Time for round one, where we put a line under the endless “X player is training the house down” headlines and start seeing who can make it happen when the boots cross the white line.

Brisbane have been touted as a premiership contender by quite a lot of people, and it’s understandable with their recent strength, as well as their new and returning players.

For Brisbane, Darcy Fort pulls on the maroon for the first time after coming over from Geelong, while they also welcome the return of Cam Rayner after an ACL injury that had him sidelined for all of 2021 after injuring it in a preseason match against Gold Coast.

For Port, Father-Son recruit Jackson Mead makes his debut, while Jeremy Finlayson comes across from GWS to augment Port’s forward line.

Both teams will have taken a lot of positives out of this match, with port looking great in the first half while Brisbane showed their potential when they shut Port down from mid-way through the third quarter to run out 11 point winners.

 

The start

It was great to see Aliir Aliir running straight to Daniher. I’ll go through that matchup later, but it’s nice when coaches cooperate to give the public the sort of head-to-head contests they pay their memberships for.

The game was off to a quick start as a centre-tap scramble allowed McCluggage to make his presence felt immediately. A quick 1-2 with Berry gave him some space and allowed him to deliver the ball with surgical precision to Darcy Fort, just between the two defenders trying to cut off the pass.

If Fort felt the pressure of his first touch for his new team, it didn’t show as he went back and calmly converted to give Brisbane the opening goal of the match.

There have been column inches aplenty writing about the new holding the ball interpretation, as well as the quick 50 for any backchat. With that in mind the non-call on Sam Powell-Pepper was very confusing. Houston’s long kick to the forward flank bounced in front of SPP as he left the ground to take the ball. Now, he doesn’t have prior opportunity before he collects the ball, but he stands up in the tackle and looks for a person to handball to. That’s fine, but he had about eight options and chose to wait for a better one for all of five seconds. Now, that may not seem like much, but counting each second at a time makes it seem far too long. If that’s not holding the ball under the new rules, then there needs to be more clarification, because that was as plum as it gets.

Robbie Gray then headed down to the changerooms to get his knee re-strapped. Port supporters held their breath, but he re-emerged about five minutes later and went straight back to his spot in the forward line.

Finlayson also had a chance to show his value to his new side with a push call in the pocket near the point post, but just couldn’t bend the banana well enough and pushed it across the face for a point.

Both teams looked a bit hesitant for much of the first quarter, seeming to be reluctant to get into a higher gear in the first competitive outing, but they soon found a bit more motivation when Xavier Duursma was knocked to the ground from front-on contact with Mitch Robinson. The commentary team was split between automatically putting him out for a couple and admitting he didn’t have much choice and was entitled to protect himself. I’ll go through it in more detail later, but the ensuing fracas spurred the teams into a bit more intensity.

Duursma took his kick and looked keen to continue, but a few minutes later he was running to the bench holding his arm by his chest in the way you do when you’ve got a collar bone issue. The medicos were checking him out, but the wince he gave when they pinched him on the left decolletage reminded me of that time I had to get my dog vaccinated at the vet. Xavier had the same “How dare you, I must bite you now” sort of expression, so I hope the medical staff were quick enough to get a cone of shame onto him before one of them got injured.

Port had to wait a little while for a chance to open their account, but continual pressure and repeat entries gave the ever-youthful Travis Boak a chance to rove a boundary throw in near the point post, take a couple of steps and snap over his shoulder for port’s first goal in 2022.

The commentators keep mentioning that he’s in the twilight of his career, but at 33 he could have 4 more years in him, and he’s still looking great. His sitting on 307 games, so it’s not impossible that he could be the next player to hit 400, assuming Mundy, Pendlebury or Selwood don’t get there first. If he’s good enough to be in the best 22, keep him there. He’s an undeniable talent and has earned his spot, even if he was born the year the first Die Hard movie came out, and before the fall of the Berlin wall.

Just before quarter time, Darcy Fort made the most of a ruck infringement to make the most of his shot from about 30 metres out. Not a lot in the call, but you can’t blame the lad for nodding and taking his shot. The interesting part was just how hard Joe Daniher was working in the lead up, with nothing to show for it. He might have been a victim of his own reputation a moment earlier when he was working against Lachie Jones on the boundary line, paddled the ball forward rather than take possession and Jones grabbing a handful of Daniher’s jumper. Joe’s hardly alone in the “forwards that put a lot of mayo on infringements” stakes, but I would have given him that one.

