At the end of 2020, one of the Power’s true champions retired: Justin Westhoff.
The pain of a narrow preliminary final loss will be the perfect sharp edge to carry Port Adelaide into the future, after a successful 2020.
While many expected the Power to jump into the top eight, no one could have predicted the club’s incredible rise to the minor premiership.
After off-season pressure was heaped on coach Ken Hinkley after the 2019 season, his bold proclamation of a guaranteed finals appearance was perhaps the boost the playing group required to take a step forward. A sense of pride emanates from Port Adelaide, and rightfully so.
A first-place finish, the first since the hat trick of minor premierships that culminated in the 2004 premiership, highlights that this is a nice squad featuring plenty of young, burgeoning talent.
Work will need to be done to maintain such a high level of competitiveness going forward, but there isn’t much negativity that can or will be drawn out of the year.
Let’s break down Port Adelaide’s 2020 season.
Perhaps the best aspect of the Power’s game this season is that they actually looked like a top-tier team for much of 2020.
Even if neutrals didn’t have complete confidence, there was a newfound sense of professionalism in the approach to victory that we haven’t seen for a little while, and it left doubters with unsubstantiated arguments throughout the home-and-away season.
It isn’t unfair to suggest the club has been the footballing equivalent of a rollercoaster for a large part of the previous decade, with the gap between its best and worst arguably the biggest in the competition.
2020, however, was a different story.
Poor performances were an aberration rather than an expectation, with a superior midfield and the most hard-working group in the competition ensuring that this wasn’t a year to be lost in the shuffle.
That group in the middle was arguably the strongest and most settled core in the competition, with the Power turning away from a youthful approach that was far more prominent in the season’s infancy.
When push came to shove, Travis Boak, Ollie Wines, Tom Rockliff and Robbie Gray were the ones to feature in the centre square, with Sam Powell-Pepper pushing further out towards a wing and attending stoppages around the ground.
The approach certainly worked – Port Adelaide was the top-ranked team in the competition for clearances and contested possessions, and it often broke down the opposition given the shorter games.
In playing three or four genuinely above-average extractors at stoppages, Port Adelaide’s ability to actually get clean contested ball rather than fumble around meant that it could feed players sitting outside of the contest, rather than relying on explosivity to break away.
It’s a simple approach on paper, but not something that is often implemented by teams, who look for that extra edge and x-factor.
Robbie Gray ended up being that player to often benefit on the offensive side of a stoppage, and while he hasn’t got the speed he once possessed, the smart ball use and ability to create space for a kick was vital heading inside 50 for Port Adelaide.
The contested strength also allowed the team to use an even amount of player on-ball, going head-to-head with the opposition rather than an oversaturation of numbers in the contest.
This was vital for the club’s defensive scheme, and the positioning of the wingers deeper and wider than may be seen at other clubs. More emphasis can be placed on these wingmen, and more specifically the two-way running that was provided.
It felt as though Port Adelaide returned to being the fittest team in the competition, a crown they wore proudly for a couple of seasons before it became a novelty to an unstructured approach.
Karl Amon and Xavier Duursma won’t receive enormous credit, but for what they produced and how important they were in 2020, it isn’t unfair to suggest this was the second-best combination in the competition outside of Mitch Duncan and Sam Menegola.
Amon has been a popular target for opposition clubs but has settled in as a key player for Port Adelaide, and he was often a catalyst in the swarm-running approach this season. A raking left boot and a willingness to set up deep meant there was another layer of protection in a constantly shifting whole-field defence, while also switching it up with his running patterns.
Duursma had to deal with injuries throughout the season and his numbers suffered from a couple of early exits, yet the second-year player is only rivalled by Sam Walsh as a young player who runs hard to make himself available in both pockets at either end of the ground.
When Duursma was unavailable, we saw Sam Mayes earn some senior time as a defensive wingman who fit perfectly into the structure and was able to provide a strong tackling presence as well as a good ability to send the ball forward.
