After footy’s return last weekend, which you would be hard pressed to term as anything but a success, a weekend like this one was almost inevitable. In spite of some incredible on field results, as well as higher quality football, on Saturday the entire footballing world’s attention turned to another result. While it isn’t necessary to discuss that in this space, I think it’s pretty clear that the AFL community needed something to take their collective minds off the first positive COVID-19 test of the season. For many (myself not included), that came in the form of Carlton’s remarkable win over Geelong, and for others, it was watching Gold Coast put in a performance that suggested last week was no fluke. With that in mind, some may have considered the late Sunday fixture as uninspiring, but I was genuinely looking forward to it.

 

It would probably be unfair to term Fremantle as unlucky this season. Against Essendon, they were outplayed for the majority of the game, before narrowly avoiding what would have been an outstanding comeback win in Justin Longmuir’s first game in charge.

After the break, against the Lions at the Gabba last week, they were also beaten by arguably the better team on the day, though but for a contentious goal-line mark being overturned, they could well have won. What I mean to say from all of this is that, despite going into this Round Three clash without a win, the Dockers could maybe have been 2-0.

A team with Nathan Fyfe and Michael Walters is always worth watching just for the pair of them, and with a new coach in charge who isn’t quite as defensively minded as Ross Lyon, this could have been the week that the Purple Haze chalked up win number one in season 2020.

For Port Adelaide; a team who’d won both their games this season by a combined margin of 122 points, in shortened quarters, it seems unfair that questions still abound. While the win against Gold Coast looks more impressive now than it did at the time, with the Suns being a clearly better team following the COVID break than they were before it. And though any Showdown win is important for either side, Adelaide seem to quite clearly be the worst team in the competition.

Still, you can only beat who’s in front of you, and Port have done so in such a comprehensive manner that the AFL world seems to be waking up to them as a genuine contender. Last year, it was their forwards who struggled to assert themselves on games, but that doesn’t seem to be as much of an issue as yet this season, and the question of how they would adjust to hub life loomed as the biggest one to be answered on Sunday.

 

In conditions simply described as non-conducive to skillful football, in a timeslot simply described as off-Broadway, in a game which was at times intense, here’s what happened:

 

FINE WINES

I’m not sure that any criticism of the Power’s midfield from the last couple of years is especially justified. Certainly, Ollie Wines’ most notable impact on the Port Adelaide Football Club has been off the field, but it’s not hard to see why the situations he has gotten himself into are so frustrating, given the talent he possesses. In combination with Travis Boak, who himself is ageing like a fine wine, and with Scott Lycett in the ruck, along with guys like Robbie Gray, Tom Rockliff, and the young brigade, Ken Hinkley has at his disposal a midfield which arguably rivals the very best in the competition.

It’s a bit like splitting hairs, deciding on who was best on ground between Boak and Wines. While both men have captained this club, it seems that maybe they’re better off letting the understated Tom Jonas play the role, as they go about racking up contested ball in the midfield.

Honours probably go to Boak in this one, just, though Wines was superb too. Playing at Port Adelaide, Boak rarely gets the plaudits in the Melbourne media he probably deserves and, while he may not quite be as good a player as Scott Pendlebury, there are certainly parallels between the pair. Boak rarely looks rushed with ball in hand; streaming out of the middle in the first quarter, his hit up pass into the forward line was a thing of beauty. For the match, he had 26 touches, with 22 of those coming before three quarter time when the game was really on the line.

Only Ollie Wines had more than Boak’s 12 contested touches for the Power, though the latter added game highs in eight inside 50’s, 495 metres gained and two goal assists, to go with seven tackles and a goal of his own in the third quarter which just about put the game to bed. In the wet, the ability to win the ball in close and gain metres is highly valued, and while Freo struggled to achieve that, Boak did exactly that, driving his team forward with every possession.

Wines, on the other hand, was marginally less efficient with ball in hand, and didn’t gain as many metres as Boak, but only just misses out on best on ground honours. His 14 contested possessions were bested only by Nathan Fyfe, who has strong claims on being the best contested possession player in the competition, but whereas the Fremantle captain had little support (more on that later), Wines was able to rely on some of his colleagues to assist. Seven score involvements, six clearances, a goal and 324 metres gained made for a pretty good return to football for Wines, and though as Hugh Greenwood said on Twitter, disposals aren’t everything, the Port midfield managed to make their ascendancy count.