One good thing about the penalty for disputing decisions is that we weren’t subjected to a tantrum there. Forwards get away with a lot, it’s nice to see a big name just shrug to himself and get back to the game. This new rule gets a big thumbs up.

 

An old-fashioned tussle

Duursma pulled on the jacket in the break and Stevie Motlop took to the field to replace him, looking every bit as nonchalant about the game as you’d expect from the lad. I’m certain he’d have a few butterflies in his stomach coming in part-way through a game, but you’d never know it. He’s so laid back he’s practically horizontal.

Port moved the ball with purpose in the second, playing on as much as they could, and shaking off the hesitancy of the first quarter. It paid off when Karl Amon took a mark on the defensive side of centre-wing, and Zorko saw Houston running by him, deciding to tackle Amon as he stared at his teammate running by. He hadn’t actually attempted to pass though, so a 50 was given, moving Amon within range to 45 metres out, and he kicked truly to bring it back to a one point margin.

Port maintained the free-flowing run with surges through the corridor, paying off with Houston and Mead combining in a 1-2 from the centre circle to the 50-metre arc that let Houston launch one right through the big sticks.

Brisbane responded quickly with McStay finding Rayner open in the guts, Rayner then drew a player before handing off to McCarthy, and McCarthy slots one from the 50 metre arc as casually as you’d like.

Motlop received a free about 70 metres from goal, and set up Todd Marshall with an excellent kick that played to his advantages. Nothing feels worse to a defender than seeing the ball landing right on your head as you hear the thundering footsteps of a huge key forward coming up from behind you. Sure, Marshall is about 15 kilos shy of someone like Fraser Gehrig, but 90+ kgs at pace still has some force behind it. Marshall converted, and shortly after Connor Rozee was tackled without it from a quick centre break. Rozee converted giving Port a ten point lead.

The game proceeded with some fairly ordinary lateral movement and interceptions, but the ground crew were saying that the humidity and dew was making it like a wet weather game. I’m inclined to disagree a bit on how much that would impact the skills. To use a Formula 1 analogy, it looked like it was more the weather for intermediate tyres than full wets, so a little bit of difficulty could be forgiven. Blatant miskicks and handballs to player’s backs could not.

Late in the quarter, Aliir Aliir was having a well-earned rest on the bench, having kept Daniher’s impact to the bare minimum, leaving the job to veteran defender Trent McKenzie. With McKenzie’s seven years at the Gold Coast, he should have been well adjusted to the Queensland humidity, so it’s a bit unfortunate for him that his first one-on-one with Daniher was a peach of a delivery by Zorko that was just perfect for Daniher to take in the air, arms extended, allowing McKenzie no chance to spoil.

Daniher had already missed to the left and missed to the right, but goldilocked this one right through the middle to open his 2022 account. A few minutes later he managed to mark just outside the goal square with three seconds on the clock. He slowly stood up and saw Nakai Cockatoo strolling towards him completely open, so he decided to gift him a goal. A very generous thought, but while the ball was in mid air, the siren blew and the score didn’t count, probably earning him a few “Joe, WTF?” looks from the coaching staff as he went into the rooms and attempted to hide behind Oscar McInerny.

Port entered the half-time break with a four point lead, but looked to be willing to take the game on a little more than the home side.

 

Port turn the screws

Port were dominant for much of the third quarter, moving the ball quickly and maintaining their possession in the forward half.

Sam Powell-Pepper had been working hard all day, but with little to show for it (and a couple of clangers to go with some great work), but his bodywork to take front position on a perfect Ollie Wines kick earned him a mark and a free. Whatever the call was, he converted and put his side further ahead.

They struggled to penetrate a determined Brisbane defence, with Rich, Starcevich and Adams making sure the Port forwards felt every tackle. Harris Andrews was his usual miserly self, organising the defensive structure and leading the back six in the way we’ve expected from the dual All-Australian.

Eventually though, even the best defences crack when placed under too much pressure. Port’s control of the corridor gave them too many options going forward, and halfway through the term, they opened the floodgates.

Goals to Mitch Georgiades, Steven Motlop and Willem Drew, with only one major to Brisbane through Zac Bailey had Port sitting on a four goal lead with just a couple of minutes left in the quarter.