This overall control of the middle portion of the ground was ultimately Port Adelaide’s do-or-die approach, without a heap of backup support to warrant a shift in tactic.
The aforementioned head-to-head midfield approach is what made Port Adelaide’s defensive unit one of the top groups in the competition. Wherever a stoppage was held, Dan Houston was usually about 15 metres removed on the defensive side, while Tom Jonas favoured a position another 25 metres behind those two on the stoppage side of the ground.
Port Adelaide was able to use its extra numbers to defend space, knowing that an opposition clearance would generally be under pressure and likely a rushed kick into space.
Darcy Byrne-Jones and any mix of the Riley Bonner/Jarrod Lienert/Ryan Burton rotation would generally take the central positioning, with the Power bargaining on the opposition staying on a wing rather than looking to take advantage of weaker defenders in the corridor. It worked.
The benefit of all this positioning was that the relevant wingman, or the likes of Hamish Hartlett and Byrne-Jones, were always close enough to any contest to be fed the ball and either switch the play, or run directly through the middle.
Houston’s return to his favoured role across half-back made him super important, given his love for the aerial contest and reading the play, as well as his tendency to kick the ball without fear through the middle.
Perhaps he was the more likely All Australian candidate, over the first-timer in Byrne-Jones, after averaging 17 disposals, four marks and 340 metres gained per match.
The Power liked to keep Trent McKenzie as the deepest defender, despite his being undersized, and would generally prefer Tom Clurey to be defending the lead more.
If defending the stoppage didn’t work as planned, the entire back nine players worked hard to get back into the defensive 50 and cause congestion, which ended up being the best way to create a strong unit that was undersized in almost every game.
Tom Jonas is much-loved among the supporter base and coaching staff, and one would suspect that a more worldly and unbiased footballing world would see him rated as highly as players such as Dylan Grimes.
All these factors were Port Adelaide’s biggest strengths, and the keys to their successful season. The Power broke down the opposition more often than not, and once they did, it was simply a matter of putting the dominance on the scoreboard.
Charlie Dixon had a really nice season, his best season 2016, finishing with 34 goals and leading the league in contested marks and ranking highly for total score involvement. Quite obviously, getting nearly a full season out of the 30-year-old was extremely important. As the focal point and main attraction, Dixon’s form created space for his teammates by default. If he wasn’t able to take the big mark, there’d be space for the smalls to go to work.
No one else really stood out offensively for Port Adelaide, however, there were ten players who scored between eight and 15 goals for the season, highlighting the even spread.
Structurally, it was beneficial to have Peter Ladhams as a tall target alongside Dixon, although he had his struggles at times.
Todd Marshall managed 11 goals in 14 games, as did the retiring Brad Ebert, while Connor Rozee only re-emerged as an offensive threat against Richmond with two excellent goals and a sense of excitement.
The final and biggest success story in an attacking sense for the Power was clearly Zak Butters.
No player earned greater universal praise for their mix of cleanliness and toughness as the 20-year-old, who was superb when filling in on the wing, or sticking to the attacking 75-metre area of the ground.
Early in the season, he was picking up contested ball at centre half-back before running the other way and setting up easy shots inside 50.
Butters finished the season in the top five for goal assists, while averaging 15 disposals, three marks and three tackles in his 17 games, also kicking 11 goals.
It’s incredible to consider how well Duursma, Butters and Rozee have played in their first two seasons and shows that nailing one draft can turn a club’s fortunes around.
Despite finishing the home-and-away season with the fewest points conceded in the competition, there is still a query over the sustainability of an undersized defence.
Tom Clurey is the player most associated with the key defensive post but, as earlier stated, his strength is his closing speed on the lead and isn’t a reliable one-on-one player.
McKenzie was the deepest defender throughout the year which matched him up on the second key forward more often than not, but at 191 centimetres and a similar size to Ryan Burton, it would rely on a second successive season of playing out of his skin.
