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The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Port Adelaide

It’s incredible how quickly things can turn sour.

Here I was, sitting quietly, contemplating the 2019 Port Adelaide team and how they’d fare this season when the reports started trickling in. Love him or hate him, Kane Cornes was the first I heard break the story that Ollie Wines had done his shoulder.

And the tone of the Port Adelaide pre-season suddenly shifted. People started questioning the decisions of a man touted as a future captain, and they questioned the club itself, for allowing a player to partake in an activity that may damage his health, and thereby the chances of the footy club.

Others leapt to Wines’ and the club’s defence, stating that a young man should be able to enjoy himself in his time off, just like everyone else. But is Ollie Wines just like everyone else? Does he go into a workplace, sit at his desk, making excuses to talk to the receptionist who he’s pretty sure has a boyfriend… yet he doesn’t care? Or does he lug around materials in a warehouse in between finding spots to slack off and browse his phone? Not for the sort of coin he’s on, he doesn’t.

I was a little unsure which side of the argument I sat on. I can legitimately see both sides, and it took a quick quote from the great Kevin Sheedy to put it in perspective.

“I had a few water skiers in my day I had to read the riot act to. If you want to win premierships, you need to get your act together.”

Sheedy has seven V/AFL premierships to his name – three as a player and four as a coach. He knows what it takes to win a flag. How many do the Port list currently have in their possession? Scott Lycett has one from last season at West Coast.

And that’s it. Maybe next time someone has the bright idea to go water skiing, or snow skiing, or water snowing, wiser heads will prevail at Port Adelaide.

OK, on with the column. Enough has been written about Wines already over the past few days.

The Power faltered in the later stages of 2018. After looking like finals certainties at one stage, Port lost their final four games of the season to tumble from contention, and with that fall came questions. There were questions about the leadership – Boak has stepped down as captain. There were questions about the attitude of some players – Wingard is now at Hawthorn. The commitment of others was raised – Pittard and Polec packed their bags and headed to North Melbourne.

But have the moves Port have made this off-season offered any answers, or just raised more questions?

Let’s take a look at the “ifs”, “buts” and other stuff in relation to the 2019 incarnation of the Power.

 

IF…

… Charlie Dixon can stay at home as a forward, maybe he fulfils his potential?

It was a tough year for Big Charlie in 2018. With Paddy Ryder sidelined, Dixon was forced to forego his preferred position up forward, and move into the ruck for a decent stretch of games. To say it was less than ideal situation for him would be an understatement.

From Rounds 2-6, Dixon averaged 12.83 hitouts per contest, but only 0.50 goals per game. As nice as it is to have Dixon jump into the ruck as a luxury, you’re completely robbing both him, and the team to have him in there any longer than is absolutely necessary.

But Ken Hinkley didn’t have any other options. Dixon toiled away, and even with Ryder’s return, he would still be required to spend stretches in the ruck, usually losing badly, to more experienced campaigners.

That it took Dixon until Round 13 to score multiple goals in a game is an indictment on the way he was used in 2018, and after suffering a gruesome ankle injury in Round 21, the plan would be to return Dixon to where he’s best positioned to make an impact – playing out of the goal square.

The new rules regarding the required field positioning at centre bounces may be of benefit to Dixon up forward. He is a beast of a man, and a nightmare to deal with one on one. A quick clearance and a long ball inside 50 may catch defenders in a one-on-one, and as Richmond found out in Round 12, Dixon is a hard man to move, and an even harder man to spoil if he has the ball kicked to his advantage. He took four contested marks that day, which was an equal season-high, but there are times he threatens to rip games apart. He gets his hands on the ball, but in 2018, it just wasn’t sticking.

2019 has to be the year he stops threatening, and starts delivering.

Dixon is now entering his fourth year at Port, and his ninth year overall. There is no more talk of potential in regard to him. He is 27 years old, with a man’s frame. It’s all about now for him, and it’s time he hits levels he hasn’t prior.

A pass mark for Dixon is the 50-goal mark. No ifs, no buts… just 50 goals. His highest contested mark total is 59 in 2017. No less than 70 are required to make the grade in 2019. There are no excuses for Charlie Dixon in 2019. He needs a career-best season, and Port need him to have one.

