Of the two teams that took to the Adelaide Oval on Saturday night, one key difference sticks out: the victors are a team that seems to repeatedly rise to the hour on the big stage, while the other now has a reputation of shirking those exact moments.
With one glaring, 89-point-sized exception, GWS are very much the former: for the second time in their short but eventful history, they have completed what was for a long time footy’s impossible task, and won their way through to a preliminary final from outside the top four.
And after a midfield masterclass the likes of which only whoever was playing West Coast every other week has dished out this season, on the road, in front of a hostile crowd and the majority of their own support in attendance likely converted Adelaide supporters after a mid-week call to arms, they can head into that prelim sky-high in confidence and knowing they have the weapons to give Collingwood an almighty fight.
Port Adelaide, most assuredly, are the second: that’s now twice in two finals at the Adelaide Oval, and in consecutive matches this September too, that they have been pummelled, if not on the scoreboard this time than in every other facet of the game
A midfield vaunted as the engine room of the future, with two Brownlow Medal contenders in Connor Rozee and Zak Butters and a second-year jet in Jason Horne-Francis, shouldn’t be getting so comprehensively wiped to the tune of a 12-29 clearance disadvantage by half time that both denied their forwards any supply and ensured their weakened wounded defence was once again bombarded repeatedly.
But whether it was fumbles, dropped marks, diabolical ball use or – and this is where the crux of Power supporters’ frustrations likely reside – the inability of Ken Hinkley to do anything whatsoever to stem the tide during the 15-minute stretch of the second quarter where the Giants ripped a previously tight game from Port’s grasp and never let it go, this was just another horror show that would almost defy belief if not for the two previous September horror shows that immediately precede it in this club’s history.
Honestly, that paragraph pretty well sums up what Port did wrong on Saturday night: they made their way into the top four this year thanks to their strengths – fast ball movement from stoppages, elite half-back kicking and a multi-pronged forward line getting quality supply – significantly outweighing their weaknesses.
But as it was against Brisbane in the qualifying final, without the game played on their terms from every contest – and I do mean every contest, because that first half was a procession out of the middle from GWS – it was alarming how every other facet of their game, be it a strength or a weakness, crumbled into dust.
Only the Giants’ poor set-shot kicking kept the margin within reach at half time, and its continuation in the third term prevented the match from being blown to smithereens. But while they got close enough in the last quarter via their best period of the game at stoppages, they never really looked likely to complete the comeback, for all their efforts.
There will be plenty of autopsies on Port’s season and September in coming days, and history plus the fury of success-starved Power fans will likely land much of the blame on Hinkley’s shoulders: I can’t exactly blame them for it.
But where Friday night’s semi final was all about Melbourne’s bottle job for the ages, this time the story is about the victors. Because GWS weren’t just brilliant – they were brilliant in all the ways that might just make them Collingwood’s worst nightmare in a week’s time.
Let’s start with their stoppage work. The numbers are impressive enough, but the Giants’ method of ball movement from those successful wins in the contest are what truly ripped Port to shreds.
It’s one thing to win a lot of clearances, but quite another to have such menace with them, and with seven goals from stoppages to three quarter time of their 11 to that point, menace was in abundance at the Adelaide Oval.
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The usual names racked up the touches – Stephen Coniglio had 22 disposals to half time, with Tom Green, Josh Kelly and Callan Ward all ahead of the most prolific Port player in Dan Houston – and their handballing work from contests was a sight to behold.
The Giants’ stoppage set-up is unique: they almost play slingshot footy starting from a defensive position, with each player goal side of their opponents and one, usually Ward, sweeping on defensive side.
Twitter’s best footy analyst Ricky Mangidis highlighted how this works beautifully: the Giants mids hold their positions until one can win a clean possession, and whether it’s a scrappy hack forward or a more precise, Tom Green-esque handball, the gears start whirring as soon as those hands get on the ball first.
Ward begins opposed to Butters, guarding Port’s most explosive stoppage ball-winner: once Brent Daniels wins the ball, though, he goes hunting for the footy and pays little heed to the Power star. Attacking the ball at bull-at-a-gate pace, as is his wont, he wins the hard ball, gives wider to Josh Kelly, and the tsunami is in full swing to allow a deep entry.
This is the result of a midfield both high on talent and one superbly well drilled and cohesive: it’s a group where every player knows their role and some are good enough to perform on multiple facets.
Tom Green’s bullocking stoppage work and remarkable hands have been a highlight all season long, but with 577 metres gained – fourth-best on the night – he understood that against a vulnerable Port defence, getting the ball inside 50 as quickly and deep as possible was the way to go.
Only four times in the home-and-away season, from 19 games, did Green have more kicks than handballs: it’s surely not a coincidence that in both finals so far, he’s had a 21-14 and 16-13 kick/handball split, increasing the Giants’ penetration like a sledgehammer.
Ward is another warrior, whose return to being the hard-nosed beast at every contest has allowed Coniglio and Kelly to play more outside roles where their exquisite skills can benefit the team most.
