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Opinion

Ken Hinkley and his Port Adelaide reboot

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13th October, 2020
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In 2013, Ken Hinkley arrived at a club which had kept together a core of young players in difficult times, but that needed a new outlook and gameplan to give them confidence.

Rapid success was achieved through the implementation of Hinkley’s run-and-gun attacking style, backed up by the return of fitness guru Darren Burgess from Premier League club Liverpool.

The deadly combination was a young, rising and highly fit team, instilled with Hinkley’s attacking game, which actually believed they could run over the top of everyone.

As Hinkley noted at the time, they were recruiting to suit this profile.

They had the momentum of a great comeback story and the power of a newly opened Adelaide Oval. In many ways, the stars were aligning in thrilling fashion.

After a surprising destruction of an overconfident Collingwood side in the 2013 finals before ultimately falling to the Cats, a rejuvenated Power hit the top of the ladder mid-season in 2014, before taking the unusual decision to up the training load.

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While costing the team a top-four place as regular-season performances suffered, fifth-placed Port hosted Richmond in Week 1 of the finals and utterly destroyed them with one of the most devastating opening quarters you will ever see.

They followed this up by travelling west, undoubtedly one of the toughest tests the finals can bring, to beat Fremantle on their home deck after having been down by 31 points during the second quarter.

This culminated in a preliminary final appearance against eventual premiers Hawthorn, in which they fell short by three points.

Some have pondered how a Port win against the Hawks – who were dominant winners over Sydney in the grand final – might have changed the entire football landscape, removing Hawthorn as the dominant team and establishing a rising Port as a force.

It remains a tantalising thought exercise, but the reality is a young team which should have improved instead stagnated and spent years struggling to find the missing pieces.

However, intriguing was the key difference between Hinkley’s early teams and the new era.

There have clearly been tactical tweaks and large turnover in the playing group, with the remnants of the emergent team of 2014 now forming the venerable old guard, but what stands out is the renewed focus on kicking skills.

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In Hinkley’s first build, players such as Matt White and Kane Mitchell exemplified the focus on running ability and outside speed, at the expense of kicking ability.

In many ways, it can be associated with Port’s downfall and position as ‘nearly men’ over the ensuing years; they would run hard and were dangerous against lesser teams but consistently exposed against the best.

The new focus has been on elite-level kicking and decision-making abilities.

Clearly the young trio of Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma and Connor Rozee capture much of the attention for the turnaround, but there are a number of players whio have been assembled or worked their way into the team over the last five years.

Zak Butters

Zak Butters of the Power (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos/Getty Images)

The Hinkley reboot of 2020 now features a large cohort of players with exceptional kicking skills who have been assembled over time, such as Dan Houston, Karl Amon, Trent McKenzie, Ryan Burton, Darcy-Byrne Jones and Steven Motlop.

There are further players around the fringe of the team such as Kane Farrell and Riley Bonner whose primary attribute is their perhaps raking left-foot kicks.

Then there are those who have been at Port and improved their foot skills dramatically. Travis Boak has become an elite user in space, as have Tom Jonas and Tom Clurey in the defensive line.

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Some players already had sublime abilities, like Robbie Gray and Hamish Hartlett, but they have been redeployed to use those skills to maximum effect, with Hartlett moving to halfback and Gray crucial for forward-half scoring chains.

Indeed, the focus on the defensive half is evident, and necessary, as turnovers in those areas are now simply so costly.

The attempt to turn Jack Watts into a defender last season can be seen through this new vision, as can Trent McKenzie’s subsequent inclusion.

The decision to trade Dougal Howard was, and in some cases remains, baffling to many but if we place him alongside his replacement this season, McKenzie, the only clear advantage the latter has as a defender is his abilities by foot – the man is after all known as the ‘Cannon’.

Not only is McKenzie an accurate kick but the distance he can achieve gives him a press busting qualities.

The ten Port players with the highest kicking efficiency this season are: Tom Clurrey, Jarrod Lienert, Trent McKenzie, Tom Jonas, Riley Bonner, Sam Mayes, Dan Houston, Ryan Burton, Zak Butters and Hamish Hartlett.

Ranking by kicking efficiency across a whole team is an imperfect tool, as it biases those players who generally operate in more space – notably defenders but also wingers – but it does go some way to showing how important reliable disposal by foot has become in the defensive half.

Two outliers are Butters, with the ninth highest kicking efficiency, and Motlop with the 12th – both players who spend most of their time in the forward half, demonstrating the quality they possess.

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Steven Motlop

Steven Motlop (Photo by Daniel Kalisz/Getty Images)

Interestingly, one area which has largely escaped Hinkley’s overhaul is the centre square midfielders – where ugly ducklings and raging bulls still have a place at the coal face.

Ollie Wines stands out as an average field kick, while Tom Rockliff and Sam Powell-Pepper thrive in the rough and tumble of physical contests.

None of Port’s midfielders rank in the top 20 for kicking efficiency, highlighting their role is often to simply get it forward at all costs. These are the team’s extractors who bullock the ball out, either handballing it out to slicker and quicker hands or sending it forward by any means possible. In these situations, and by such methods, the damage of a potential turnover is heavily reduced and cancelled out by the forward half position achieved.

The result of Hinkley’s refit was evident against Geelong in the first week of the finals, as Port at times outplayed the Cats at their own game by maintaining possession and moving through the press, when the quick transition was not on.

The importance of possession has come to the fore, causally related to the ability to switch play in the back half and move around the opposition defensive structure to open gaps.

Back-half turnovers have become the bane of any team wishing to compete at the top level as they completely nullify and expose the defensive structures which have been laboriously put in place.

If Hinkley 1.0 was somewhat naïve to this fact and relied too much on all-out pressure and attack, Hinkley 2.0 has been built on more solid foundations which take into account the increasing emphasis on skills, since Hawthorn’s dominant period which Hinkley 1.0 was so close to interrupting.

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The Port Adelaide of 2020 still places an emphasis on run-and-gun, high-pressure football, but a base-line for players, in all but the most inside or attacking of positions, which must go with these other abilities is a kicking ability that provides a safety margin and allows the team to react differently to in-game situations.

While nonetheless retaining the focus on lofty, attacking football, the Hinkley reboot has lowered the eyes and turned its gaze turned earthward, returning its foundations to the simple act of ball hitting boot.