 

… Tom Jonas plays the whole year, he should give AA a shake

I think the race for All-Australian selection was very tight in the defensive half last year. We kept a really close eye on it at The Mongrel, and as he ticked toward the ¾ time mark of the season, Jonas was right in the mix. Then one injury sat him out for three weeks, and his chances evaporated.

However, the fact he didn’t make the side does not diminish just how good he was at times in 2018. There is a very good reason his name is being bandied around in regard to the Port Adelaide captaincy. He is reliable, he is courageous, and he leads from the front. He is the sort of player that reminds me of the unsung captains – the Tom Harleys, the Nick Maxwells – not in style of play, but in terms of not having to be the star of the team in order to be an effective leader.

Jonas took the reins of a young defensive group boasting the up and coming Dougal Howard, the impressive Tom Clurey, and the increasingly reliable Dan Houston, and turned them into a force. At times they combined to provide a great springboard for the Power, turning defence into offence. With Ryan Burton joining the party down back, Jonas’ presence will be even more vital in controlling the defensive 50 and deploying the troops.

So what would it take to see Jonas claim his first AA blazer in 2019. Looking at the team from 2018, I seriously believe that had he stayed on the park, he would’ve gone one better than just making the squad. The back six consisted of Stewart, Rance, Laird, Hurn, McGovern and Whitfield. Whilst all good players, and vital to their respective teams, there are a couple on that list (Stewart, Rance, Whitfield) who could’ve been replaced by Jonas with just a few more games.

And if none of them were removed, Shane Edwards on the bench could probably consider himself lucky that Jonas missed a few games.

Jonas averaged career-high numbers in disposals (+3.10), marks (+2.54) and rebounds (+2.10) whilst increasing both contested and uncontested touches. An increase commensurate with this again would see him propelled into the category of elite defender, even in the eyes of those whose focus rarely extends across the Victorian border.

 

… there is one player in the game I want to see have a blinder, it’s Todd Marshall.

This is the bloke who can start making a real difference for the Power in 2019. After the tragic 2018 he endured, having a fit, firing Sticks Marshall will not only ease the burden on Charlie Dixon, but give Power fans a glimpse into the future… and if he is anything like I anticipate he will be, that future is bright.

I know this is going out on a limb, but in the ten games he’s played (I’ve seen about seven, admittedly) Marshall shows enough to make me genuinely excited for the player he could be. His three goals against the Swans at the SCG were pivotal in the one of Port’s best wins of the year, but for mine, it’s his ability to fly for the ball and not fall into the big man’s trap of being out of the contest immediately once the ball hits the ground.

I like his pressure, I like his good, solid hands, I like the way he leads at the ball, and damn it – I just like him!

Enduring the loss of both parents is the sort of thing that can cause a person to unravel. Port were very supportive and patient with him, and though I am sure powerful memories linger, he will now be able to concentrate a little more on footy this year, and the rewards could be huge.

Whilst there is much hype around young talls like Eric Hipwood in Brisbane and Paddy McCartin at St Kilda (not from me, though), Todd Marshall is the one who I think will jump out of the box and make an impact. Whether or not this happens in 2019 is up in the air, but I’m pulling for him. If anyone deserves a break, I reckon it’s him.

 

… Ryan Burton is pissed off… good!

When reports of the potential Wingard trade first started filtering through, Burton’s management said he was devastated that his name was being bandied around as the potential bait. I like that – it shows he puts his heart and soul into the game.

When Ryan Burton commenced with Hawthorn, he showed a lot of higher picks a clean pair of heels, finishing higher than all but one – Andrew McGrath. The young defender was a standout for Hawthorn in a year where their poor start cost them the chance at the finals, but amid the chaos, Burton was steady as a rock. He showed the kind of maturity that belied his tender years (wow… a little dramatic there, Mongrel…).

2018 produced much of the same, but the expected improvement from Burton didn’t happen. He was -4.39 disposals, -1.35 marks, and -1.20 tackles per game, which led to a few questioning whether we’d already seen his best.

The second year, or sophomore blues are often spoken about in US-Sports, and Burton seemed to be experiencing the AFL version of it. He may have been “devastated” to be traded, but maybe this is the spark that lights a fire under him? Maybe this kind of kick in the pants is exactly what a young star-in-the-making requires to push him to the next level.

