Armed with perfect reinforcements, Port Adelaide is poised for contention

Jay Croucher Columnist

By Jay Croucher, Jay Croucher is a Roar Expert


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    Jack Watts of Port Adelaide celebrates a goal. (Photo by Mark Brake/Getty Images)

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    A team can look the same for years and then all of a sudden it looks a little less the same and magic is the result.

    Magic – a wonderfully brutal, ruthless form of it – happened at the SCG on Sunday.

    Parts of the game belonged six months from now, with every contest looking and feeling meaningful, particularly to one team. Every possession was earned, the ball won through self-sacrifice in one greasy collision after another. Port sacrificed more, and the final scoreboard rewarded them four goals to the good.

    In Round 1 at the SCG last year, the score read similarly for Port. But this felt different. Port’s early season surge in 2017 felt like a team reinvigorated. This time it feels like a team that is poised.

    Since their unexpected ascent in 2013 and 2014, the Power have been a tease, cruising to respectable but underwhelming win totals on the back of a few transcendent individual offensive talents. When you have Robbie Gray, Chad Wingard, Travis Boak and competence around them, the floor is raised and the ceiling only vaguely in sight.

    Chad Wingard Port Adelaide Power AFL 2017 tall

    AAP Image/David Mariuz

    That ceiling hasn’t really been touched since the 2014 preliminary final. Port would have felt hard done by to have missed the grand final that year, but instead of galvanising them, the closeness of the final day only seemed to inspire premature self-congratulation.

    Two meandering years followed. Last year was a step in the right direction – the team propelled back to the finals by a hardness and defensive integrity that was absent the previous two years. But still something was missing – the depth was suspect and the defence make-shift, and it felt like Gray, Wingard, Paddy Ryder and Charlie Dixon all needed to be transcendent for the Power to beat the best teams.

    At times they looked supreme, playing with burning pace and an imposing contested ball mentality, but most of their emphatic moments came against the worst teams. They went 2-8 against teams that made the finals, the last of those losses the cruellest imaginable.

    But despite so many failures in prove-it matches, getting annihilated by Essendon and Adelaide and handled by Richmond and Melbourne, they just seemed to be a bit too good for the ‘flat-track bully’ label. They showed too much in bludgeoning the Eagles in Perth and playing the Cats until the death in Geelong. But the inconsistency proved fatal, Luke Shuey wielding the final knife, and an ambiguous identity was confined to the simple reality of ‘seventh’.

    There was the foundation of something real, though, even if ‘real’ hadn’t materialised consistently since September 2014. The weaknesses were self-evident – a lack of polish and class by foot beyond the superstars, and imperfections in defence.

    Jack Watts and Steven Motlop would play football in suits if they were allowed to, but for some teams such sophistication is only a good thing. Both have already tidied up the team’s aerial ball movement and finishing, tipping the critical mass of class that Gray, Ryder and Wingard used to fight alone. Tom Rockliff is more in the mould of the players who were already there – think Ollie Wines, Brad Ebert, Sam Powell-Pepper – but having another hard body around the ball frees up Boak, Gray and Wingard to do more damage forward of centre.

    It’s those hard bodies, really, that make Port so tantalising, and made them so magnificent in Sydney. This team plays with force. They play with fury and a purposeful violence, but their hardness isn’t laborious – it’s weaponised and incisive. It’s not the type of physicality that leads to stoppage after the stoppage – it’s the type that breaks the stoppage open, leaves the opponent for dead, and jet skis into the future.

    The defence – with its youth proving precocious and its entrenched hands in Darcy Byrne-Jones, Hamish Hartlett and Toms Clurey and Jonas steady as anything – is being put in a position to succeed by the pressure being generated further up the field.

    Add in a commanding forward line and, assuming he returns healthy, the best ruckman in the game, and Port are suddenly as loaded as any team in the competition.

    They still have everything to prove. All they’ve done in the first two rounds this year is exactly what they did in the first two rounds last year – crush Fremantle at Adelaide Oval and upset the Swans at the SCG.

    This, though, feels different. The coming weeks will tell us if it is.

    Jay Croucher
    Jay Croucher

    From MSG in New York to the MCG in Melbourne, Jay has spent his adult life travelling the world, indulging in sport and approaching it from the angle of history and pop culture. Follow him on Twitter @CroucherJD

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    The Crowd Says (33)

    • April 4th 2018 @ 5:16am
      Powerboy said | April 4th 2018 @ 5:16am | ! Report

    • April 4th 2018 @ 6:17am
      Ditto said | April 4th 2018 @ 6:17am | ! Report

      Port have overtaken Sydney and Geelong, but those teams are obviously in decline. The real tests are again GWS, Adelaide and Richmond, these teams are still on the rise. I think there is still a gap, but we will see.

