TODAY, Australian football is where it has never been before. The premier competition, the AFL, has joined all other leagues in suspension until at least May 31 while Australia prepares to deal with the increasing threats posed by COVID-19.
No football for at least two months - and the commitment to play at least 17 home-and-away games for each of the 18 national league clubs - will put the AFL in new ground with the premiership decided in October, possibly November rather than the traditional last Saturday in September.
A week ago there was a mountain of questions to contemplate when the AFL opted to start the 2020 season, the Port Adelaide Football Club's 150th year of competitive football. Now, the search for answers to even more unknowns is tougher to complete. It might compare with scaling the full range of Himalayan peaks.
But the game - like the clubs and people who make up Australia's indigenous sport - has a reputation for survival and overcoming enormous challenges, as noted with its rebound after two world wars and economic depression almost a century ago.
This test will take the game to where it has never been before. The commitment to "find a way" will be stronger with everyone in the game remembering: In unity, everything is possible.
"Never Tear Us Apart" means much more today.
Until it is "one week at a time"
For the first time in 124 years of organised competition in the VFL-AFL, there is no comforting thought - particularly for the teams that lost in the opening round - of there always being a "next week".
Until AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan declared on Sunday that the season was on hold, there were meaningful notes to take from the first weekend of a new football campaign.
As reading will become a much-cherished concept during the fight against coronavirus, it is still worth unloading the notebook from the weekend.
"Danger game" took on a new meaning. Whatever apprehension was loaded onto Port Adelaide's 150th season opener against Gold Coast (well before COVID-19), it cleared away at Metricon Stadium on Saturday night faster than stock on some supermarket shelves.
Sunday morning came with the thought, after all the doubt, "Game 1 is done" - and the 150-year celebrations had the perfect opening chapter. The 47-point win against the Suns was just the reassuring start Port Adelaide needed to crack open an anniversary season.
And the hackneyed phrase of "one week at a time" has taken on a new level of appreciation in Australian football. For now it is one month at a time while the AFL Commission plans to re-evaluate at the end of April its decision to suspend the season. The 30-day rule is in vogue.
What did we get out of the first week of Season 2020 (other than a tough reminder that life does have some bigger challenges than winning four premiership points)?
Didn't we learn to appreciate a few themes that have been easily taken for granted for too long - and are now temporarily gone?! Run-through banners went in the virtual space (and no cheer squad presented a spelling error). Seats that were to be empty were covered by tarps (see, Port Adelaide was indeed ahead of its time). And we were left to wonder which AFL captain was no longer able to torment his rival with that chilling look in the eye and power grip of the hand before tossing the coin at the centre circle?
As fans, we are certainly going the savour games more when we are allowed to return. If there is one silver lining in these concerning times, the AFL Commission is getting a reminder that - no matter how much the television money underwrites Australian football - our indigenous game was built on fans standing on the terraces or filling seats.
Port Adelaide list manager Jason Cripps would have sat well at home on Saturday night. Those strategic (and contentious) trade moves - that agitated some - to put Connor Rozee, Zak Butters, Ryan Burton, Xavier Duursma and Mitch Georgiades on the player list at Alberton in the past two years are building into strokes of genius. This will not change in June.
Player celebrations moved into creative space while shaking hands and "high fives" was considered unsafe. A year after fashioning the bow and arrow, Duursma showed he can be just as good in making a statement with his feet as he is with his hands.
For many, even Western Bulldogs premiership coach Luke Beveridge, there was a grand paradox. Don't do this, avoid this. And then tackle hard and stick close to your opponent.
Nine games is a very small sample, even in a season that is being reduced from 198 to 153 home-and-away games. But it is enough to know experienced players will still miss shots on goal even without the fans distracting them behind the goals (and the 10.16 from 62 inside-50s by Port Adelaide was not costly this time). Pyschologists are going to be lining up to work PhD theses.