Boak and Wines were especially important in the first quarter, when Fremantle were arguably the better side. Between the pair, they mustered 15 touches, while other high-end talent, in the forms of Gray, Rockliff, Powell-Pepper, Ebert, Rozee, Dixon and Motlop managed three touches or fewer.

Just briefly, a review on Port’s midfield wouldn’t be complete without a wrap on Lycett. Though he, justifiably, isn’t spoken about in the same breath as Gawn and Grundy, there’s a fair argument to be made that he should be in the conversation with guys like Goldstein, Witts and Marshall as the best of the rest. He put Rory Lobb to the sword in this contest, mustering 37 hitouts to 17, and was a big factor in the Power’s 37-27 ascendancy in the clearances. He himself managed four clearances, more than every Fremantle player apart from Walters, and though Lobb is maybe not a natural ruckman, it’s becoming readily apparent that Lycett is.

 

HOLDING UP THE ‘MANTLE (I swear these headings are getting worse…)

 

When Geelong finished second in 2016, the big question was who their third best player was. Dangerfield and Selwood could, and regularly did, run amok, but the next rung down didn’t provide anywhere near enough support, and while the pair had 78 touches and two goals between them in a preliminary final, it didn’t stop them from losing to the Swans by more than six goals.

What relevance does that have to this game? It’s probably quite obvious that Nathan Fyfe and Michael Walters are among the best handful of players in the league. What’s also quite obvious is that the disparity between that elite pairing and the rest of the Fremantle side is vast. By that I mean no disrespect to the rest of the Dockers’ side, but the simple reality is that any hopes Freo have of playing finals anytime soon rests squarely on the shoulders of Fyfe and Walters, especially with the loss of Brad Hill.

You could very comfortably make the argument that either of the two could have won the game for their side in the last quarter. Had Fyfe have nailed that gettable goal after his brilliant contested mark, instead of hitting the post, the margin would have been back to three goals with six minutes left, and they may well have had a chance. Meanwhile, Walters had a pair of kickable shots early and later on in the last quarter which may well have held the game within striking distance. It’s hard to criticise them though; without them, this game wasn’t even close to a contest.

It was pointed out both on commentary and in our Mongrel group chat that Fyfe’s game didn’t adapt to the conditions particularly well. This was symptomatic of Fremantle’s refusal to adjust their game to wet weather, but while you can forgive guys like Darcy Tucker and Adam Cerra for fading out of the game once the torrential downpour began, Fyfe should have imposed himself on the contest. Instead, he tried to be too unselfish. I counted three times where he went for little handballs to teammates in the wet instead of going for distance, and it rarely worked for alleviating the very solid pressure Port brought. It is quite hard to criticise him for that though, as he worked his backside off to keep his side in the contest. His 23 touches were an equal team high, and while the 78% efficiency with which he ran may have been artificially inflated, his 17 contested possessions told a story of a man willing to crack in, at the very least.

Walters also had 23 touches, though some of his most influential impacts on the contest won’t register a stat. His palm-on to Travis Colyer for the game’s opening goal was a moment of brilliance reminiscent of some of the best small forwards of recent years, though he also managed to kick a goal himself, to go with five score involvements and a game high seven clearances. Fremantle are a much better side when the ball is in either of this pair’s hands, and yet they are also well served when either is lurking inside forward 50.

Perhaps the most damning stat for Freo, then, is that the pair had just four inside 50’s between them, and eight rebounds from defensive 50. They are clearly being asked to contribute a lot, and whether they are being provided with the quality of support they need is debatable. In the second quarter, when Port really put them to the sword, the inside 50 count was at one point 22-0, before the Dockers went inside twice in the last minute of the quarter, for no score.

As mentioned above, Rory Lobb provided little by way of assistance to his midfield in the ruck, and added just seven touches around the ground. You forgive Hogan, in his first game back, and Taberner for not having an enormous impact given the conditions, though as will be discussed coming up, Port’s big men managed to effect the game significantly more than their counterparts in purple. James Aish was a real bright spot at times, but faded in and out of the contest and ended with 15 touches. Again, while conditions weren’t suited to the ageing legs of David Mundy, his contribution to the contest was limited. If it wasn’t already clear (and, to be fair, it probably was), no team in the league currently relies quite so heavily on just two players to improve their fortunes.