The devastation passed quickly, and probably moved into disappointment. But it is channelling that disappointment into controlled rage that may be the key. I want Burton to take that devastation, that disappointment, and turn it into anger. Fair warning… I’m heading down a Star Wars path here.

Let Burton be Luke Skywalker, and the let the Empire that is Port Adelaide use that anger to make him more powerful. You can just see Ken Hinkley, clad in his robes, with his crinkly old face and less than ideal oral hygiene hissing  “Good… good, give into your anger. It will only make you more powerful!”

But unlike Luke Skywalker, Burton needs not to be a bitch when offered the choice. Take the power for The Power. Seize it, and use it for good, evil, or something in between.

Emotion can be a great motivator, and Burton has already demonstrated that he has the skill to be a player in the AFL. With the right drive, he could make many at Hawthorn… those filthy rebel scum - regret the decision to trade him.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… the second-year recruits feel at home, we could see it all come together.

So things didn’t quite work out the way they were supposed to in 2018 for the boom recruits, did they? Looking at it without wearing black, white and teal glasses, it’s hard to view those 2018 arrivals and not look at their acquisition as a failure.

Tom Rockliff started the season like a snail with a cramp. Over the first four games, he averaged 12 touches. A stint in the SANFL remedied his numbers somewhat, but in terms of effectiveness, Rockliff was nowhere near the player thought they were getting.

Steven Motlop had some moments - his late game goal against the Crows in his first Showdown game was one that’ll live forever, but amongst his moments were long stretches of nothing. The expected increase in output on his Geelong numbers didn’t eventuate, and his cameos were not enough to give him a tick for the year.

Jack Watts did what Jack Watts does. He starred in the JLT series and promised so much. And he delivered so little. There was no improvement in his game, no sense of urgency, and no desperation. There never has been.

Then you had Lindsay Thomas. At least his intent was clear; he had a crack. Sadly, a suspension put paid to close to half his season, and when he did get back in the team, he was anything but effective. I feel bad writing that – I like Lindsay.

And then Jack Trengove – he was probably the only recruit to deliver what he was expected to, and that’s because not much was expected of him in 2018.

So, on the whole, the recruits fell flat, but does that mean they’re a bust?

Not at all.

Those who have read these columns know that I am a big believer in organic improvement. It is seldom the high profile recruits that push teams to improve – it’s the kids developing, and players busting out that make a team go from ordinary to good in short order, and though we saw ordinary years from Rockliff, Motlop and Watts, it doesn’t mean that 2019 will follow suit.

Without being aware of the injuries plaguing him in the 2018 pre-season, I thought Rockliff would be the standout of the Power recruits, but his shaky start put him right behind the eight ball. Though he would rally to average over 20 touches per game, it was not the Tom Rockliff we saw in Brisbane.

The Brisbane version of Rockliff was a bull, and from all reports he demanded the highest from his teammates – sometimes more than they were capable of giving. Perhaps his 2018 will act as a point of reference for Tom. Perhaps it will teach him that there will be times where teammates are struggling, and unable to do that which others desire of them. Perhaps Tom Rockliff’s 2018 will make him a better player, teammate and person in 2019, and maybe that’s enough to see him have a better year.

For mine, at 28 years old, Rockliff is far from spent, and could provide the boost to the Port Adelaide midfield it needs. If healthy, Rocky could get back to a 25+ possession player and start to make those that ridiculed the Power’s acquisition start backtracking a little.

Motlop will always flash in and out of games. He is a match-winner, but needs to find ways to impact the game when he’s not “on”.

And Watts… well, I am hoping that he can start to realise just what an opportunity he’s had in AFL football. I wondered what his attitude and style would be after being ostensibly discarded by Melbourne, but it seemed the same from the outside looking in. Jack is no longer a kid – he too turns 28 this season. He should be in his prime, and sadly, maybe this is as good as it gets for him? Only one person truly knows whether he’s capable of more, and only one person is capable of acting on it.

After a 2018 of disappointment, the three star recruits of last season have had time to adjust, time to gel with their teammates, and time to learn the ins and outs of the Port Adelaide system. For their sake, I hope that they don’t need more time.

Because time isn’t something this Port Adelaide team will afford them.