And umpires - without the "sound of affirmation" - will still make intriguing calls to send social media accounts into meltdown and to prove Richmond premiership coach Damien Hardwick can say plenty while saying nothing. What did Hall of Fame-SANFL grand final umpire Murray Ducker say about the poor and wrong positioning of AFL umpires?
So testing are these times that even the "normal" can spark a heated debate - as noted with Carlton premiership player Mark Maclure and Essendon premiership player Adam Ramanauskas in the ABC radio commentary box - on whether Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson had the right to sit in a lock-out Marvel Stadium to scout the Essendon-Fremantle game. A year ago, the commentary would have been: "That's why he has won four premierships - 'Clarko' doesn't let anything get past him."
We live amid harrowing uncertainty waiting for the AFL to resume. But Round 1 did reaffirm one quality of Australian football is beyond change: Robbie Gray is an extraordinary player.
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
Round 1: Port Adelaide 10.16 (76) d Gold Coast 4.5 (29) at Metricon Stadium.
Who knows how long before there is the next match? So there will be much savour from Game 1 - and many other battles in Port Adelaide's previous 149 years.
For now, here are five notes from Port Adelaide's season-opening game.
IN these uncertain times, there is no shortage of "ifs" while the AFL premiership season is on hold until at least May 31. From Saturday night, there is one piece of play that should sustain the Port Adelaide fans for the next two months - and well beyond.
First quarter, 21st minute, on Saturday night. Steven Motlop applies meaningful pressure to create a turnover on the "outer wing" from assertive Gold Coast midfielder Will Brodie.
Connor Rozee sidesteps Gold Coast defender Jack Bowes, in a way that reaffirms his mind and his body moves half a second/half a step faster that everyone else around him. And with that extrasensory perception of what is around him - check the vision - his eyes are focused on every opportunity in front of him.
Todd Marshall scores Port Adelaide's third goal.
It is a play that is worth watching again and again (and we might need to).
ROBBIE GRAY. That moment late in the match when Gold Coast needed four defenders to deal with the master in a marking contest says it all.
NO Charlie Dixon (adductor) as the focal point in attack, but no shortage of scoring power (more so when the ball spent 60 per cent of game time in Port Adelaide's forward half).
Seven goalscorers. First-game forward Mitch Georgiades topping the list with two goals, along with Motlop and Marshall.
Thirteen players scoring ... that 10.16 puts a big dent in the theory that goalkicking conversion rates might rise with empty arenas removing the distraction and pressure created by the cheering or jeering fans. And then there might be something about how slippery the ball gets after dark in the northern provinces.
This is a good pointer for later.
SOCIAL distancing was fashioned by the AFL some time ago when the league demanded ruckmen be a metre apart before they approached a boundary throw-in. As Port Adelaide lead ruckman Scott Lycett and Gold Coast rival Jarrod Witts locked themselves in a gripping contest for first touch, the strong strategic numbers Port Adelaide's midfield generates continues - a 35-11 advantage on clearances, led by two experienced masters: Former captain Travis Boak and the sound-looking Tom Rockliff, who clearly are going to make any of the young tyros looking for midfield minutes earn them.
AS you might have gathered from the Fox Footy coverage of the lock-out game, West Australian John Georgiades had quite a start to his VFL career at Footscray: 8.4 v Carlton at Princes Park in the opening round of Season 1989. There is no doubt his 18-year-old son Mitch will live up to the forecast that has echoed from pre-season training at Alberton: He will rival Jeremy Howe for mark-of-the-year contenders.
It would be nice to say: Adelaide at Adelaide Oval, Showdown XLVIII (48) on Saturday.
The AFL premiership season, already shortened from 22 home-and-away qualifying games to 17, is on hold until at least May 31. And, on all that has to be taken seriously as the COVID-19 virus threatens lives and economies, the wait for the next derby (and the chance to see Port Adelaide wear the bars again at Adelaide Oval) is a small demand on all of us.
The key message now is - stay safe. And then we can all be part of football finding a way back from this crisis.