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September Showdown: Adelaide Crows and Port Power a finals football preview in April

The Crows still have room for improvement. (AAP Image/Ben Macmahon)
Expert
11th April, 2017
24
1813 Reads

There are plenty of bad news stories lurking across the AFL right now. Here’s a good one: both of South Australia’s football teams look like making it into September. One we saw coming, but the other has come from the clouds.

Saturday night’s Showdown lived up to its billing as the match of the round.

It was a crowded field; three games decided by two goals or less, up to four genuine upsets (depending on your prior views), emphatic responses to mainstream media hyperbole everywhere you looked. There was something for everyone.

But as far as a showcase of Australian rules football in 2017 goes, Adelaide’s 17 point victory over Port Adelaide was it.

After a tense, physical opening ten minutes, the Power raced to an early lead, on the back of some precision play from kick ins and centre bounces. Port Adelaide circa 2013-2014 was back, the gut-running, zone offencing scoring machine that we all thought was a historical anomaly.

As has been the case for much of this season, Robbie Gray led the way forward of centre, while Ollie Wines did his best Patrick Dangerfield impression through the middle. A remarkably small defence – made so by the late withdrawal of Jack Hombsch and return of Hamish Hartlett – looked overmatched on paper, but proved stoic as the Crows began to wrestle back the midfield advantage.

From shortly after quarter time onwards, the Crows looked like the better team, as has been their wont all year. Rory Sloane put the team on his back – recording a career-high 23 contested possessions across the game – and powered Adelaide forward from stoppages.

At one stage the Crows threatened to run away with the game, until Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley threw Gray onto the ball midway through the third quarter.

Port Adelaide immediately stabilised, and clawed their way back to within 14 points at three-quarter time. The Power three scores to none in the first seven minutes of the final quarter, cutting the margin to an even goal. It seemed to spur Adelaide’s forward line into action. The Crows’ height advantage came into play, as Taylor Walker did Taylor Walker things to help his team over the line.

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It was an unusually tight game on the inside, with 75 non-centre bounce stoppages across the four quarters. The AFL average for 2017 to date has been 59 set pieces per game. This suited the Power, who’ve looked much better than the leaky sieve in set pieces they became last season. In the end, Adelaide’s outside dominance and forward efficiency won the day.

It felt like a finals match up. After three rounds, and with five wins between Adelaide and Port Adelaide, it very well could be. The established order of the Australian Football League is being disrupted. Both the Crows and Power look to be relishing the role of disruptors.

But will the two South Australian teams retain their top-four positions come the end of the season? Let’s deal with what has come so far, and what is to come in the months ahead.

Adelaide make the move from good to great
Lurking in the background of the Hawthorn three-peat, Sydney’s perennial excellence, the rise of the Bulldogs and Giants, the resurrection of the Cats – name your story, really – the Adelaide Crows have been building. Not slowly, or quietly – the Crows have made it to the second week of September for the last two years.

Coming into the season, it was clear the Crows were going to be a good team. So often the second team in great player (emerging or established) trades, Adelaide tried but failed to land a big fish of their own in Carlton’s Bryce Gibbs. The AFL zeitgeist, as it often does, spun that into a web of half-truths and misnomers: Adelaide don’t have the depth of class through the middle, they said. Adelaide have a great forward line, but who will get them the ball they said.

The injuries mounted, almost exclusively to midfielders, and the purported issues compounded. I was in that camp, but after a solid JLT Series changed course. I am glad I did, because the Adelaide Crows look set to do something special in 2017.

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Adelaide’s 2016 game was built on counter-punching and quick movement on the outside. It manifested in a high-powered offence, which put up a league-leading 108 points per game, eviscerating all who dare turn the ball over in Adelaide’s defensive half. Often, they played with a spare defender as a default look for the opposition, enabling quick movements out of defensive 50 with long kicks and wave runners.

The Crows recorded a field marking differential (marks outside 50) of +13.0 per game, a league-leading mark. Adelaide could criss-cross the field with aplomb, breaking opposition zones and moving into attack with even-or-better numbers inside 50.

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Winning the ball at the coalface was important – ask Hawthorn how important getting to the ball first is – but coach Don Pyke’s scheme didn’t command it. More important was the intercept, the quick kick or dump-off handball, and moving into the forward half of the ground.

Not so this year. The season is still young, but already the signs are clear that Adelaide has shifted its game. The Crows seem to eschewing the zone stylings of other teams of the competition in favour of a one-on-one heavy scheme. On three weeks of evidence, Adelaide are beating their opponents more often than not, and breaking away from contests with remarkable speed.

Adelaide have a ground-ball differential (contested possessions less free kicks for and contested marks) of +19.0 per game, first in the league, with the Crows standing alone, with the Greater Western Sydney Giants and Richmond Tigers as teams with differentials in double figures.

This statistic is intended to measure how well a team is able to win disputed balls – gain possession off the deck when it is there to be won. Adelaide are doing this better than any other team in the first three rounds of the season.

Adding this string to their bow means Adelaide have a plethora of looks, and a tactical flexibility that allows them to adjust on the fly. This was on show against the Hawks in Round 2, with the Crows switching from an aerial game to ground game at halftime, and running Hawthorn ragged.

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They’re doing this with personnel as much as scheme. The design is centred on beating opponents one on one, but once the ball makes it to the outside, Adelaide’s precision kicking game of last year takes over. Some critical moves have made this possible.

Rory Laird played on the ball in Round 1, racking up huge numbers while maintaining his usual pristine ball use. Charlie Cameron’s evolution from pacey half forward to full-blown wing man has accelerated this season – he looks like a natural no matter where he plays. Curtly Hampton hasn’t won a lot of ball for himself, but as a screener for the other guys he has been great, and his 25 tackles puts him in the top five in the league. Matt Crouch has accumulated possessions like a veteran inside midfielder, going about his craft as an anonymous member of this deep-batting unit.