 

BUT IF…

… Sam Powell-Pepper can’t stay out of trouble, we could be witnessing a huge waste of talent.

You ever looked at a player and thought ‘Wow, he could be anything’? I find myself doing that when I watch SPP play.

There is something in the way he moves (I’m struggling not to channel George Harrison, here) – there’s intent about him, a hunter’s instinct that tells the story of a man on a mission. But in 2018, I started to question just what that mission was.

Powell-Pepper is built for footy. After a sterling 2017, big things were expected of him in 2018. And another valuable lesson was learned as a result – don’t set your expectations too high.

Like the two players that finished ahead of him in the 2017 Rising Star award, Powell-Pepper stagnated in 2018. In the US, they call it Sophomore Blues, and Andy McGrath, Ryan Burton and Powell-Pepper all seemed to have a healthy dose of it.

There was a slight improvement in output from SPP, but nowhere near that I am sure many Port fans would’ve envisioned. A bull at the contest, his contested touches barely moved in 2018 (+0.52) and whilst he did bump his clearance numbers (+0.50) he dropped markedly in scoring, with just 25% accuracy.

The talent is there – that much is obvious. Some have gone as far as to compare his style to that of Dustin Martin. It took Martin a little while to develop the tank to run out full games in the middle for Richmond. Is that the problem for SPP now? Is it just aerobic fitness that is pumping the brakes?

Whilst I do not expect Powell-Pepper to be a Martin-clone, or even a mini-me version of him, what I do expect is that he takes a look at his past 12 months, takes note of his indiscretions, and realises that he is not yet at a level where the club will excuse a raft of stupid extra-curricular activity. Being out, being smashed, and being filmed whilst doing it are not going to endear you to the club, or the supporters.

Port Adelaide are a proud club. They expect success, and they deserve professionalism. Sam Powell-Pepper needs to start falling into line and letting his footy do the talking in 2019.

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… Paddy Ryder is still struggling, Port have made THE MOVE to address it.

When I heard the Power had gone after, and signed Scott Lycett, I am sure there were plenty of Port supporters that smiled.

In short, Paddy Ryder was a shell of his former self in 2018. His Achilles was giving him enormous trouble and it was evident early in the season. Port turned to Charlie Dixon, and they paid for it in terms of forward presence. What they needed was someone to step into the role, allow Ryder the time to heal properly, and not drag Dixon away from the role he was recruited for.

Scott Lycett addresses this issue in possibly the best way Port could’ve imagined outside obtaining Max Gawn or Brodie Grundy.

A premiership ruckman, Lycett became the backbone of the West Coast ruck division after Nic Naitanui suffered his second knee injury. It was him, teaming with Nathan Vardy that subdued Brodie Grundy in the Grand Final.  It was him, who held his own against Gawn in the Prelim.

Now it is Lycett that gets to show the football world that he is more than a backup ruck who got lucky at the right time of year.

The acquisition of Scott Lycett may be the most important signing Port have made in years. He gives the team the licence to play the way they need to play, can capitalise on new ruck rules that should reward teams playing two big guys, and knows what it takes to win. While Port were criticised for the acquisition of others after the 2017 season, their signing of Lycett, any way you look at it, is a great one.

Now, he just has to deliver.

 

OTHER STUFF

Can’t believe I have got through two thirds of this article (long one, huh?) and have yet to mention Robbie Gray. I mean really, what can I say about him that hasn’t been said before? He’s got thirteen toes - I bet that hasn’t been said before. Watching him in 2018, he seems to see the game unfold a split second before everyone else on the park. His reactions, ability to read the ball in flight and on the deck are unsurpassed by current players – matches, yes… but not surpassed.

Turning 31 early in the year, I started to wonder whether we’ve seen the best of Gray, then I thought back to the first Showdown of 2018, and the third quarter in particular where, with 41 other players on the field, every eye turned to Gray. He absolutely took over, and put Port in a position to win the game. Without him, it was Adelaide’s game.

So let’s assume there is no downturn for Gray, shall we? Not in 2019, anyway. Where does he sit come the end of the season, and what is his pass mark? Believe it or not, he ‘only’ had 36 goals in 2018 – it felt like so many more. Maybe a 45-goal return is where we should be looking for Robbie. He’s been there before – 47 in 2017 is his best. His time in the midfield should be brief to save his legs, so I wouldn’t want to see him pushing any more than 20 touches a game. Having those 20 touches forward of centre is so much more valuable than 25 in the middle, for mine.

