Ken Hinkley had his hands full in the opening minute of the preliminary final.
Bulldogs live wire, 20-year-old Bailey Smith, had just kicked a goal. By the end of the first quarter, Port Adelaide had only registered one major, which took 21 minutes to conjure up, and the scoreline read 7.2 to 1.0. The Bulldogs had torn the Power to shreds.
Each time the cameras panned to Hinkley’s coaches box, his face looked visibly ill. The word shell-shocked has been used to describe Port Adelaide’s first quarter.
It was more than that. It was soulless. The 71-point demolition job sits underneath the 119-point grand final loss to Geelong as one of the the worst finals defeats in the club’s history.
Hinkley’s post-match presser was awkward and stuffy to watch. He was a coach that was still coming to grips with the gravity of his team’s shocking exit from finals.
He said, honestly, “We had what we needed.”
And they did: a week’s rest, a home preliminary final, no major injuries. They had a good blend of youth and older heads. They had a key forward in Charlie Dixon (48 goals — ranked seventh in the AFL) and a fleet of small-to-medium-sized forwards in Robbie Gray, Orazio Fantasia and Connor Rozee. They had a midfield bull in Travis Boak. They had All Australians: Ollie Wines, Karl Amon and Aliir Aliir.
They also had real, dangerous, form: they went 9-1 to finish the year, and handed Geelong a smarting 43-point loss in the qualifying final.
Let’s also not forget how the Bulldogs were missing key forward Josh Bruce (48 goals), goal sneak Cody Weightman, and Alex Keath, who’s their best intercept mark. And how the Bulldogs had to win finals in the rain (Tasmania) and humidity (Gabba). They were also denied training sessions by the South Australian government.
This year all the signs were there — they went 17-5, they beat the Tigers, Swans, and Giants, and since Round 10 they went 11-2.
Quite simply, as Hinkley said: they had what they needed.
It’s clear though that something was missing in Adelaide on the weekend. It’ll take some time to digest to figure out what went wrong. But the failure to compete has many Power fans asking whether Ken Hinkley can take Port Adelaide to their next flag?
Power president David Koch has publicly backed Hinkley. He still has two years left on his contract and it’s hard to see him being fired after making back-to-back preliminary finals. But Hinkley will be in his tenth year next year, and they’ve got three preliminary finals losses next to their names.
“Look, he has the best win-loss record of any Port Adelaide coach,” Koch told media. “This year was the best win-loss record since 2004. We had a shocker on Saturday night, not walking away from that. But the foundation that Kenny has built, the team that he has built, is applauded right throughout the industry.”
Of course the players are just as much to blame for the horrendous effort — skirting around the packs, lacking aggression and desperation. And they must own their actions for their limp attack on the football and half commitments. That’s not on Hinkley’s head.
But they were Hinkley’s tactics — or lack of them — that puzzled even the neutral fan. He got out-coached in multiple areas of the game.
If you think back to the first ten minutes of the first quarter, the Bulldogs’ early dominance stemmed from ground-ball gets, making Aliir Aliir’s intercept prowess mute, and being more energised at the contest.
And here is how it unfolded.
A ground-ball goal to Bailey Smith within 41 seconds. Tim English led Aliir to the stoppage, collected the ground ball and Smith nailed it.
Aaron Naughton took a contested mark and kicked a point. English, again, got his big body in front of Aliir for Naughton’s mark to happen.
Laitham Vandermeer’s mark and goal at the back of the goal square started with a ground-ball win at half forward. The Bulldogs’ ability to spread from the contest gave Adam Treloar an open look toward goal.
Within five minutes the Bulldogs had three goals. The third was a Marcus Bontempelli pass to Naughton, who clunked it in a sea of players. In that pack, and just outside of it, English outmuscled Tom Jonas, and Josh Schache had Aliir’s measure.
Then, Mitch Hannan drifted into a contest and made it a two-on-one, and finished with a goal. English, yet again, dragged Aliir wide on a lead away from where he would’ve impacted the contest.
“In a preliminary final they were conditional in the way that they approached the contest and the effort that they gave,” said Gerard Whateley on AFL 360. “I would never have associated that with Port in such a moment.”
Jason Dunstall said Port Adelaide looked completely “listless”.
“I can only imagine what was going through Ken Hinkley’s mind in the coaches box,” he said. “They were deers in the headlights. They didn’t handle the moment. They choked.”
Even outside of the first ten minutes there were still things happening that have led many to question Hinkley’s reign at Port Adelaide: Willem Drew starting on the bench, Port’s inability to fix their horrid starts against the Bulldogs, and not addressing poor forward entries in real time — opting for isolated targets inside the 50 rather than passive, long, high balls.
In the coming weeks Hinkley will comb through the wreckage of their preliminary final debacle. It would be a safe bet to think he’ll learn from this as a senior, experienced coach. He knows how to get deep in finals, it’s just about taking that next big leap. But that leap can be the toughest one to make in football.