Top-of-the-table Port Adelaide defeated reigning champions Richmond by 21 points at Adelaide Oval on Saturday night, putting on one of the performances of the season to overcome a resistant Tigers team.
With complaints over the state of the game emerging again in recent weeks, the contest at Adelaide Oval established itself as an exhibition of all that is good about modern football right from the first bounce.
Travis Boak, in what would be another phenomenal performance by the 32-year-old former captain and spiritual leader, won the first centre clearance to send the ball forward.
From a chaotic high-pressure situation Port had the slicker hands, eventually finding Peter Ladhams – the two-metre former rookie listed ruckman – deep in the left forward pocket hugging the boundary.
Facing the impossible, Ladhams would snap a checkside banana from the acutest of angles and celebrate with a look of disbelief on his face, a look which does his apparent abilities a disservice.
It turns out the game, as most without rose-coloured glasses and memories of a fictional past golden age have realised, is alright. But that is another story.
This was a contest showcasing extreme levels of pressure, with players executing time and again under the tension, in a seesawing battle of the wills.
Port arrived on Adelaide Oval having pushed the big red button and gone nuclear with their attack on both ball and opposition. In that first quarter Powell-Pepper (twice), Wines and Ladhams all straitjacketed Richmond players in ferocious holding the ball tackles.
Karl Amon really announced himself as a classy player in a big game, showcasing a slippery set of skills to turn, or shrug to lose a player and then find space with his clinical left foot.
But as good as Port were – completely dominant in all statistical categories – Richmond would fight back in the fashion of champions, with some stunning end to end football.
The standout passage of play for the Tigers was Mabior Chol putting on a one-man show, by first beating Trent McKenzie then Jarrod Lienert on the wing, before ending his hundred-metre effort by clinically finding Riewoldt in the goal square.
When Jack Riewoldt kicked his second near the end of the first quarter – to cut Port’s lead to just seven points at the first break – the feeling was one of missed opportunities.
As if to twist the knife, Richmond came out for the second quarter with greatly increased pressure and looked in the ascendancy when a Kane Lambert goal put them ahead by a solitary point.
But the Power responded through an excellent contested mark and long-range finish from Ladhams.
Amidst the chaos the game was elevating itself into the stratosphere, either infuriating or mesmerising you depending on your position, as Richmond scored in twice in controversial circumstances though Riewoldt – after a clear push in the back from Dustin Martin – and then once again through Martin after Riewoldt should have been dead and buried holding the ball.
But even if the decisions went their way, they were getting the ball deep in their forward line and putting the Port defence under immense pressure.
Four points down again and with the crowd incensed, Port responded with Boak sending the ball forward. Dixon, feeding on the fury, absolutely poleaxed a Richmond player looking to cut off his lead, leaving the ball to eventually find its way to second gamer Boyd Woodcock who snapped a brilliant goal under pressure from forty-five metres.
Having regained a nine-point lead on the cusp of halftime, Robbie Gray looked certain to score as he received the ball at the top of the goal-square, but the siren sounded first in agonising fashion.
That moment brought a scintillating half of football to an end, but equally represented how, despite the lead, Port had failed to maximise their returns in what had been close to a complete team performance.
Yet the home team emerged from the Geoff Motely race for the second half, as they were meant to be going on, again dominating from the restart.
Charlie Dixon, having missed two sitters from 20 metres, baffled the fans and himself in the most delightful way possible by kicking an Ablett-esque snap from the inside right pocket. In more ways than one, the maths didn’t add up, but fortunately no one was looking to run the numbers.
With just six minutes gone in the third quarter Ollie Wines – a bull all day and likely B.O.G. in his 150th game – hit a ruck contest at speed deep in the forward line, snapping a goal to send his team out to a twenty-one-point lead.
Suddenly, the Tiger train was on the verge of derailing.
But Richmond responded with a snapped goal through Jake Aarts, as Port could only find the wrong side of the behind post on two occasions.
Then it was time for the Chol show to resume, as he out-muscled opposition players to mark and score twice in three minutes.
A Sydney Stack goal near the quarters end gave the Tigers an all-important lead at three-quarter time.
With the rain seemingly coming in – Richmond are statistically the best wet football team – and Damien Hardwick visibly firing up his team for a pivotal last quarter, the odds felt to be tipping against a Port side who had gave their all.
The old familiar feeling was welling up inside.
Instead, within 15 seconds of the restart Zak Butters had danced through a cluster of Richmond players, splitting them like the Red Sea before firing out a quick-fire handball to a Robbie Gray who – back to his best – put his third goal on the board.
A minute later Houston had added another: the black and white tide was rising. From the next centre bounce Dusty Martin tried to break the lines to rouse his team but, in a moment representative of the game, Tom Rockliff caught him in a steely tackle to win a free-kick.
In a moment reminiscent of Hardwick – as a Port Adelaide player in the 2004 grand final getting in Jason Akermanis’ face to draw out an overturned freekick – Rocky let Martin know about it from what was certainly not a covid-safe distance, drawing the reaction and a fifty metre penalty.
In yet another wily old veteran move, Rockliff ran right up the backside of Josh Caddy – who was where he should not have been – to ensure the referee gave a second penalty, ensuring a certain goal.
Suddenly, Port were three goals away within a minute and a half of the final quarter.
Up in the coach’s box, Hardwick was ready to detonate, being unsurprisingly unable to appreciate the poetic justice of it all, as he was hoisted on something resembling his own petard. A headphone set narrowly avoided its demise, but the damage had been done, the game was all but settled.
This was truly an elite contest of football, more remarkable for the significant outs both sides had.
In the pretender-era Port would have battled manfully, put on a performance worthy of winning the game but lost their heads or their desire at some key point.
The game was far from perfect, but four quarters of utterly relentless football against the reigning premier announces Port’s arrival as a genuine contender.
In their 150th year, Port Adelaide put on a performance worthy of the Prison Bar guernsey.
Bruce McAvaney, in the recent Onward to Victory documentary celebrating Port’s heritage, described Fos Williams, the father of the modern-day footy club and its ethos, as “arguably the most determined person who ever put on a football guernsey.”
His teams had an “edict of never, ever give up” and were so hard to beat because they would “never stop.”
More than anything else, that is what Port as a team brought to the table on Saturday night and it sets a marker for the rest of the season and the competition.
The clubs Creed, which Fos Williams put into words in 1962, sets out a series of expectations by which players and management would be held to account, before announcing, finally “we concede there can be honour in defeat, but… [it] can only come after human endeavour on the playing field is completely exhausted.”
In terms of endeavour and effort, both teams retained their honour, a fact acknowledged by the widespread appreciation for the contest within the football world, but only one marched to victory, announcing to the football world, in their 150th year: “We’ll see you in September.”