And bat deep it does; the likes of Richard Douglas, Riley Knight, David Mackay and Andy Otten don’t scream quality, but they have it where it counts, and are all better-than-average with the ball in hand. Otten’s return has been an interesting development for the Crows, affording Pyke a utility option that has been absent during his tenure.

That’s the supporting cast. Rory Sloane is the star. The human wrecking ball, who let’s not forget broke his cheekbone not much more than six weeks ago, has been scorching over the first three weeks of the season. He has been at the bottom of every pack, inserting himself like an openside flanker reaches into a ruck to extract the ball. Sloane has been getting it done on the ground, with an incredible 52 of his 81 possessions coming in contested situations so far this season – second only to Tom Liberatore from the Western Bulldogs for players with more than 20 touches a game.

He hasn’t put together a stunning highlight package yet – his play built more on persistence and effort than the spectacular stylings of some of his contemporaries. Sloane seems to play with a simple edict: at stoppages, play on the ball, otherwise be dangerous and useful. He bobs up as a leading forward, and then chips in as a spoiling defender half a minute later. No matter the situation, Sloane makes good football things happen.

We all know about Adelaide’s forward line, the depth of quality players and mechanical precision they operate with. Examples abound, but this one from half way through the fourth quarter stuck out. From a stoppage on Port Adelaide’s back flank, an Adelaide player executes a kick to centre wing, where a leading Taylor Walker takes a strong contested mark.

As you’ll see below, Tom Lynch, who starts the sequence in defensive 50, sees what’s unfolding, builds up a head of steam, and surges towards Adelaide’s forward 50.

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Walker barely blinks, launching a 50-metre drop punt with trademark precision, which Lynch marks over his left shoulder. The preconditions for a play like this are difficult to create, and harder to execute. Adelaide make it looks preordained.

They’ll be challenged in the weeks ahead, with flanker Mitch McGovern set to miss half the season with a hamstring tendon injury. Josh Jenkins missed the Showdown, but looks like returning this weekend after bruised ribs kept him on the sidelines. The Crows have options: Otten can move into the front half of the ground, with an extra midfielder like Brad Crouch coming into the team; Troy Menzel, who played in Round 1 only to lose his place to Walker, could be a like-for-like forward swap, allowing the Crows to play smaller.

Adelaide’s depth is perhaps the most surprising element of their fast start. All throughout the summer we as a collective fretted about injury luck and thin playing stocks. It is worth remembering Scott Thompson, Crouch, Cam Ellis-Yolmen, Kyle Cheeney and Paul Seedsman haven’t played at all this year. The Crows’ injury ward is getting a work out this year, yes, but to date the list has held up.

Three wins, a league-leading percentage and a complete game style suggest Adelaide is here and ready to contend. It is only early, and the big tests are to come. We said that about the Western Bulldogs’ promising start to 2016 too. The Crows host Essendon, travel to the Gold Coast, host Richmond and play North Melbourne in Tasmania in the next four weeks. They will start comfortable favourites in each.

The sky is the veritable limit for the Adelaide Crows in 2017. A bright start is most certainly a sign of things to come.

Rory Atkins Adelaide Crows 2016 AFL

Port Adelaide make the move from average to interesting
The Power’s position in the hierarchy is much more difficult to parse.

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Like the Crows, Port Adelaide has largely taken all who have come before them (except the Crows themselves obviously). But those vanquished by the Power – the youthful Sydney and previously-hapless Fremantle – aren’t a paragon of strength.

Still, wins are wins, and early season wins are a signal of strength. There’s a reason why teams that are 2-1 have been twice as likely to make it into finals than teams who have been 1-2 under the current finals system. However, for Port Adelaide, the raw wins and losses aren’t as important as the way in which they’ve come about.

The first three weeks of the season have provided ample evidence that Port Adelaide’s struggles to win and retain the ball have been addressed in the off season. The Power were the worst team in the league on time in possession differential last year, giving their opponents an extra 6.9 minutes of possession per game on average. Their contested possession differential wasn’t much better: -4.6 per game on the season, ranked 12th, despite quality personnel through the middle of the ground.

This year, Port have held the ball for 0.2 minutes more than their opponents through three games – still not league-leading by any stretch, but a marked improvement. Similarly, the Power’s contested possession differential has surged to +8.3 per game.

Beyond that, Port Adelaide look to have rediscovered their fast football mojo from 2013 and 2014. Their opening three goals in the Showdown came as the result of laser-like ball movement, from kick-ins and a centre square free kicks. Wave running and the full ground offence is back, although the Power seem more content to kick than they did during their previous (Port have a kick to handball ratio of 1.48 this season, up from 1.24 last year).

Robbie Gray continues his Brownlow Snub Revenge Tour, playing predominately forward of the play with spurts through the middle. Chad Wingard hasn’t yet been called up to play as a midfielder, a move foreshadowed during the preseason – that will probably change if Gray remains a more permanent forward. Ollie Wines has taken his game to another level, doing his best impression of a mash up of Patrick Dangerfield’s bulk with Scott Pendlebury’s poise in pressure. Paddy Ryder’s return has been huge for the Power’s stoppage play, relishing the role as a primary ruckman.

We’ll maintain a watching brief on Port Adelaide for now. The team is better than we collectively thought coming into this season, but how much so remains to be seen. After two years of decidedly average performances, the Power might be back on.

(See what I did there?)

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Last weekend’s Showdown was an engrossing game of football, as the return leg will be in four months’ time. On the form of the first three weeks of the season, there’s a not insignificant chance that these teams will meet again at the pointy end of the season.