The Hoff had a career-season in 2018 and showed no signs of slowing down, despite hitting 32 years of age in the off-season. I don’t know what it is about these lanky kinds of characters - they keep on keeping on. Fletcher, Tuck… could Westhoff be going on as strong as he is now when game 300 rolls around?

Also, I really reckon Hoff is one of those guys who desperately needs the beard. Similar to Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters, I have horrible memories of him without it. Please, Justin… don’t shave.

How will the team respond to no Chad Wingard on board? It’s amazing, isn’t it – how quickly did people jump off the Wingard wagon once rumours of him being traded surfaced? Lazy, unsocial, not a team player… they were all offered as descriptions for Wingard, so much so that I am sure a few Hawthorn supporters were reconsidering whether he was worth giving up a young star like Ryan Burton for.

Well, what’s done is done, and I am a strong believer in cutting out cancers before they fester. Wingard might be a lovely bloke, but if he truly didn’t want to be at Alberton, they’d be foolish to try and keep it. Resentment is hard to stop the spread of, and there’s a big chance that this Port-Hawthorn deal might turn out to be the most mutually beneficial of all trades completed this past off-season.

And Polec? And Pittard? The loss of Polec will hurt. He was one of the better performers of 2018, but it seems all the talk of “going home” was just that – talk. Pittard, despite having so much potential, is no great loss. He looked panicked with the ball at times, and was of the “go long and get it out of my area” kind of mold. Players who don’t lower their eyes and find targets are easy to come by. On that – don’t use Champion Data stats to determine if Pittard was an effective kicker of the ball. Did you know that any kick over 40 metres is deemed effective by CD? Pretty misleading, huh?

So where does the organic improvement come from at Port? I wrote about the veterans, and Sticks Marshall, but where else? As touched on, Burton is due to elevate his game, but I liked what I saw in patches from Lienert in 2018. He has a good attack on the ball, and should be a little more poised this season.

In four years time, I reckon we’ll be having the discussion about who the best key defender in the game is - Harris Andrews, or Dougal Howard. For mine, Howard gets nowhere near the plaudits bestowed on Andrews currently. Maybe 2019 remedies that?

Riley Bonner is entering season four now, and should be feeling quite at home at the club. If he starts to head closer to the 20 possessions per game mark, and maintain a decent efficiency rating, Port will like what they’re getting from him.

Sam Gray had a very good, consistent year in 2018, but strikes me as the kind of player who won’t rest on his laurels – it’s a common trait for rookie elevations. With 76 games to his name, bumping his goal per game average up to 1.5 per game (+0.4) would take a fair bit of heat off his brot… errr, cous… errr, guy with the same name in the forward line.

The China game… look, I don’t like it, but if it is a financial win for the club, I understand why they’re so big on it. I’d love to see some genuine interest from China to inject even more $ into the Port coffers. Let’s hope for a good game this season.

And how does the draw look? The double-header against the Crows is a staple (and as a Vic, I love watching Showdowns – we have nothing like it any more), and they also get Brisbane, Freo and North twice. Call me optimistic, but Port could win all eight of those games. It’s the other double header against Richmond that is the worry, though Port demonstrated they can match, and beat the Tigers at home in 2018. The MCG is another story, however.

Port needs a good first three weeks (Melb, Carl, Bris) before a bit of a tough run. From Rounds 4-8, they get the Tigers, Eagles, Roos, Pies and Crows… they’ll need two of those first three to be in a position of strength as the big boys come to town.

So where do I see Port finishing? So much depends on those second year stars playing like they were recruited to play last year, and the way Lycett slots in. I actually think the latter will be the key to their year. Whilst I don’t think top four is an option for this club now, they are definitely in contention for finals, and once September hits, anything can happen. 6-10 is a fair prediction, but should they make the eight, I would not be at all surprised to see them hit their stride and put paid to the hopes of at least one other contender. A late season fade must be avoided at all costs, as I reckon the Power will be in a dogfight for one of the remaining finals spots as the end of the home and away season looms.

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