The saving grace at Port Adelaide more often than not has been Tom Jonas as a truly elite defender who thrives in this team structure, with his reading of the play to nullify contests the team’s best avenue to stopping monster forwards.
As is the case with any successful team, however, Port Adelaide’s style and structure will be studied and dissected by opposition contenders through the summer months. With the way the Power approached things defensively this season, with a substantial attribution due for the midfield group, something may need to give.
One would suspect the way to improve the defence would come from a recruit, a strong body to assist in man-to-man coverage. The Round 12 decimation at the hands of Geelong is proof alone that things are not perfect, after the way the Cats dominated in the midfield and completely exploited the Power’s defence.
What was a 2020 aberration is an immediate orange flag in terms of being an item to really knuckle down and focus on at Alberton.
Similarly, the offensive end produced some great results this season, but such well-rounded output has historically been unsustainable over multiple seasons.
Against top eight opposition, Port Adelaide averaged 57.7 points per game, which included 89 points against an at-the-time shambolic West Coast outfit, and 93 points on 28 scoring shots against the Tigers in Round 11 – which should’ve been much more.
One outstanding offensive performance out of nine games highlights the importance of work rate and defensive running at the Power, which is perfectly reasonable, but something the best teams tend to tweak in order to become a more well-rounded threat.
It’s a dangerous scenario if Port Adelaide plans on relying on Charlie Dixon going forward as their one-out big forward, and there may well be a slight hesitancy in a longer season given his injury history and the fact he has likely entered the twilight of his career.
What worked well this season for every team will need a refresh and a new spin when the quarters are extended, and the number of rounds increases.
The final aspect of Port Adelaide’s team to touch on is a more definitive ruck situation.
At 28 years of age, Scott Lycett is clearly in his prime and is a good player when firing. There is a toughness that matches Port Adelaide’s ethos, and his ability to find space to grab the ball is really handy – he finished with at least nine disposals in every game.
Peter Ladhams has shown great raw talent in the ruck position as a strong threat around the ground, with his cleanliness at ground level and contested marking really standing out. It is an overused expression to say that an athletic ruckman is akin to an extra midfielder, however, Ladhams would be one of the more skilled talls who simply needs to improve in the ruck department.
The wildcard in all of this is Sam Hayes, a former draft slider who has really good skills. Hayes had to deal with a serious knee issue post-draft, however, he looks to be the best prospect.
All three ruckmen are contracted, with Ladhams and Lycett owning longer-term deals, however, it will still be interesting to see whether Port looks to cash in on a younger talent going forward.
It’s quite obvious that there’s plenty to like about Port Adelaide going forward, with the group featuring plenty of talented players who have just reached or are yet to enter their prime.
The approach to addressing the question marks is of great interest, whether the club identifies them as areas to improve, or choose to back themselves and risk resting on their laurels.
Going through each area of the ground, tweaks can be made.
While recruiting another key defender seems obvious, I think there may be a desire at Port Adelaide to convert into a more aerial, intercepting style of defence. Despite it being a settled back six, there could and likely will be personnel changes which can make that predicted change an easier switch.
Port Adelaide will draft Lachlan Jones after other clubs seek to place a first-round bid on him, and he should be playing to in Round 1, 2021. He immediately provides something different to what we see at Port Adelaide, as the most well-rounded defender in the draft crop. Jones has greater defensive accountability than he perhaps gets credit for, with his size and intercepting ability making him a strong all-round threat.
The young defender performed well at SANFL level this season as a medium-size defender, and will be a great asset to have.
Selecting Jones would likely mean that Jonas can play a little deeper defensively, which is the Power’s best use for their captain, with Jones able to play as a cross between Houston and Jonas.
Another indicator that Port will head down the aerial path is the likely transformation of Miles Bergman from x-factor forward to intercepting defender, pre-debut. This move has shades of James Sicily all over it and will look to maximise Bergman’s marking ability and fearlessness in a more prolific way.
