In 2017, Port achieved the unique feat of finishing second for both points for and points against, yet still couldn’t find a spot in the top four at the end of the season.
To add insult to injury, they then lost a home elimination final after the siren, thanks to Luke Shuey’s rare combination of rubber spine and nerves of steel.
The Power’s inglorious end did not truly reflect their season. Or did it?
Splitting the ladder in half, Port had a record of an extraordinary 12-0 against the bottom nine teams, but only 2-9 against the top nine, including that finals loss to the Eagles. They would beat up on the weaklings, but were found wanting against the testing material.
It was fitting that West Coast brought about their undoing, because the Eagles have carried the mantle of flat track bully for the last few years, but it now sits quite clearly with the Power.
Can they turn things around in 2018?
B: Darcy Byrne-Jones, Tom Clurey, Matthew Broadbent
HB: Hamish Hartlett, Tom Jonas, Jasper Pittard
C: Steven Motlop, Tom Rockliff, Jared Polec
HF: Jack Watts, Justin Westhoff, Chad Wingard
F: Robbie Gray, Charlie Dixon, Sam Gray
Foll: Paddy Ryder, Ollie Wines, Travis Boak
Int: Brad Ebert, Sam Powell-Pepper, Karl Amon, Jake Neade
Em: Dan Houston, Jack Hombsch, Riley Bonner
There is plenty of versatility in the Port best 22.
Like the best cricket all-rounders that can demand a place in their side for either their batting or bowling, the Power has at least half a dozen players that can earn their spot playing as a specialist in more than one part of the field.
This is a bit unlike Luke Beveridge at the Dogs, who tries to shoehorn players into various roles that sometimes don’t look natural. Ken Hinkley has the luxury of several versatile guns at his disposal.
We mentioned flat track bullies earlier, a team that folded under pressure, and another label that is often applied in that situation is front-runners. Yet, Port have basically doubled down on attack coming into this season with bringing Jack Watts and Steven Motlop into the fold, in essence replacing pressure forwards like Jarman Impey (traded to Hawthorn) and Aaron Young (traded to Gold Coast).
Watts and Motlop have hardly been the poster boys for intensity and two-way running across their respective careers, and have always divided opinion.
People tend to fall into two camps with these players. You choose to either see what they can do and celebrate it (the sure-footedness, poise and skill of Watts; Motlop’s dancing feet and vision), or you are blinded by their weaknesses and unable to overcome it (picking and choosing their moments, inconsistency, laziness).
So, you’re probably thinking these two will round out a devastating forward division for Port, or that all they’ll get is more of the same and be let down in key moments.
Mid-forward is where it is going to happen for them.
Charlie Dixon is a bit of a throwback as a hard-leading, pack-busting, take-no-prisoners brute forward. Justin Westhoff floats through the air, and may play more forward after the departure of Jackson Trengove. Watts will push up the ground and deliver inside fifty with aplomb.
Robbie Gray and Chad Wingard are proven All Australian quality and lead the smaller brigade rotating through, along with newly acquired Tom Rockliff as a smaller one-on-one marking option in his rests from midfield duty. If Rockliff changes with Robbie Gray and Wingard, opposition back pockets will have to play on three distinct types of player – not many could do it.
Motlop is ever dangerous, and Sam Gray plays his role well. Travis Boak spent more time forward than in previous seasons, but might return to his true home in the middle with the addition of Motlop.
Ollie Wines is very much a traditional midfielder, and the question now is how much improvement he has in him. Sam Powell-Pepper’s first year was the closest thing we have seen to Dustin Martin since the man himself burst on the scene in 2010, ‘don’t argue’ and all. Brad Ebert is the nuts and bolts, and Jared Polec is about as wingman as it gets.
Port has cobbled together a no-frills defence, especially in terms of key position players. Tom Clurey, Dougal Howard and Jack Hombsch all get called upon, while Tom Jonas plays taller than his physique. Their job isn’t so much to intercept as it is to bring the ball to ground for their fleet of running defenders to sweep the ball away.
Hamish Hartlett, Jasper Pittard and Darcy Byrne-Jones are the first choice half-backs, and the Power always look at their best when these three are on song and making good decisions, while Matthew Broadbent fell out of favour at stages last season but still has attributes.
Pittard and Broadbent will miss the start of the year through injury, so that presents opportunities for Riley Bonner and Dan Houston, who have shown something from limited appearances so far. Depth in the running backs doesn’t appear to be an issue.
So what can Port do to bridge the gap and get more wins against their fellow top-four aspirants? Kicking straighter would help – three times last year they had more scoring shots than their top eight opponent but lost.
Ken Hinkley and staff should have been putting a lot of time into the mental side of the game with their playing list over pre-season. Damien Hardwick did this at Richmond heading into 2017, for a celebrated turnaround.
We can see all the tools at the Power’s disposal, but their application becomes lacking when the chips are down, and resilience goes missing. They need to learn to play ugly for longer periods when the game is on their opponent’s terms.
Port Adelaide under Hinkley are a lot like Watts and Motlop. If you see what they’re good at, you are optimistic they can overcome the negatives. But it’s just as easy to see them pessimistically. I’m in the first camp… for now.
Prediction – third
Full 2018 AFL ladder prediction
3. Port Adelaide Power
4th: Geelong Cats
5th: Richmond Tigers
6th: Melbourne Demons
7th: Greater Western Sydney Giants
8th: Essendon Bombers
9th: Hawthorn Hawks
10th: Collingwood Magpies
11th: Western Bulldogs
12th: St Kilda Saints
13th: West Coast Eagles
14th: North Melbourne Kangaroos
15th: Fremantle Dockers
16th: Brisbane Lions
17th: Carlton Blues
18th: Gold Coast Suns