There was no junk time in this game though, as Brisbane found their rhythm and kept rebounding hard to keep the scoreboard ticking over with shots at goal, but just weren’t able to convert their opportunities.

Joe Daniher managed to sneak one by sitting off the front of the pack and roving the ball well while Aliir was at the marking contest, spoiling the ball. That’s the problem with being a defender, every goal the opposition scores counts against all of you, but the ones your direct opponent scores count for double against you personally.

 

Brisbane fight back

Port could be justifiably pleased going into three quarter time with a 15 point advantage. They’d worked very hard all evening and managed to limit the influence of some of Brisbane’s dangerous smalls, like Charlie Cameron and Dayne Zorko, the latter going off with a foot injury.

Fagan put a challenge to his players, and the players responded with a wider structure to allow some easier ball movement if their disposal was clean. For much of the quarter, it was absolutely pristine as they managed to hit moving teammates at full tilt with regularity, dispelling the earlier criticism of the humidity causing skill errors.

Daniher added another one, standing back from Lincoln McCarthy as he ran towards an open goal with a dribbling ball to receive the deft tap when Aliir ran to stop the goal,

The Port box would have already felt a little uneasy with how often the ball was making it into the Brisbane forward line, but their concerns would have multiplied when Trent McKenzie landed flat-footed and stiff-legged in a marking contest, jarring his knee. The human knee is the McDonald’s Soft Serve machine of the human body, breaking from activities you’d expect would be part of the design features. The fact he immediately grabbed his left knee as he fell and was put onto the golf cart and straight into the rooms makes it seem like he’ll be spending some time in the rehab group. They didn’t give him the old green whistle though, so maybe there might be some good news for him and it’ll only be a short stint on the sidelines.

Some end-to-end ball movement gave Daniher a chance to take a great mark, leaping above the arms of Aliir to convert. Those two goals show why Daniher is lauded as such a talent, being able to take the big grabs expected of a key forward, but not too proud to sit off the pack and take the easy handoff either.

Hey, a goal is a goal, whether it’s a seventy-metre torp from the boundary or a two-metre toe poke. I’d probably be a bigger fan of Daniher if he took those screamers more often, but I can’t fault him for taking the easy ones when they present themselves. Besides, you don’t need to like the bloke to recognise him as a talent.

Daniher’s goal cut Port’s lead to a single point, and with a reduced bench, Port looked vulnerable. Brisbane is the last club you want to show your belly to, and they pounced like their namesake on a floundering antelope.

They kept pushing and repelling Port’s forward movement, while Port had slowed their wave running through the middle to avoid being caught on the rebound. This is where belief plays so much part in this sport. When teams are up and about, players will leave their opponent and gut-run 120 metres to be an option as they move the ball forward. When there’s that moment of hesitation, players stay back and then the run is stifled because there’s not enough support to give the ball carrier options.

Brisbane had the confidence in their back line to leave their man at the other end of the field to help their teammates. Port didn’t. They played it safe, and it cost them.

Brisbane were moving the ball quickly, and with support. They did have a bit of luck go their way too, with the next goal coming from a rare error from Aliir, as he was hanging back in defence as Berry put in a long kick to space from the centre circle, only for Aliir to sit underneath it all alone and watch it fall between his fingers and land on his thigh as he fell backwards and rolled away like the proverbial meatball, off the table and out the door. While he was recovering from his impromptu floor routine, Nakai Cockatoo swooped on the ball, gathered it and drew the high contact. The ball spilled forward and Lincoln McCarthy played on to kick a gimme goal from a metre out.

Port’s backline was already fatigued and undermanned, but this one took the wind out of their sails completely.

The lead up to Oscar McInerny’s goal showed this in spades, as Lincoln McCarthy attempted to use the ball on the wing. Robinson kicked a decent ball to him, but when Lachie Jones crashed the pack, McCarthy spilled the ball forward. No problem, he kept his feet (earning the barest approving lowering of one eyebrow from Leigh Matthews), chased and collected the ball, then bounced it near the boundary line. The ball skidded behind him and he had to double-back to gather it again, while Jones, Houston and Darcy Byrne-Jones attempted to seize the moment, but they’d already slowed down to a jog and McCarthy had too much time. Still, Byrne-Jones managed to effect a spoil as McCarthy attempted to kick on his left, but McCluggage collected the loose ball to give it back to McCarthy, who finally managed an effective disposal in the passage of play to hit up McStay.