A final defensive move can come from a potentially shrewd move, or a left-field internal switch. Rory Thompson from Gold Coast would have almost been the perfect target had he not partially torn his ACL, yet another serious knee injury. It leaves two options that spring to mind.
Oscar McDonald is a big-bodied key defender that has his limitations, but in the right system, could be genuinely effective. In fact, in 2017 and 2018, McDonald was actually rated as one of the better stoppers in the league statistically, all while taking on the hardest defensive match-up. In the Port system, he is a lot bigger than any current option and would not cost much.
Aliir Aliir has been linked to the club, which matches the sentiment of the above.
The second option would be a permanent move of Todd Marshall into defence. Marshall couldn’t take a main key defensive post without bulking up, but he isn’t looking as though he can be a genuine offensive focal point at Port Adelaide.
The 22-year-old is more like a high half-forward at 198 centimetres, with his pressure and field kicking elite. Another preseason in the gym and a move into defence would be entirely intriguing and it’s a move I like.
This would leave another hole at the other end of the ground, but it’s not one that has been a deficiency at Port Adelaide.
It was Peter Ladhams who was the secondary tall target in attack, and that had mixed results including a very poor finish to the season. Playing the second ruck was an asset in 2020 that might not be as effective in 2021, if that player doesn’t show the nuance required to be valuable.
Maybe Sam Hayes enters the mix, given he has had a fair bit of experience in attack and at 204 centimetres, would be a more commanding presence.
Or maybe coach Hinkley feels as though Mitch Georgiades and his leaping ability in attack will be a more regular feature next season, and will want a more lead-up type of player who can win one-on-ones, but will look to outwork his opponent.
It’s what Todd Marshall has tried to be in the opening parts of his career. Perhaps it’s why the preliminary interest in Ben Brown was a factor. Maybe the Power could complete the set and cheaply select Tom McDonald?
No one has connected the brothers with Port Adelaide, and the supporter base mightn’t get fully behind a move that brings in two players who couldn’t get a game for a bottom ten club, no matter how they may fit.
Does Jesse Hogan’s name come up in conversation as an interesting option?
It was a much easier time when Justin Westhoff could fill in any of the gaps, but there’s a giant size gap there, and the retirement of Brad Ebert leaves another hole.
Orazio Fantasia makes a lot of sense as a recruit with the vacancies and should be chased and secured with relative ease, to play as a Rozee-lite on the half-forward flank while Gray is a pure forward pocket.
Then, Port can play Gray as an exclusive small forward opposite Boyd Woodcock, who deserves to move ahead of Steve Motlop in the pecking order. Adjustments at either end will simply make the Power well-rounded with its strong midfield that increases in depth.
Boak and Rockliff have high-level footy ahead of them, and Wines appears to be settled. Powell-Pepper has his role, and the wings should be a rotation of Karl Amon, Xavier Duursma and the elite touch of Zak Butters and Kane Farrell.
With youthful depth that have best 22 potential such as Willem Drew on the inside, or Dylan Williams and Jackson Mead as high half-forwards, the depth is really encouraging.
Given the predicted changes in defence, it could be an opportunity to move Ryan Burton onto the wing when fit, as he is a supremely talented player struggling with injury, or even a Darcy Byrne-Jones move to the midfield could be on the cards. A sneaky move for a veteran to win the premiership in 2021 would be fun – Shaun Higgins anyone?
There is great potential for flexibility in this Port Adelaide team that already showed it has what it takes to be a feared competitor in the AFL. Perhaps it’s ambitious to suggest a number of changes across the lines, but the great teams are always one step ahead of the game.
It isn’t necessarily a matter of bringing in a bunch of players, although a couple of the aforementioned names simply must be considered. It’s about how the squad is set up, and Ken Hinkley has a really likeable group of players at his disposal.
One year is all it took to turn this team from a big question mark into a premiership contender. The job is not close to done, but Power fans can be happy with the upward trajectory.