Best afield against the Power with 30 disposals and two goals at vital times, Coniglio in particular was immense: freed both from the burden of captaincy and the demands of occasionally needing to be the unflashy defensive role-player in the last years of Leon Cameron with an influx of talent around him, he is shining. This year has arguably been a career-best one.
Kieren Briggs, it turns out, was the missing link: with him since mid-season, the Giants are now more confident than ever at winning that initial hard ball that lets everything else kick into gear. In the first nine rounds, only twice did they win the clearance out: since Briggs came in for Round 10 against St Kilda, they have won 11 of 16, with their massacring of Port Adelaide the most one-sided of all. His shoulder will be the most-watched joint in western Sydney this week.
It’s a unit that lacks for nothing: ferocity on the inside and silk on the outside. Both are weapons lethal enough to trouble a Collingwood outfit whose greatest weakness is inarguably their tendency to be bullied at the coalface, with Briggs’ extra muscle and power at stoppages compared to Darcy Cameron another key edge.
Partners in crime at half-back, the next step of the Giants’ exhilarating strategy is in Lachie Whitfield and Lachie Ash. Tremendously skilled by foot, only Whitfield has faced much attention from opposition players this year, and his speed and remarkable endurance makes it nigh on impossible for any would-be stopper to keep him down for long. Jed McEntee won’t be the first to try and fail dismally.
Whitfield’s 33 disposals came at 87 per cent efficiency, and unlike other half-backs around the league, few are the sort of safe chip passes around defensive 50 that allow that stat to be padded. When he gets the ball, his first thought is aggression: the skills that made him so damaging as a wingman in the late 2010s have made him a half-back with almost unmatched attacking traits.
Deeper in defence, the Giants have conceded a score from just 35.5 per cent of their opposition’s inside 50 entries since Round 13, far and away the best in the league. The week after that was Sam Taylor’s return, which explains a lot of that.
Taylor might be the best key defender in the game, and tore Charlie Dixon a new one not for the first time on Saturday night, but he’s not alone. Adam Kingsley has stacked his backline with height aplenty, with his choices shining to the point that Nick Haynes, an integral part of any GWS team for nearly a decade, has effectively lost his spot in their best team.
Jack Buckley, the Android to Taylor’s Apple in that he’s just as effective but gets about 10 per cent of the acclaim, barely loses a one-on-one contest, and after monstering Harris Andrews last week, Ollie Lord was barely given a look in. Connor Idun is an ideal third tall, reading the play beautifully, sharp at ground level and the sort of calm ball-user every good backline needs.
Ditto Harry Himmelberg, who is both tall enough to be an elite interceptor and rangy enough to run off any tall he needs to stand: it’s notable the Giants have tightened up significantly since his permanent deployment down back after starting the year in attack.
Whether talls or smalls, no Magpies forward has a risky match-up to take advantage of next week: Brody Mihocek is in for an almighty fight against Taylor, while Bobby Hill and Beau McCreery will have a hell of a job stopping the Giants from rebounding with ease through their pressure and pace.
Up forward, the biggest difference from the Giants’ humbling last clash against the Power was the return of Brent Daniels and Toby Bedford, both of whom missed that match through suspension. That pair were as crucial to anyone to this turnaround.
Their speed is the killer: they both push up to stoppages around the ground freely, giving the Giants numerical advantage around the ground while knowing full well they can burn off any opponent going back the other way.
Bedford and Daniels managed just 1.4 for the evening to be, along with Hogan, the biggest culprits for the Giants’ inaccurate evening. But like their performance as a whole, that profligacy just masks how effective they were.
Speaking of Hogan, the Giants’ dominance of territory gave him the chance to properly exploit a serious strength, fitness and quality advantage on the outmatched Trent McKenzie, who was reduced to giving away clumsy frees for much of the second half, so little did he trust himself to win any duel fairly.
With Callum Brown and Jake Riccardi strong-marking options as well, there’s no such thing as a decoy lead, which spreads any defence even further and opens up holes for any of that trio: Riccardi’s ranginess makes him a fiendishly difficult match-up, as St Kilda found out last week, while Brown lacks the presence of Hogan but never fails to create a contest.
The Pies have had issues this season against quality talls – Charlie Curnow the most obvious example – and this three-headed monster seems the best way to divide and conquer a defensive group that punches above its weight. Whichever of that trio is Nathan Murphy’s responsibility will have a key role on Friday night, while God knows whether Darcy Moore will look to match Riccardi’s strength and leading skills or take the big job on Hogan. Neither will be easy.
That Toby Greene bloke goes okay, too.
This is a Giants team that lacks for little, and makes up for that with a brilliant structure, fearless play and a confidence that makes any challenge feel trifling.
Four years ago, they defeated the Pies in a famous victory, but left little in the tank for the finale. They feel every bit as big a threat this time around – and what’s more, seem to have a steel that suggests even victory there will be far from the last shot they can fire in 2023.