Not even the most one-eyed of Melbourne supporters could have predicted how their preliminary final against Geelong would go.
A truly unfathomable 83-point demolition of their age old rivals has put them through to a grand final – and as warm favourites – while the Cats are left to lick their wounds after once again falling badly short when it counts.
Here are my talking points from tonight’s bloodbath.
“It’s got a whiff of last night about it.” Those were Justin Leppitsch’s words early in the first half in Channel Seven’s commentary and his prophecy came emphatically true.
The depth of the Bulldog midfield was always going to be the envy of the competition this season, but tonight especially it was a runaway snowball that Port Adelaide had no hope of slowing down.
Ken Hinkley’s bizarre decision to start with tagger Willem Drew on the bench has to go down as a serious blunder. Tom Liberatore got off the chain early to set up some early goals as they raced out to a 32-point lead before some Port fans had lowered their scarves from the pre-game INXS chorus.
By the time Drew was properly into the game, it was too late. The Dogs on-ballers were in full stride and their Port opponents had already been rattled.
Dermott Brereton was scathing in his half time assessment on Fox Footy’s commentary.
“That first quarter – I know they’ve been outplayed most of the game – but that first 14 minutes, five goals to zip, was disastrous. They didn’t touch the ball, they didn’t win the ball, and they’ve got some horrendous numbers in terms of how they’re not winning the ball at ground level,” he said.
While I don’t agree with his call that the Power are “one bull short” in their midfield setup, they just didn’t give themselves a chance and the numbers speak for themselves.
At half time, the Dogs led the contested possession tally by 25, the clearance tally by nine (eleven in stoppage clearances) and the inside 50 count by 13. The ground ball get count was 34-13 in the visitors’ favour after one quarter.
Part of that was pure brilliance by the Bulldogs star-studded midfield, but the other part of it was unacceptable meekness from the Port brigade.
I would never normally bring up running bounces as a stat, but the fact the Dogs had ten in the first half was typical of the free reign they had in the middle of the ground.
Mark Ricciuto put it best in his half time comments.
“The Western Bulldogs are just far too hungry and far too willing to put their bodies on the line, whereas Port Adelaide are just non-competitive tonight.
“You’re no hope of winning a game of finals football if you’re not prepared to put your body over the ball.”
Only one team wanted it enough – and it showed.
But the Bulldogs deserve full credit. They’ve assembled one of the strongest and deepest midfield groups we’ve ever seen and it’s paying massive dividends in this finals series.
A week after he was blasted for being “out of form” and allegedly unhappy with his role, Adam Treloar responded with 23 disposals, nine tackles, 13 score involvements and a goal.
Only one Bulldog, Jack Macrae, had 30 touches, but Bailey Dale, Bailey Smith, Caleb Daniel, Josh Dunkley, Lachie Hunter and Marcus Bontempelli all had 20, while Liberatore was much more influential than his stats suggest.
Opposition coaches must feel like they’re playing whack-a-mole with a napkin.
One black mark against Port’s name all season was a supposed inability to match it with the best sides.
The question as to whether they’d defeated any top four sides in the home-and-away season was full of asterisks – does it count if you beat a team inside the top four at some stage if they end up finishing outside it?
Now that their season is over, we can do a proper assessment. Port’s five home-and-away losses in 2021 came against Melbourne, Geelong, Brisbane, the Western Bulldogs and West Coast.
The Eagles, of course, missed the finals, but the other four teams on that list were the other members of this year’s top five. They toughed out a two-point win over the Dogs in the Round 23 rematch but, otherwise, didn’t claim the scalp of a real contender in the home-and-away season – with all of those losses being fairly comprehensive.
Yes, they crushed the Cats in Week 1 but, after their debacle against Melbourne, does that look all that impressive now?
It’s fair to say, after looking at their results, that Port were a very, very good side in 2021 – but they weren’t great. They were probably never going to win the flag.
So, where is the improvement going to come from?
The good news is they have time on the side of a lot of their gun players. Dan Houston, Ryan Burton, Sam Powell-Pepper, Riley Bonner, Connor Rozee, Todd Marshall, Zak Butters, Xavier Duursma, Willem Drew, Kane Farrell and Mitch Georgiades are all under the age of 25.
Unlike the Cats, who I dissected yesterday, the window looks like it’ll be open at Alberton for a while yet.
The likes of Travis Boak and Robbie Gray will take some replacing once they hang them up, but Ollie Wines is still only 26 and has years of elite football left.
They need to shore up their forward line though. Port were only the sixth-best scoring side in 2021 and, while you can’t put too much blame on the forward line for tonight, they just weren’t able to threaten in the third quarter when the Power had a chance. It’s not the first final this has happened in either.
Having Georgiades as an option alongside Charlie Dixon could have made a big difference. I still don’t think they have a reliable small forward option just yet either.
If the trade rumours are true and Port are trying to swoop on South Australia-bound Swan Jordan Dawson, he would be a welcome addition to their wing and could provide wonderful delivery inside 50 too.
The pieces are there for Port, but they’re still a trade or two away.
Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs had a special relationship in 2021. They occupied the top two spots on the ladder for most of the season and were the first teams for some time to be sitting in first and second on the ladder for two home-and-away matches in the same season.
The Demons got up by 28 in the first meeting, but the Bulldogs got up by 20 in the rematch.
The Bulldogs’ late slide saw that top-two finish go up in smoke, but they undoubtedly proved they really were the team they thought they were with three scintillating finals efforts.
Now, they meet again in the last game of the season.
Both teams have match-winners in the middle. The Bulldogs midfield bats deeper, but the Demons have the advantage in the key positions. Both sides have been excellent in September and will both have enjoyed a week off to let any banged-up stars get over their injuries.
The last time both preliminary finalists won by over six goals was 2018 – and it gave us one of the all-time classic deciders. I’d say we’re in for an absolute treat on September 25.