"OFFENCE sells tickets. Defence wins championships."
American football coach Paul William "Bear" Bryant changed the college football and NFL professional game - and inspired two NFL teams, Chicago and Pittsburgh, to build dynasties during the 1980s and 1990s - by emphasising defence.
Port Adelaide has stayed in the AFL race to September, after a 0-5 start in March and April, by refloating its game off a sound foundation of team defence.
While scoring has been a challenge, Port Adelaide's survival in the tightrope race to September's top-eight finals with a 7-2 rebound in the past nine matches has thrived on strong defensive themes - and manic pressure from half-forwards Sam Powell-Pepper and round 15 Rising Star nominee Lachie Jones in setting the example to keep the play in Port Adelaide's forward half.
Port Adelaide has conceded an average score of 72 points this season, despite constant changes in key defensive roles forced by injury to All-Australian Aliir Aliir, Trent McKenzie and Tom Clurey. The 72-point average is ranked third behind AFL premier Melbourne ... and Fremantle.
Fremantle's defence has conceded a 65-point average this season - the lowest in the club's AFL history (excluding the 2020 season with shortened matches during the start of the COVID pandemic). This is a significant change for a team that was already considered tight in defence when working to the orders of former senior coach Ross Lyon.
"Defence wins championships" seems a theme well embraced by new Fremantle senior coach Justin Longmuir from his tenure as an assistant coach to Nathan Buckley at the defensive-minded Collingwood.
Champion Data statistics highlight Fremantle is stronger in breaking down opposition rebounds from the defensive-50 - and the work of small forwards Sam Switkowski, Lachie Schultz, Michael Walters, Travis Colyer and Michael Frederick in locking the play in Fremantle's forward half very much reflects what Port Adelaide has mastered in recent seasons in the battle to control territory on the football field.
This Sunday evening game at Perth Stadium could be about which team delivers best to the same philosophies on defence being an all-ground theme. Only once in a combined count of 28 games this season - with Port Adelaide leaking 120 points to Hawthorn at Adelaide Oval in round two - has an opponent broken the watershed 100-point barrier against Port Adelaide or Fremantle.
"It’s 18 players on the field buying in," says Longmuir of the team defence themes embraced by his side and Port Adelaide.
Fremantle assistant coach Josh Carr, the Port Adelaide 2004 premiership midfielder and Showdown hero, says Longmuir's game style "caters for whatever the opposition throws at us".
"We have a balanced style of play," Carr said. "It is built on the back of defence more than anything. But our offence is pretty solid.
"All of it is built on being good at the contest. We do need to win the ball inside to give our players a good look."
Some of the AFL's soundest pundits are intrigued as to how Port Adelaide will deal with Fremantle's penchant to block space with extra players immediately behind the ball.
Port Adelaide midfield coach Brett Montgomery expects a new-look attack to avoid the trap of being lulled into "Hail Mary" plays to the goalsquare - and being left without a prayer should Fremantle succeed in setting up its game from turnovers inside Port Adelaide's attacking 50.
"We have made some inroads in (overcoming) that part of the game," Montgomery said. "If we were going to be kept getting beaten the same way - from opposition rebound after kicking long to the goalsquare and relying heavily on key forward Charlie Dixon - we needed to change.
"That is by method and personnel.
"Charlie is back. Todd Marshall is a much, much-improved player. And our method going in has more composure. We are in a better place."
Fremantle is ranked fourth (rising from last year's 11th placing after finishing 12th in Justin Longmuir's first season as senior coach in 2020).
Fremantle has won 10, lost four so far this season. During the past month, Fremantle has beaten AFL premier Melbourne by 38 points, top-four contender Brisbane (14 points), also ran Hawthorn (13 points) and lost - at its last start - to top-eight rival Carlton (31 points).
The 10 wins include a notable three-point win against Geelong at Kardinia Park in round seven.
"Fremantle has put together an incredibly balanced side. They are a lot more of a challenge than just defence. They are incredibly connected. The synergy is good - and they control the tempo of the game based on the added defensive pressure they put on you. They control the tempo of the ball equally as well."
Port Adelaide midfield coach Brett Montgomery.
JARROD WITTS one week - and one of his rivals for the All-Australian ruck mantle the next. At 203cm and 100 kilograms, Fremantle lead ruckman Sean Darcy is six centimetres shorter than Witts and 11 kilograms lighter.
But Darcy is still taller than Port Adelaide's new lead ruckman, Jeremy Finlayson (197cm, 94kg).
Finlayson has had an extraordinary month leading the Port Adelaide rucks against Richmond pair Toby Nankervis and Ivan Soldo and Gold Coast co-captain Jarrod Wiits. His strength has been his competitive spirit in the air - and his determination to win the follow-up contests after each ruck battle.
"Jeremy has comprehensively outplayed the opposition ruckman once the ball hits the floor," said Port Adelaide midfield coach Brett Montgomery. "Last weekend, Jarrod Witts was far too damaging with his silver service tapwork to the Gold Coast midfielders. But there is no doubt that once the ball hits the ground, Jeremy has been the best of the talls on the oval.