    • April 4th 2018 @ 6:41am
      1der said | April 4th 2018 @ 6:41am | ! Report

      Think they are primed to win a flag in the next three years. Three A graders hitting 30 this year with Westhoff the only player over 30 with none on the listing hitting 30 until 2020 and that number is currently only 5.

      Went all out in the trade period last year with the next 2-3 years on the radar and I doubt Wines, Boak and Gray will be going any where else in 2019.

      • April 4th 2018 @ 9:08am
        Sammy said | April 4th 2018 @ 9:08am | ! Report

        The only problem is the guys 30+ from this year are 3 of ports best in gray, ryder and boak with westhoff who has been very consistent also in that bracket. If age starts catching up with them it might he this year and next year is their window and they have some big powerful teams to get past in Adelaide, GWS and richmond. The essendon game will be a real marker for tgem as essendon pose a very different set of problems than sydney in that they have a very tall forward line and are lightening quick.
        Particularly on etihad. Port are not tall in defence and could get very exposed with fast ball coming in but we will see soon enough

        • April 4th 2018 @ 10:24am
          AD said | April 4th 2018 @ 10:24am | ! Report

          I wouldn’t count Boak among Port’s best anymore. He’s slid a bit the past few years – when he retires I doubt it’ll cause too much disruption to the team. Gray and especially Ryder will be much harder to replace.

        • April 5th 2018 @ 3:57pm
          Brendon the 1st said | April 5th 2018 @ 3:57pm | ! Report

          Howard is 200cm or thereabouts, last year Port was a bit on the small side in defence but Dougs looks to be the solution to that problem.

    • Roar Rookie

      April 4th 2018 @ 8:59am
      Wilson said | April 4th 2018 @ 8:59am | ! Report

      The win in Sydney has me finally acknowledging the threat that they’ll be this season. Dons at Etihad the next huge test after getting embarrassed there last season. Exciting team to keep an eye on. My one concern is the difficulty facing Australian-based Port fans to get finals tickets with the inevitable explosion in demand after the game at Jiangwan Stadium in May.

      • Roar Rookie

        April 4th 2018 @ 10:15am
        Pedro The Fisherman said | April 4th 2018 @ 10:15am | ! Report

        Doesn’t the win in Sydney merely mean that they should currently be considered to be the same threat that they were last year (when they also beat Sydney in Sydney)?

        • April 4th 2018 @ 10:26am
          AD said | April 4th 2018 @ 10:26am | ! Report

          Too early to tell, I think. Round 1 last year I sat up and took notice, but that was before we found out Sydney were going to start the year 0-6, which ended up taking a bit of the gloss off that win. Without any real form line going into these early games, we need to get a month or so in before we can assess the actual merits of any early season win, I reckon.

          • Roar Rookie

            April 4th 2018 @ 12:00pm
            Wilson said | April 4th 2018 @ 12:00pm | ! Report

            Precisely what AD has just said Pedro. They beat a bottom of the ladder Sydney.

        • April 5th 2018 @ 4:02pm
          Brendon the 1st said | April 5th 2018 @ 4:02pm | ! Report

          Last year felt a lot more flakey than this year, the win this year was born of solid defence and winning at the coal face particularly after half time, Sydney are playing well this year and Buddy was looking extremely dangerous on the weekend, Ports backline this year looks very solid.
          All in all, this win felt solid, different, the style of play looks sustainable and I think Port had another gear.

    • April 4th 2018 @ 9:12am
      Gyfox said | April 4th 2018 @ 9:12am | ! Report

      There is a confidence about this team – but the new recruits are only part of the story. There’s also the young drafts who are showing their class. Port may not be premiers this year, but the foundation is set for the next 5 years of dominance.

      • April 4th 2018 @ 10:32am
        Birdman said | April 4th 2018 @ 10:32am | ! Report

        Woah! 5 years of dominance?

        The Bulldogs prob. thought the same after a flag in 2016 and Port fans certainly did after narrowly losing a prelim in 2014 and we know how that panned out.

    • April 4th 2018 @ 9:15am
      Roger said | April 4th 2018 @ 9:15am | ! Report

      Geez its been 2 games.

      This is written like a side that has gone undefeated for 2/3 of the year.

      I will wait and see on Port, still far too many questions to be answered.