Four chances to force a turnover, and Brisbane still managed to come away with it.

McStay would have found his options obvious when he looked up to see Daniher and Cameron running towards the near pocket, while Rayner and Bailey kept high near the top of the arc, giving McInerny the whole goalsquare and an extra twenty metres surrounding him to himself. “Kick it to the big bloke” has been a part of the game for more than a century, and when that bloke happens to be 205 cm and 110kg, it’s not a hard choice to make.

The only person with any chance of effecting a spoil was Jackon Mead, who seemed to be trying to time his run, but hesitated and ended up too far behind to have any impact. It’s unlikely he’d have had any chance really, and a debutant trying to take on the Big O would always be a difficult task, but it’d have been nice to see him try and make a name for himself, even if he ended up bouncing off McInerny’s frame and risked having his bones ground up to make Big O’s bread.

That goal gave Brisbane a two goal lead, and the crowd was roaring their approval.

Dan Houston showed they hadn’t packed up shop though, as he wheeled around the top of the arc to kick a 55 metre goal in an almost lazy way, if that’s possible. Like it was shelling peas. It was lucky he took the kick when he did, because he took more than 17 steps, and one more might have had the ump ruin the moment with a whistle.

Port had showed enormous heart against their highly-rated opponent, but the fatigue, oppressive humidity and mounting injury list combined to sap them of their ability to get over the line.

Brisbane quickly moved the ball forward from the bounce and Charlie Cameron put the sealer on the game after a very quiet night.

Port had a few more opportunities, but nothing that was a high-percentage shot, such as Powell-Pepper’s attempt from the boundary 40 metres out ended up being rushed through.

Brisbane iced the clock with some confident movement, despite the best efforts of players like Boak and Houston, who battled all day.

 

New Faces

Jackson Mead is Port’s first “true” Father-Son. While Brad Ebert can also claim to be a F-S prospect, his old man was a Port Magpie, and had never pulled on a power strip, whereas Jackson’s father Darren had 122 games in the black, white and teal.

The first thing I noticed about the lad is that he’s a lot shorter than his old man, giving up three inches and about 15 kilos to Darren. Actually, that’s a lie. The first thing I noticed was that he must be on a great salary, because at current oil prices he has about $7,500 worth of bubblin’ crude all over his arms. Even Tom Hawkins would have looked at him and said to himself “This lad is going a bit overboard here…”. Jackson had so much oil on him that he could have been the frictionless environment that physics professors have been talking about. I was half expecting to see Greenpeace turn up, cover him in towels and scrub the oil off him while they released him back into the wild.

 

Midfield battle

Despite the outcome, Port had the upper hand in the midfield battle. Boak, Wines, Houston, Amon and Butters (Thaaat’s me!) had a lot of the ball and were generally good with their disposal.

What cost the Power was that Brisbane rotated a lot more players through the middle, with Neale, McCluggage, Fort, Zorko, Lyons, Robinson, Berry, Rayner and Lyons all rotating through. Even when Zorko went down, they had the depth to cover and adapt.

Lycett and Finlayson were passable in the ruck, but McInerny and Fort had a lot more control of the tap, while adding scoring options arounds the ground.

Still, I’d give Port the nod for the midfield, mostly because even when they lost the tap, their swarming attack on the ball forced it into a neutral spot or gave them a chance at gathering it themselves. There could even be an argument that in drier conditions, they’d have had more of a gas tank and walked away with the four points here, but it’s far too early in the season for the “if only” game yet.

 

Aliir Aliir vs Joe Daniher

Ah, the defender’s lament.

Daniher was kept out of the game for much of the first half, and really only started to have an impact once Aliir was rested. Once he found his groove though, he caused all sorts of problems for the Port defence, taking marks, positioning off the pack, and leading to spaces that gave his teammates their own open leading lanes.

That’s an underrated part of forward craft—putting in a dummy lead that pulls your defender away from a fellow forward. While Aliir was on top, Daniher kept trying to match up on him, but as he worked himself into the game, making Aliir pay for running off him put Aliir in two minds, made ven worse when McKenzie went off with a knee injury late in the game.

As much as I’d like to give Aliir the big tick of approval here, Daniher outsmarted him too often in the second half, though Aliir’s colours were far from lowered, considering how much quality ball was coming into the Brisbane forward line.

