have to confront the Lions at the business end of the season. Based on this thought alone, it matters not what the Power produced against the likes of Adelaide and Fremantle, and any shortages in their game plan that were exposed on Saturday night will need correcting before the finals.

For a start, the Power are too short in defence when confronted with an array of tall timber a team like Brisbane possesses. Forwards Hipwood, McStay and McInerney are all over 195cm (over 200cm in the case of Hipwood and McInerney) and Port’s tallest defender is the 193cm Tom Clurey. Port are so small in the backline that Trent McKenzie had to give up 13cm when matched up against McInerney, and Tom Jonas was deployed on McStay, and simply couldn’t go with him in the air.

However, a defender’s life is made a lot easier if the midfield in front of them is able to restrict the number of forward entries a team has. After quarter time, the Power wilted in the middle of the ground, and only Travis Boak can hold his head high on a job well done. Even though Port narrowly won the clearance battle, it was clear the middle two quarters that mattered the most, as Brisbane used this period to completely overwhelm the Power’s midfield brigade. Martin and Mclnerney were an effective ruck duo, and if the Power are to feature prominently in finals action, they need to start winning the midfield battle, not just against a second-rate outfit, but a finals bound team as well.

 

THE PLAYERS OF THE MATCH

After quarter time, it was masterclass from the Lions, and the clear best players on the ground were all wearing maroon. Starting from the backline, and Harris Andrews is quickly becoming the premier key defender in the competition. Taking on recently crowned King Charles Dixon, Andrews took the big man completely out of the game. Credit too must go to Darcy Gardiner, who not only shut down Todd Marshall, but consistently got in Dixon’s way every time he led to the ball. From a rebounding perspective, it was Daniel Rich who was his team’s main avenue when counter attacking a Power forward thrust, and his 17 kicks from 20 disposals, including nine rebounds from defensive 50, highlighting his weaponry in this Lions side. From a Port Adelaide point of view, young gun Zak Butters continued to put together a solid body of work. Perhaps the most unheralded of the Power’s three young superstars, Butters was a shining light forward of the ball, collecting 18 disposals and kicking multiple goals, the only Power player to do so.

In the middle, and once again it was Lachie Neale doing the most damage. Gathering 29 disposals at 79% efficiency, Neale was tagged by Sam Powell-Pepper, and completely outplayed him. Now the clear Brownlow Medal favourite, especially given the injury to Matt Rowell, Neale had seven clearances, five score involvements and ventured forward to impact the scoreboard. Neale was supported wonderfully by Jarryd Lyons, who amassed 27 disposals in a display that makes it more and more baffling that he was discarded by two other clubs. On the wings, it was another masterful performance from Hugh McCluggage, who was also deployed in the middle of the ground. McCluggage’s 19 touches were supreme, and he had four score involvements and three inside 50’s, but it was his seven tackles, a game high, that will please Fagan the most. Jarrod Berry also deserves recognition for his performance in the coal face too, and while he didn’t have as much of the ball as some of his teammates, Berry’s output was consistent across the four quarters, and it took the pressure off Neale and Lyons, allowing them the freedom to produce their best.

The only Power players in the centre of the ground that are deserving of praise are Travis Boak and Dan Houston. Boak was his team’s best, and maintained his composure with ball in hand consistently, even as the Power were being manhandled in the middle portion of the contest. Amassing 26 touches, 17 of which were contested, Boak was the main man in the middle for the Power, and even as the likes of Neale and Lyons were dominating, Boak was the instigator to many of Port Adelaide’s forward thrusts with his grunt work underneath Scott Lycett. Houston too was a dependable performer, and his improvement into a midfield star has benefitted Port Adelaide greatly. Houston’s 21 touches in the middle and across half back were delightful, and when Port Adelaide were going forward from a defensive counter-attack, it was Houston that was the most effective link in the chain.

Forward of the ball for the Lions, and after quarter time everything clicked into place, thanks largely to Brisbane’s stockpile of key big men. Dan McStay produced perhaps his best game in a Lions guernsey, taking a game high eight marks. Despite only gathering 11 touches; his average at this level being only 10, McStay’s aerial brilliance gave Port Adelaide headaches all night, and when he didn’t mark the ball, he made sure that it came to ground where a smaller player could take advantage. Same goes for Eric Hipwood, who played all over Tom Clurey. Taking seven marks and consistently leading to the ball, Hipwood showed a weakness in Port Adelaide’s armour that other sides will be sure to exploit. The only knock on Hipwood’s performance was his wayward goal kicking, only booting one goal for four shots. When McStay and Hipwood brought the ball to ground, it was Cam Rayner and Lincoln McCarthy who did the most damage. Gathering 15 touches, Rayner played with his usual enthusiasm for the contest, and had eight score involvements. Let’s also not forget that Rayner is still just 20 years of age, and his best football is well and truly ahead of him. McCarthy too was a problem for Ken Hinkley, and his work as a pressuring forward wore down Port Adelaide’s rebounding defenders. Despite only collecting 10 possessions, he went at 90% efficiency, and his goals were reward for outstanding individual efforts to keep the ball inside Brisbane’s attacking 50.