"So what do you put a price on? What do you value? At the moment, we are getting a great return from valuing what Jeremy offers away from the ruck contest."
Darcy has chalked up 340 hit-out in 11 matches this season (while averaging 14 disposals). He ranks at No. 4 across the AFL with a 30.91 season average for hit-outs (behind Witts as the league leader at 38).
Jeremy Finlayson is at No. 42 with a 4.67 hit-out average. But it is his follow-up work that has drawn such admiration - and given the Port Adelaide midfield the chance to win clearance statistics while losing on the hit-out counter.
"I have memories of our first meeting with Jeremy when he first arrived from Greater Western Sydney. What struck me was his remarks on how much he loves ruck work ... something I don't think I ever heard any player say, even ruckmen. We knew we had a different character on our hands. And Jeremy has embraced the task of being our lead ruckman (in the absence of Scott Lycett)."
Port Adelaide midfield coach Brett Montgomery
WITH no guarantee of hit-outs to advantage, the Port Adelaide midfield led by Brownlow Medallist Ollie Wines and former captain Travis Boak cannot take anything for granted.
There might be question marks at Fremantle on the readiness of Caleb Serong after limited training runs this week and the work of seasoned midfielders David Mundy (from wear and tear this year) and Brownlow Medallist Nat Fyfe after an injury-interrupted pre-season.
But there is no question on how the Port Adelaide midfield has needed to approach every contest while working to "makeshift" ruck combinations since the exit by injury of lead ruckman Scott Lycett (shoulder) and the return of novice ruckman Sam Hayes to the SANFL.
"There is no doubt about the mindset of our midfield," said Port Adelaide midfield coach Brett Montgomery. "There is no doubt they are on edge for longer. The complacency - or comfort level - is out of the picture. And we have noticed that.
"But there are other reasons why the midfield is sharper," added Mongomery, who since the 0-5 start has gained Connor Rozee from the attack to the midfield rotations. "It is about the type of player and type of game we are trying to play in the midfield.
"What we have been able to do in the ruck (with key forwards Jeremy Finlayson and Charlie Dixon) is quite astounding. They have been so good."
TOUGHEST road trips in the AFL game?
Geelong at its exclusive Kardinia Park where the home side has won 102 of the past 117 games since the start of the 2007 AFL season.
Richmond at the shared MCG where the 2017-19-20 premier has won 53 games and drawn two of its past 70 from the start of the 2017 campaign.
Brisbane at the Gabba where the Queensland club is 36-6 since emerging as a top-four side in 2019.
And Fremantle at Perth Stadium? Since 2020, Fremantle is 16-10 at the billion-dollar Perth venue and has won six of its past eight games at home.
Port Adelaide is returning to Perth Stadium for the first time since April 3, 2021. This will be Port Adelaide's sixth game at the AFL's newest arena - and third against Fremantle. The previous two have ended in nine and 21 point wins for Fremantle in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
BURGOYNE MARK III
JASE Burgoyne becomes the third member of his extended family to make his AFL debut with Port Adelaide.
This follows his father Peter, who started in Port Adelaide's first AFL game - against Collingwood at the MCG in 1997.
He follows his uncle Shaun, who played his first AFL match against St Kilda in round 3, 2002 at the Docklands in Melbourne.
Jase Burgoyne will be in the line-up with another father-son recruit, Jackson Mead, the son of 1997 AFL club champion Darren.
"My nephew Jase is going to play his first (AFL) game this week. He has done extremely well. Watching you grow up, chase your dream to play AFL football, to play AFL at the club where your dad played has been a dream. You have made the family extremely proud. You are a skinny kid, but you handle yourself really well ... and you know how to find your way in and out of footy. You are continuing the legacy, but you are creating your own pathway as well. You play footy as you want to play it."
Shaun Burgoyne at Alberton on Friday
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
(the little stuff that counts most)
Fremantle v Port Adelaide, Perth Stadium
When: Sunday, July 3, 2022
Time: 4.50pm ACST / 3:20pm AWST
Last time: Port Adelaide 18.7 (115) d Fremantle 9.15 (69) at Adelaide Oval, round 11, May 30, 2021
Overall: Port Adelaide 22, Fremantle 17
Past five games: From the most recent, W W W L L
Scoring average: Port Adelaide 94, Fremantle 86
Tightest margin: Port Adelaide by seven points at the WACA Ground in round 17, 1999; Fremantle by seven points at Subiaco Oval in round 1, 2015
Biggest margin: Port Adelaide by 92 points (163-71) at Subiaco Oval, Perth in round 14, 2001; Fremantle by 79 points (151-72) at Subiaco Oval, Perth in round 22, 2006
By venues - Adelaide Oval (Port Adelaide 6-0), Football Park (7-5), Subiaco Oval (7-9), WACA Ground (1-1), Perth Stadium (0-2) and Metricon Stadium (1-0).
At Perth Stadium: Port Adelaide 1-4; Fremantle 30-21.