R17 – Port Adelaide v Western Bulldogs – The Mongrel Review


Although this is all happening after the fact, it’s worth thinking about who these teams have been so far in 2024.

The Bulldogs started the round outside the Eight with the AFL’s third best percentage, while Port Adelaide are debatably in some kind of freefall, having swapped the lofty heights of third after Round 11 for seventh after losses to Carlton, GWS, Brisbane, and a narrow win over a struggling St. Kilda.

Two teams whose defining characteristic this season has been their ability to shoot themselves in the foot right as they seem to have an understanding of who they are. This was the kind of game where you ignore ladder position, ignore form, even ignore the basic grind of quarter to quarter AFL football because the game can change on a dime, minute to minute.

On one hand, it wasn’t a surprise that one of these teams started like a bullet from a gun. Rozee had 18, Butters 14, Wines 13 touches in the first quarter as the Power took a five-goal lead that still didn’t feel like they’d taken total advantage of the opportunities they’d generated, while the Dogs had kicked themselves out of the quarter with a couple of dodgy set shots and some poor discipline.

On the other hand, it was a surprise that the lead largely stayed that way. Port Adelaide won the remaining three quarters 10.10.70 to 8.4.52, with that three goal margin feeling more appropriate to pregame expectations. Unfortunately for Bulldogs supporters, football games (and anything with quarters, really) contain four quarters, not three.

I’ve had my criticisms of the pressure gauge they display occasionally on the television broadcast, mainly due to its lack of transparency as to what any of it means, but it’s generally a good indicator of the state of the match. It seems to me that teams prefer to have a higher pressure number, so when it flashed up in the first quarter that both teams were under 150, it felt noteworthy. More noteworthy was that it led to what was described on the call as a “skillfest”, which follows logically – Butters, Rozee and Wines are all players who thrive when they have room to move around, and the lack of pressure allowed them to see an awful lot of the ball early. Not to say that they can’t get hard ball, obviously. Easy ball is just easier. It’s in the name. The team played as they did, notching 117 disposals to 70 in the first quarter, 87 to 67 in the second. Not what you want to allow in a match-winning first quarter.

In addition to the pressure (on the field) the Bulldogs were dealing with another unfamiliar (barometric) pressure. This is a team who’s played five in a row at Marvel Stadium with the roof closed, and they seemed genuinely affected by the wind in the first quarter. It sounds silly, because what professional sporting outfit would care about a bit of wind, but seemingly this one did. Silly misses, kicking where they should’ve handballed, just basic issues that didn’t take the conditions into consideration all contributed to the first quarter deficit.

I’m not sure what Luke Beveridge was thinking at quarter time. It’s not an insurmountable lead, as displayed by GWS later on the very same day. I don’t want to speak too authoritatively on the subject because I’m not a coach, but it feels like the Dogs could’ve chewed this lead back if they gummed the game up. Bring their other midfielders into the contest. Bont and Libba are big bodied fellas who thrive in the contest, and with Port Adelaide’s trio dicing them up in a low pressure game, you wonder what would’ve happened had they turned up the heat after quarter time. The same is true for the wind, such as that affected them. More quick handballs keeps the ball down and has the added bonus of keeping your key men around the contest and in a position where they can have the most impact. You saw a version of this in the fourth quarter, when the Bont had 10 of his 21 touches and kicked 1.2. On one hand, that suggests an alternate reality where the Dogs jam the game up and it ends differently. On the other, they only won the quarter by four points, and you’d forgive the Power for already having put the cue in the rack.

It has to be hard at times to be Jason Horne-Francis, and not even for the reasons you’d necessarily think. This is a guy who was taken first in his draft class, made a highly publicised call to return home, and finds himself in a team where he’s not even first choice in his role. Or second choice. Sometimes not even third choice. You’ve gotta imagine he finds himself occasionally wondering why they bothered going for him, when he’s not necessarily a player they need or want. The first half of this game showed why, even if not on the stat sheet, and the second half proved it where the first half didn’t.

When three of your teammates are getting so much of the ball, as Rozee, Butters and Wines were, you’ve gotta find another way to impact the game, off-ball. The Bulldogs had to keep him honest and respect his movement, leading to his off-ball runs dragging players out of position and creating gaps for the blokes with the ball. The follow-on effect of this stretching of the Bulldogs inside midfielders contributed at least in part to the low pressure front that defined the first quarter, and low pressure was where the other three midfielders thrived. Playing his role as he did in the first half was rewarded in the second, adding 13 touches (9 contested) and kicking 2.1 in a low-scoring third quarter.

In such a talented midfield, it cannot always be your time. Horne-Francis seems to be acutely aware of this, and it is his willingness to sacrifice for his teammates, and they for him when it is his turn, that could see this cohort develop into the best in the competition.

It feels fitting that even though the final scoreline was comprehensive, only two players had real four quarter performances. Unfortunately, one of those performances had a real tangible outcome and the other would’ve needed a hand.

First, Mitch Georgiades. With a career-high five goals, he was single-handedly outscoring the Bulldogs for much of the match, and looked likely every time he was targeted inside 50. Not an easy thing to continuously haul in marks and provide scoreboard pressure in a match where consistency was hard to come by. Second, Adam Treloar grafted hugely. Led his team for disposals, tackles, contested possession, but didn’t have a run with partner for him to truly punish the Power with ball in hand. Not necessarily a knock – very few players can do it all – but it shows the difference between what makes a genuine matchwinner and what makes a merely very good midfielder.

Speaking of genuine matchwinners, I’ve already touched on Bont’s big fourth quarter (which still has reasons you’d be able to discount it), but it’s worth pointing out how disappointing he was for the other three. Back to back flu games in wins over Fremantle and North Melbourne, but in his first game with zero injury concerns he plummeted back down to earth. Maybe even a bit farther.

Perhaps he should catch a cold this week?

There are a couple of reasons why evaluating this game can’t exist in a vacuum. Naughton’s injury changed the mathematics of the game, with pregame evaluations of the Bulldogs talls vs. Port Adelaide’s zone defence being upturned early as the Dogs struggled to find an impactful combination. If Naughton didn’t get injured, they would’ve had a more credible aerial threat going forward, which would take some pressure off Darcy and Ugle-Hagan. In trying to find this threat, they swung Lobb forward and Darcy back, exposing the forward line to the vagueries Lobb introduced and trying to make Sam Darcy quell an already shit hot Georgiades. A big injury in retrospect.

The legacy of this game is likely to be Port Adelaide being either unable or unwilling to genuinely kill this game off as a contest. With the ladder so tight and the quality of each team being as close as you could ever reasonably remember it being, it feels as if the big divide is whether or not you can make the conscious decision to go on and win the game, rather than try and hold on to a lead. The Bulldogs did well to stem the bleeding after the first quarter, but were unable to go forward and inflict any bleeding of their own.

Obviously, Port Adelaide won the remaining three quarters, but you’d think that a better team – or a team who don’t have a key forward go out of the game early – would have the capacity to turn the game around. There’s every chance that we see a repeat of this type of game later in the season or in September – a fast starting Port Adelaide accepting a lead and instead being mowed down. Not saying it will happen, but stranger things have.