 

THE NERVOUS MEN

While it would be easy to say that on Saturday night’s efforts, a host of Power players should be feeling nervous during the week, the fact remains that Port will leave the Gold Coast hub top of the ladder, and the players that got them there should be given a chance to atone for their lacklustre outputs. The first player to put his hand up is Charlie Dixon, who when confronted with a worthy opponent, wilted under the constant pressure. Granted the ball that came in didn’t help him, but Dixon was almost nowhere to be found, and after dominating a Jeremy McGovern-less West Coast defence, Dixon was given a reality check against Harris Andrews. Todd Marshall too was well beaten, and Justin Westhoff had his colours lowered, even as he helped out in the ruck on occasion.

In the middle of the ground, and Port Adelaide’s usual suspects failed to fire as a collective, with only Boak playing a complete game. Hamish Hartlett, a usual smooth mover, only gathered 11 touches and while he only had 2 ineffective possessions, most of his disposals were handballs out of trouble that only put his teammates under pressure. Sam Powell-Pepper also didn’t have his best night, gathering only 13 touches opposed to best on ground Lachie Neale. When Cam Ellis-Yolmen went down with injury, the opportunity to take the midfield by the horns, but when the game was in the balance, Powell-Pepper wilted under the Lions avalanche. Lycett too was beaten by Martin and McInerney, the midfield battle was lost underneath him.

We could go on and on about the rough night experienced by Port’s defence, but it is also worth mentioning the running game that abandoned the Power under constant Brisbane pressure. Riley Bonner was his team’s main culprit, and while he gathered 14 touches, he only went at 64% efficiency and had a game high seven clangers. Trent McKenzie only touched the ball seven times, and while he was effective with ball in hand, his kicking was predictable, and more often than not the ball would come straight back into Brisbane’s forward 50. Younger players Connor Rozee and Darcy Byrne-Jones were well blanketed by their direct opponents, and both players will need to learn how to cope when being put under consistent duress. Rozee especially couldn’t get his exciting game going, and Byrne-Jones’ efforts when he didn’t have the ball left a lot to be desired. Both players failed to find their own football, instead relying on teammates to get the ball to them. When it didn’t happen, both Rozee and Byrne-Jones were ineffective.

From a Brisbane perspective, it was almost the perfect team game, however there would be a select few players that will be burning up the training track looking to atone for less than stellar displays. Cult figure Charlie Cameron worked his way into the contest, but his usual flair was left wanting, and while his game certainly wasn’t his worst by any stretch of the imagination, Cameron’s lofty standards were not met here. Young Brandon Starcevich too didn’t have the impact on the game that he’d like, collecting just five touches. He did however lay four tackles, and this should see him given another week. The only other player that will want to come out firing against Geelong on Thursday night would be Callum Ah Chee. Life at Brisbane has begun adequately for Ah Chee, but the former number 8 pick in the 2015 draft will be keen to show the Lions faithful more than he produced on Saturday night. Collecting just five disposals, Ah Chee was overshadowed by many teammates and didn’t need to impact the game as much, but now in his fifth season at AFL level, Ah Chee will want to start making his own way in a team that looks headed for much success a little further down the road.

 

A game that promised so much and ultimately delivered so little, this will go down in the 2020 season as a match that raised more questions than it answered. Are Port Adelaide really as good as their ledger shows? Have the Lions officially turned the corner into premiership favouritism? How will both team fare now that their hub expeditions have concluded? Is Lachie Neale’s path to the Brownlow Medal now clear?

Hub life has been grand for Port Adelaide, but they were given a cold, hard reality check courtesy of a superior Lions unit, one that Ken Hinkley’s men will likely need to confront again later in the season if the Power are to fight for premiership glory. This game is easy when your opponents are veritable witches’ hats, but if you want success you must achieve excellence when the going is tough. One team did it, the other crumbled under the pressure. It is now in Port Adelaide’s hands to prove that this performance was the anomaly, not the previous three performances against the lesser teams.

For Brisbane, this was their biggest challenge thus far this year, and they passed the test with flying colours. Enjoying no obvious weakness, and possessing perhaps the best players in their position (Andrews in defence, Neale in the middle and Cameron forward), this Lions outfit is marching towards its first flag since 2003, and if they are to get there, they will need to keep confronting and dispatching challengers such as the Power on a regular basis.