JUST when Port Adelaide could focus on adding more momentum to its winning streak comes the script that has the pundits tag Saturday's far away clash with lowly ranked North Melbourne as a "danger game".
But while the alert is prudently high at Alberton, the task to deal with its own pressing challenges remains of greater importance to senior coach Ken Hinkley. This includes the issue of Port Adelaide's poor starts - as noted with a record of leading at quarter-time in just two of eight games this season.
No-one needs to remind Hinkley of how an under-rated, out-of-contention North Melbourne has previously bitten Port Adelaide with fast starts (like 6.3 to 1.1 at the Docklands late in 2019).
"Our numbers suggest we have not had great first quarters," concedes Hinkley. "We were a bit better last week (against the Western Bulldogs with 5.0 to 4.4). Every game we are trying to get the starts right.
"While everyone keeps talking about them, we keep working to deal with that reality. We have to focus - as we did after starting at 0-5 - on the next moment, the next ball, the next contest and have the starts to our games become a reflection of the work we are putting into each contest.
"That is the only way we can correct our starts."
North Melbourne has a 1-6 record and is averaging just 59 points while conceding 107. This week, coach David Noble has been under scrutiny for his post-match reviews with the players setting up the theme of "danger game".
"No-one wants to quite believe it, but any team in the AFL can beat you on a given day," said Hinkley.
"You are mindful of a team like North Melbourne - with the criticism they have copped this week - will respond when they are wounded," added Hinkley. North Melbourne pushed Sydney to an 11-point gap after dealing with the fall-out of the 108-point loss to Brisbane in round three.
"Their record (17 wins, one draw and 10 losses) in Hobart is strong, so we certainly won't be taking any chances with North Melbourne. We don't deserve to be taking any chances with anyone. We have to make sure our game is at its absolute best.
"We can't afford to take our eye off the ball, regardless of who and when we play. We have to make sure we are at our best - and that brings the confidence we can win against any team in the competition ... just as any team can beat us if we are off."
After a 0-5 start to the AFL home-and-away season, Port Adelaide has put itself on the path to challenging for a top-eight berth with wins against West Coast and fellow finals contenders St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs.
Other than having key players come off the injury list, Port Adelaide has had multi-dimensional change to its performances.
"It is not as simple as one thing," Hinkley says of the transformation of Port Adelaide's early season form. "Defence certainly has tightened up. Our ability around the ball has become a bit cleaner. And clearly we have been able to polish our work going inside forward-50 which always has been a bit of a struggle.
"Last week (against the Western Bulldogs at Adelaide Oval), was our most-successful conversion going inside forward-50," added Hinkley of his team's 12.14 from 44 inside-50s with 66 per cent efficiency (29 shots from the 44 entries).
"It is not just one bit or the other that has made the difference. Defensively we have had to stand up to give ourselves a chance. And we have been able to kick a score."
Also revealing of the Port Adelaide players is their strength while they were being downgraded as a finals contender as the losses mounted at the start of the season.
"Pleasing ... but we still have a long way to go," Hinkley said. "We have been able to get back on our feet a little bit and recover a little bit. You can't do that without complete buy-in from everyone. That has been the most pleasing part for us that as a team - and as a club - we have stuck strong together.
"We know we had a terrible start with the win-loss column. But we weren't quite as bad as it felt with some of the games we were in and one or two of those games went against us with a bit of bad luck and injury.
"We put ourselves in a bad position (at 0-5). Now we are trying to recover.
"I've always believed in this group. There is no question of belief among the team, among the coaches ... but sometimes footy can be really challenging and really difficult to completely understand.
"It happens ... and you have to keep on the short-term. Take on the next day, the next opportunity to do something about it. And we have done that really well."
Four-game Port Adelaide ruckman Sam Hayes faces the challenge of Todd Goldstein, one of the most-experienced and accomplished ruckmen in the league.
"It is a great opportunity for Sam as he comes up against one of the best rucks of the past 10 years," Hinkley said. "Todd Goldstein has had a couple of really strong weeks. As much as anything, it is a great opportunity for Sam to get a little more education on his game and the chance to understand what he needs to do.
"Sam knows the importance of Goldstein to the North Melbourne team."
At selection, Port Adelaide resisted recalling All-Australian key forward Charlie Dixon but has put specialist forward Orazio Fantasia on the four-man emergency list - and Hinkley admits he is tempted to have Fantasia sit as the medical substitute.
Hinkley remains steadfast with the theme Dixon, who has had two rounds of ankle surgery this year, must not be "set up to fail" by a poorly time return to the AFL.
"He will keep training," Hinkley said. "He is still not quite right (after his comeback match in the SANFL at the weekend). We will keep managing his program to give him the best chance to play as soon as possible."
Fantasia returns after knee surgery - and a mini pre-season in which he has carved a running path into the grass at Alberton Oval. He joins the untried Ollie Lord and Taj Schofield and the versatile Miles Bergman as the emergencies who have all travelled to Tasmania.
Young defender Marty Frederick already has been elevated from the emergency list to cover the absence of captain Tom Jonas who has been sidelined by COVID protocols.
Wingman Kane Farrell returns after having his comeback from a serious knee injury interrupted by COVID protocols.
"Kane is fine, he trained twice this week without any problems," Hinkley said. "All the checks say he is medically okay. And we are very comfortable he is fine."
Hinkley at the weekend will become the first Port Adelaide coach to lead the AFL team in every Australian capital city.
"I tried not to do Hobart 10 years ago," said Hinkley who missed the 2013 match by illness leaving Alan Richardson in charge of the Port Adelaide team. "It's a national competition and we travel to wherever we need to."
Port Adelaide will complete its training program with a captain's run at Bellerive Oval on Friday afternoon.