SOME defeats are hard to digest. More so when the way the loss unfolds defies everything expected of a Port Adelaide team that had shown resilience and growth to get another home preliminary final.

And the deep-seated pain will linger because this time, for 2021, there is no tomorrow ... not until a new AFL season begins in March next year.

"When you fall short," says Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley, "nothing feels good. Right now, it is real and it hurts."

It will be that way for some time as everyone seeks to process a result that seemed the most unlikely and comes with, as Hinkley put it, "no excuses ... and no reasons".

No Port Adelaide team had been better prepared for a preliminary final since 2004. Even that premiership-bound Port Adelaide line-up made a worrying start against St Kilda at Football Park - but in September 2004 it was a manageable 14 points before the team labelled as "chokers" opened its scoring. It was not the imposing 32 points that favoured the Western Bulldogs after only 16 minutes on Saturday night.

In 2004, there was a timely "time out" in the 11th minute while the West Lakes arena was cleared of the well wishes wanting to congratulate St Kilda key forward Fraser Gehrig on kicking the ton.

In 2021, not even the floodlights at Adelaide Oval flickered in a city once tormented by repetitive power failures. There was no circuit breaker this time.

A year that started with such glowing pre-season reviews of the Port Adelaide game ends with the team's worst performance of the AFL premiership campaign. The squad that was building from "good to great" suddenly became bad - and to wonder why would pay a serious disservice to what makes the Western Bulldogs such an impressive group.

At the stoppages, the Western Bulldogs thrive with an energy that does have so many admire how slick they take the ball from inside to outside the hot spot.

On the ground, the Western Bulldogs took away every hope of Port Adelaide squaring the contests. In the first half, when the preliminary final was put out of reach by a 58-point margin, the Western Bulldogs won the ground-ball on a 2:1 ratio.

On the scoreboard - as they did in round nine at Adelaide Oval - the Western Bulldogs blitzed with the first five goals of the game. And every scoreboard kept reading badly for Port Adelaide - 37 points at quarter-time, 58 points at half-time and three quarter-time and 71 points at the end.

This marks the biggest finals loss for Port Adelaide since that 2007 AFL grand final that went to triple figures. Then, Port Adelaide was supposedly at the start of a bright, new era - this time Port Adelaide is supposed to be at its prime, on the doorstep of chasing greatness.

This is why this preliminary final defeat will be hard to digest.

10:17 Mins
Published on

Ken Hinkley press conference - 11 September 2021 | PTV

Ken Hinkley speaks with the media following the Preliminary Final.

Published on

Port Adelaide gave up its biggest score of the season (116 points), suffered its biggest loss of the year (almost 12 goals) and put up its lowest score of the 24-game campaign (6.9). And the barometer that has defined Port Adelaide all season was battered by a hefty differential (30) in the contested-ball count (lost 136-166).

Very little went right - or to plan - for a Port Adelaide side that cascaded into a seemingly unstoppable mess, either by being caught wrong-footed to the Western Bulldogs' powerful opening or the inevitable sense of doom that comes from falling 32 points behind before the time-on clock is rundown in the first quarter.

In that "red time", Port Adelaide found its first goal (and first score) - from vice-captain Ollie Wines taking Charlie Dixon's tap from a boundary throw-in by the Richardson Gates at the Oval's southern end in the 21st minute.

What followed - as a response to the Western Bulldogs blitz - underlined this would not be a night of precise work for Port Adelaide. Travis Boak missed a set shot; Dixon did not score from a set shot and Robbie Gray put his set shot out-of-bounds on the full. 

Just 1.1 from the first four drives at goal underlined the stark contrast to the Western Bulldogs' productivity and efficiency at a goalfront thriving from the work of the impressive Bailey Smith, Aaron Naughton (with his overwhelming contested marks) and Mitch Hannan.

And this was not the only dramatic contrast between a Western Bulldogs team that kicked with precision, chose the right options in congested space and created damaging space with its pristine ball use. Of course, taking first use of the ball always leaves the opposition on the back foot and taking unreasonable risks.

One bad performance - particularly in a preliminary final at home - leaves an overbearing stain on a season that created such pride and promise.

Why would such unfold when everything seemed in place to end a 14-year absence from the AFL grand final? Certainly the hunger for success was not in doubt from a playing and coaching group that had worked so hard for this opportunity, particularly when injury during the second half of the home-and-away season threatened a top-four finish.

Why? It is the question that challenge everyone at Port Adelaide until the next opportunity presents.

That penultimate step to the summit of football glory has proven too much for Port Adelaide in 2014, last year and now. The narrow defeats to eventual premiers Hawthorn and Richmond in 2014 and 2020 stung hard. But a hefty defeat to the Western Bulldogs this year brings tougher questions to answer and deeper scars to heal.

Port Adelaide captain Tom Jonas' parting words for Season 2021 at Adelaide Oval - "We will be back bigger and better next year" - set up the challenge to work harder in a competition that demands more and more to claim the premiership.

"And," says Hinkley, "we are a club that needs to keep turning up."

The job remains incomplete. The challenge remains as great as it did at the start of the year. The pain that drives the response in 2022 is harder to accept than 11 months ago. It is another moment that will measure all of the Port Adelaide Football Club.