You want to believe in the best version of any team.
Round 1 is a fountain of positive thinking and misinformation, and it fits Port Adelaide perfectly.
Every year it’s too easy to talk yourself into the Power. They always look good on paper and their electric best is more memorable than their confused worst.
Heading into this season, though, the perception changed. Too many people had been burned by the Power. After years of being an over-hyped pre-season fancy, Port found themselves outside the top ten of premiership betting and opened the season as a near-six goal underdog.
People had talked themselves into Essendon instead.
Suddenly Port didn’t look so appetising on paper – a disappointing savouriness made worse by the absences of Ollie Wines and Charlie Dixon. The big names now appeared small. Steven Motlop, Jack Watts and Tom Rockliff had been written off after underwhelming debut seasons at Alberton, the backline looked weak, and the forward line lacked an obvious focal point without Dixon.
Even the most heralded players weren’t as imposing. Robbie Gray and Travis Boak are getting on and Paddy Ryder’s best hasn’t been seen since 2017.
Concerns abounded over the coach, Ken Hinkley, who has little in his recent past to suggest innovation or the possibility of reinvention. It all added up to ‘blah’.
So, as Port were running rampant over the touted Dees at the MCG – bullying them around the contest, outrunning them in space and slicing them by hand through the corridor and out wide – as a neutral, you almost felt betrayed.
Where was this in previous years, when we all believed that you could do this?
It won’t matter much to Port or their fans, who only need today and tomorrow, both timelines that now look a lot more appealing than they did a week ago.
The idea of Port Adelaide as a great team has always been easy to conceive: they’re brutal around the contest with big-bodied physical midfielders, they run endlessly, and they have just enough class in individuals like Gray and Ryder to finish off the hard work.
The problem has been that the brutality has never stopped at the contest, extending to the team’s ball use by foot. Outside of Gray, it’s hard to find elite ball users in the team and that issue hasn’t gone away.
When the game slows down and defensive, soundly structured teams set up against Port and put men behind the ball (like Geelong, in particular, did against them last season), they haven’t shown the ability or skill-level to meticulously work their way to scores.
And if they’re not scoring heavily, the defence hasn’t shown it’s able to hold up.
Melbourne didn’t play Port the way you’re supposed to play Port. Melbourne didn’t really do much of anything. They were just slow, lifeless bodies on the field around the Power’s quick, alive bodies, and that was really the match.
There is reason to think Hinkley’s team in 2019 might be different. With an injection of youth and a commitment to aggressive ball-use, the team has some vigour after going stale in the back-end of last year.
The new rules favour Port and all teams that can win the ball in the contest at an elite level, because they’re banging the ball forward to more one-on-one match-ups.
Exiting defence has been an issue, and the new rules providing defenders on the last line greater space will help them.
The older brigade isn’t done yet and the youth is tantalising. Zak Butters did things on the weekend that players a decade older don’t have the courage or genius to do.
Jack Watts played what might be his most promising game – carrying himself with a confidence and effortless calm reading the ball in defence, no longer burdened with the need to lead up to the ball and find it like a needle in a haystack, instead able to just patiently react to it coming his way, as, perhaps, he was always meant to.
Tom Rockliff looked himself again and Scott Lycett is exactly what this team needed. Justin Westhoff continues to exist in the happy level just barely below star.
It’s too early to buy into Port or anyone. The tests will come in rounds three through five – at Brisbane, home to Richmond, at West Coast. By then we might know whether things this time might finally be different.