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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.
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.
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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.