 

FIRE-POWER UP FORWARD?

 

Port’s inability to score heavily enough was their greatest woe last season. Their leading goalscorer was first season sensation Connor Rozee, though he managed just 29 goals. For the record, only Carlton and Melbourne’s leading goal scorers managed fewer goals last season than that. While low totals in that particular metric can point to an even spread, with guys like Robbie Gray up there, as well as one of Lycett and the now-Saint Paddy Ryder rotating through and Charlie Dixon, when present, the reality is that number should have been much higher than it was.

Clearly this was a focus of Ken Hinkley’s over the course of the offseason. Their goal scoring spread this season has been relatively even, but only one team has scored more points than they have (Essendon and Melbourne are yet to play, but the likelihood of them scoring 115 and 152 points, respectively, is best described as limited). Rozee was brilliant in the Showdown, Todd Marshall and Steve Motlop have regularly been amongst the goal kickers, and Dixon has been solid in each outing thus far. In what weren’t conditions for big forwards, the Power managed 13 marks inside 50, and Westhoff, Dixon and Marshall took 14 grabs and kicked 5.5 between them.

It was, then, a good night for the Power’s big men up forward. Westhoff seems to have been around forever and a day, but he too continues to age gracefully, and as he gallops toward 300 games he hasn’t really showed any signs of a slowdown. His eight score involvements were a game high, as he worked up the ground and still had an impact closer to goal. Dixon, too, played what would have to be one of his best games in teal. His five contested marks were a clear game high, as he managed to grab just about everything that came his way in the first half, and to be honest he could have established himself firmly as best on ground if not for his kicking. I still think Gerard Healy’s suggestion on commentary that he looms as an All Australian key forward this season is premature, though it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that happened. His contest with Tom Barrass next week looms as telling.

 

AND ANOTHER THING…

 

  • Port’s defence rarely gets as much of a wrap as they deserve. They and Collingwood are clearly the best defensive sides in the competition at this point, and it’s therefore no real surprise that they occupy the top two spots on the ladder at time of writing (with Essendon still to play). Guys like Clurey and Jonas go about their jobs with a minimum of fuss, but they do it stupendously well. I reckon the whole team has had an improved focus on defence though. Whenever Fremantle went forward, they ran into waves of Power defenders intent on applying solid pressure. Brad Ebert’s spoil on Fyfe in the dying stages of the second demonstrated their commitment to the cause, ensuring the Dockers would be held scoreless for the quarter
  • Freo’s fade outs during games are becoming a real area of concern for Justin Longmuir. With credit to fellow Mongrel, Matt Passmore, these are the numbers: in Round 1, Essendon kicked 4.1 to 0.1 in the first 16 minutes of the first quarter. Fremantle “won” the rest of the game 8.8 to 5.8. In Round 2, Brisbane kicked 3.3 to 0.1 in the first 16 minutes of the third quarter. Fremantle “won” the rest of the game 10.8 to 9.6. And in this one, the Power effectively sealed the game across the second quarter, booting 5.4 to no score. The Dockers’ score for the rest of the game? 6.5 to 5.6.
  • How good is to have crowds back at the footy? While it wasn’t a big crowd, it added to the intensity of the quite enjoyable first quarter, and we await the chance to be able to go back to games, hopefully sooner than later.
  • Nat Fyfe’s shepherd on the goal line in the last was maybe unfortunate to have been ruled as illegal, given what some other players get away with letting the ball go through, though it was probably emblematic of their night; they just couldn’t get any momentum going after quarter time.

 

That’ll probably do me. The Power continue to establish themselves as genuine contenders, and next week’s game shapes as their biggest test, against their first high quality opposition. The Eagles clearly haven’t adjusted particularly well to hub life, understandably, but if they go 1-3 it’s a long way back, and they’ll be desperate to get their season up and running in what would appear to be the game of the round. The Dockers, on the other hand, had their chances but were outplayed for the majority of this game, and will look to tally their first win of the season against the Suns, who will start favourites for the second week in a row.