port Adelaide simply had to win yesterday. Lose, and it was curtains for season 2022. The task before them was enormous. The Blues have an abundance of talent and play the MCG very well indeed. They were smarting after dropping a game to Gold Coast. And they were desperate to get one back on Port, after their Adelaide Oval humiliation last year. That was the day David Teague’s papers were stamped. There were plenty of Port players in downhill mode – slaloming into easy goals, dishing out the lip. Michael Voss, who was wearing a Port polo top that day, would have reminded his new charges about it.
In 2022, nothing has gone right for Port Adelaide. Charlie Dixon, who cops a lot of flak but who is so important to them structurally, hurt his ankle at training and is still weeks away from returning. Aliir Aliir, the All-Australian center half-back, wrecked his ankle in the opening round. Ollie Wines last week suffered an atrial fibrillation, which afflicts the elderly and the super fit. Scott Lycett dislocated his shoulder and will be out for three months. Not surprisingly, the results have followed suit. They were systematically dismantled by Hawthorn. They somehow found a way to lose the Showdown. Against Melbourne, they spent the night bombing to a non-existent forward line, right into the arms of the best organized defense in football.
Yesterday’s game seemed done and dusted halfway through the opening term. The visitors were being decimated in center clearances. Sam Walsh ran riot, helping himself to 16 first term possessions. At one point, Carlton stretched the lead to 50 points. Missing a ruckman, a full forward and a Brownlow medallist, Port simply did not have the cattle.
But then something extraordinary happened. Port started playing like one possessed. Five times in a row, they punished Carlton on the turnover. They suddenly had all the momentum, and all the run. Much like they were a fortnight earlier, the Blues were dead on their feet. In the end, as ridiculous as it sounds, Port should have won. Gray and Motlop twice squandered easy chances. They were bold and brave. But they blew it.
For years, Port have been a pretty straightforward side that’s always been missing something – a bit of luck, some poise, a star forward or a coach who could pull a rabbit out of the hat. They have always had a tendency to shoot themselves in the foot. And they have never really been a ‘system’ team. When the game is played at breakneck speed, when their young high draft picks are fully switched on, and when that home crowd of theirs is humming, they are quite a sight. But when that intensity wanes – as it always will at some point – they look ordinary. It was never more evident than preliminary final night last year. And it was glaringly obvious in the opening half yesterday.
On preliminary final night, Ken Hinkley’s boys were as passive as you will ever see a top-four side. More than any other performance on his watch, it would have stuck in his craw. For most of the night, he resembled a man stuck on a long-haul flight wedged between David Koch and the Sunrise Cash Cow. There really wasn’t much he could do. Yesterday, they could have once again curled up their toes. Instead, they dug in. It was admirable. But it counted for nought.
The pressure of coaching in Adelaide has driven some good men out of the game. Brenton Sanderson spoke recently about the all-encompassing nature of it, and how it nearly broke him. Don Pyke expressed similar sentiments. The South Australian football environment is pitiless. It has never been renowned for embracing Victorians. For weeks, angry talkback callers have wanted Hinkley’s head on a spit.
Hinkley was sanguine in the post-match, and certainly does not present as a man who lets that sort of stuff get to him. As a player, he was typical of the Geelong sides of that era. It took risks, kept it simple, was a delight to watch, but always fell short at the final hurdle. As a coach, he is as honest as the day is long. His record over the past decade, given the talent at his disposal, is remarkable. And he’s an old school players’ coach. He refers to them as ‘my sons’. Even Kane Cornes, who is constitutionally required to find fault with everyone and everything, speaks of his former coach with great fondness.
But right now, Hinkley is at the mercy of a hysterical local media, a supporter base that does not tolerate mediocrity and a president whose primary focus is breakfast television. The heat will come for him now. In the Port change rooms, there is a sign: “We will never, ever give up”. But as far as 2022 is concerned, we can categorically rule a line through them. “In my first season we won five in a row, then lost five in a row,” Hinkley said yesterday. “My history tells me you can still lose five in a row and make finals.” Indeed, Sydney were 0-6 a few years back, and still salvaged their season. But the Swans had Lance Franklin. Port have Jeremy Finlayson. They have a mounting injury list. They have a long winter ahead of them.