 

Robbo’s hit on Duursma

Mid-way through the first, Mitch Robinson went into the book for this hit on Xavier Duursma:

https://www.afl.com.au/video/722559/robinson-could-be-in-mro-trouble-after-this-heavy-bump?videoId=722559&modal=true&type=video&publishFrom=1647682512001

The commentary team was split on pre-emptively sentencing him to a week or two, or acknowledging that he was protecting himself and mostly stationary when he took the hit while also attempting to gather the ball for himself.

It’s a fact that the AFL will likely look at the outcome of this hit, and render a penalty accordingly. If Duursma looks to be spending time on the sidelines, so will Robinson.

Personally, I’m not a fan of that. The game allows for attempted striking to be a charge, so it’s not always about outcome. Last week we saw Braydon Maynard ruled out for two weeks for a spoil gone wrong that left Daniel Lloyd with a concussion. Maynard made contact with the ball, but his motion meant that the follow through caught Lloyd on the side of the head with the forearm. Lloyd then fell heavily, bouncing his head off the ground.

Was the concussion from the hit or the fall, or doesn’t it matter?

Consistency says Robinson will get a week or two, but I’ve always been a fan of the idea that if a player’s sole intention is to attack the ball, then any incidental contact should be considered part of the game. Many will disagree with me, and that’s fine, always happy to have that discussion, but I think that sometimes the current interpretation of the game rewards people who put themselves in danger rather than those trying to contest the ball. There needs to be a balance that also encourages players to protect themselves at all times.

You could argue that Maynard took his eyes off the ball and looked at Lloyd (and indeed the AFL did just that). In this incident, Robinson seems to be looking to gather a dribbling ball, but Duursma manages to get his fingertips to it and claim it just ahead of Robinson. He hasn’t even had time to pull the ball into his grip when the contact comes. Robinson seems to realise he’s a moment late, and with his forward momentum, he can’t avoid contact so turns sideways.

If he attempted to move laterally, he’d have to stick a leg out and risk Duursma falling across it. If a player has to choose between a suspension for two weeks or a season with a ruptured set of knee ligaments, they’ll take the two in a heartbeat.

But, the one thing missing from this equation is that Duursma didn’t make an effort to protect himself. I know a lot of people will howl about this, but the player has to take some responsibility for their own protection. It simply has to be that way if we’re ever going to make a meaningful impact at reducing concussions.

The argument can also be made that by rewarding players who put their head into a tackle, the AFL has created this exact type of incident—players now do it by default to draw the free. And that’s great when the player can pop back up again, but it’s not impossible that rewarding this method of attack without incentivizing a player defending themselves creates a greater opportunity for injury than putting all the duty of care on the opposition player.

Maybe I’m just an old fart, and I’m sure someone in the comments will let me know if that’s the case (and they might have a point), but I’d like to see players have it drilled into them how to take contact, how to pull their neck in and bring their shoulders up, and to always turn into contact so they take it on the side or hip, even if it means they give away a holding the ball decision.

It’s not ideal, but if we keep allowing players to stick their head into contact, someone will get a broken neck. Keep most of the responsibility on the tackler, sure, but don’t absolve the person taking the contact just because they’re the ones getting hurt.

And that’s my Kane Cornes impression for the day, feel free to let me know how you feel about it in the comments below.

 

Next up

In the post-match interview, Hinkley said “If we play like that, we’ll win more than we lose” and I think he’s on the money there. Brisbane are a top-tier side that can hurt you from every position. Port were also unlucky to have a few injury concerns as the match wore on, but their willingness to take the game on and keep pushing hard to make the contest will serve them well in 2022 if they can keep it up.

They will host Hawthorn for round 2. While Hawthorn will take confidence from their win over North, travelling to Adelaide oval to take on port might prove to be beyond them. Port by 22.

Brisbane will also be on the road, heading to the revamped Marvel stadium for their match against Essendon. Joe Daniher will no doubt draw the attention of the Bombers crowd, and how he handles that will go a long way to determining how difficult his team find this match up. If he gets a few on the board early, the crowd will likely stick to muttering and sniping from the outer, but if he sprays a few or goes to ground too easy, you can bet they’ll let him know about it.

Even with the rabid Bomber’s fans giving him some lip, I’m way too bullish on the Lions to see them losing this one. Brisbane by 32.

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