BRUCE McAvaney is confused by his misfiring tips for AFL games. The premier Channel Seven commentator is not alone while this season like no other keeps having more and more spanners thrust in the works.
Three of last year's preliminary finalists (premier Richmond, runner-up Greater Western Sydney and Geelong) have a combined win-draw-count of 3-1-5 from their nine games ... and are outside the top eight.
Once reliable pacesetters - and well-worn football mantra, such as always back Geelong at Kardinia Park - now have McAvaney thinking twice when making his selections.
"Just can't get a read on where this season is going ...," says McAvaney.
Round 3 did deliver some notes even Malcolm Blight would write in permanent ink rather than his preferred 2B pencils.
At 3-0 and still the competition leader, Port Adelaide is winning trust with those hard-bitten tipsters who are as confused as McAvaney.
Collingwood plays seriously solid defensive football.
Gold Coast no longer is the league's punching bag.
No-one should ever under-estimate Hawthorn premiership coach Alastair Clarkson when he is challenged to reinvent his team.
Last-placed Adelaide has slipped further back than would have seemed possible for a team that was supposed to have found new tranquility after talking out all its problems.
And AFL executive Travis Auld is re-confirmed as the man with the toughest job in Australian football. His task of building a fixture every few weeks is a torment in the wake of the COVID pandemic crippling Essendon and while State governments and health officers dictate how AFL teams can move from city to city.
Who knows when round 3 will be completed (after the Essendon-Melbourne game was postponed on notice of Essendon Irish recruit Conor McKenna testing positive for coronavirus)? Now the AFL's persistence with shortened 16-minute quarters - to allow for games on short turnarounds - is more difficult to criticise.
Anyone want to make a prediction on how this drama ends? McAvaney is struggling to read the form line. Everyone is grappling with where a special season for the Port Adelaide Football Club is going.
A REASSURING GRIND
Hardly anything is going to script this AFL season. So those who adjust when challenged will thrive. It is true to the catch-cry from headquarters, Gillon McLachlan's "find a way". And this theme has found its place in the new Port Adelaide way of winning football games.
Ken Hinkley wants his Port Adelaide team to play with speed. At quarter-time at Metricon Stadium on Sunday evening, the concept had a second edge - it was "fast and furious" in the face of an ambitious Fremantle team that was trying to outsmart the miserly Port Adelaide defence by entering the 50-metre arc with a short-kicking game.
The furious tone - with intense tackling and manic defence - was reassuring for those with long memories. It suggested Port Adelaide had indeed learned the lesson from last year's loss to Fremantle in Perth where the Dockers were much sharper outside the contests.
But then came the contradiction to Queensland's marketing theme of being the "Sunshine State". The heavens opened ... and under heavy rain Port Adelaide played its most effective football.
For 20 minutes, Port Adelaide scored 5.4 from 22 inside-50s while conceding nothing - no score and no inside-50 - to Fremantle.
It was a simple style of win ball, kick ball forward and do it all over again ... and again.
No-one seemed to savour such a theme more than vice-captain Ollie Wines, back in the midfield for his first senior match of the season. It was a repeat of his impressive work in the wet during the Good Friday "dirty ball" win against West Coast in Perth last year.
"Our most-impressive result (so far)," said Wines.
It was, added Wines, a "grind" in far from the perfect conditions for the speed game preferred by Hinkley.
Port Adelaide always is more reassuring when it plays blue-collar football.
It was just the contradictory game to finish a weird weekend for the AFL. Port Adelaide kicked virtually half of its final score of 10.10 when conditions were totally against the need for Hinkley's preferred way of speed in open space.
At times this match - at an odd hour from 8.10pm on a Sunday in an odd place for the South Australian and West Australian clubs - seemed a throwback to those NFL Ardath Cup games played at Thebarton Oval on wintry Tuesday nights in the mid-1970s. No visible crowd, even though there was entry for 300 fans, just made those memories more vivid.
Hinkley thought the rain forced his players to adjust to the corrections needed at quarter-time when Fremantle led by six points. The 28-point lead in Port Adelaide's favour at half-time was never cut back to less than 22 points when the deluge stopped.
A few match notes would have been heavily underlined by opposition scouts.
Lead ruckman Scott Lycett is very cunning in how he approaches a contest.
Wines and former captain Travis Boak are so charged with energy that they would make the Duracell battery rabbit blush.
Port Adelaide can test defences with three tall forwards, Justin Westhoff, Todd Marshall and Charlie Dixon who made his return to Metricon Stadium for he first time since leaving Gold Coast at the end of 2015. Dixon's strong, one-grab marks under the rain during the second quarter were ominous to the point Brownlow Medallist Gerard Healy was prepared to contemplate Dixon as an All-Australian.
This bizarre season will have many "unprecedented" challenges ... and the long-standing test of winning the battle of attrition by injury. Last week, in Showdown XLVIII, it was defender Ryan Burton with a knee injury; this week it is wingman Xavier Duursma with a right hamstring injury suffered, as with Burton, in the third term.
Some football scripts don't change.
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
(Five things learned in round three)
1) DUSTY TIGERS Immediately the end of Richmond's unbeaten streak - that began in round 15 last year and reached 14 matches - is linked to the absence of Brownlow Medallist Dustin Martin. This would ignore the astute tactical work of Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley and Hawthorn premiership master Alastair Clarkson in stopping Richmond from playing its preferred game style to quickly load up its imposing forwards. Richmond has scored just five goals in each game in the past fortnight after averaging 13, 14 and 13 in 2019, 2018 and 2017 respectively.
2) DIARY NOTES Ross Oakley proved - with the Rise of the Phoenix - that an AFL chief executive can tell a fascinating story as to what happens behind the scenes in the political game of Australian football. But as the only chief executive of a major Australian football code to have survived in 2020, AFL commander Gillon McLachlan is sitting on a best seller. Hopefully, Gil is keeping diary notes.
3) BLUE SPOT Since Port Adelaide captain Dom Cassisi kicked the winning goal in the final 10 seconds at Kardinia Park in August 2007 - to end a 15-winning steak for Geelong at their long and narrow home ground - the Cats have played 95 home-and-away games and AFL finals at Corio Bay for an 85-10 win-loss count. The losses have been by two points to Carlton on Saturday night, four points to Greater Western Sydney last season, 17, 46, 38 and 11 to Sydney in 2018, 2017, 2016 and 2011, 24 to Melbourne in 2015, 16 to North Melbourne in 2015 and to Fremantle by 44 in 2015 and by 15 in the 2013 qualifying final. All up Geelong has a 456-5-220 win-draw-loss record at Kardinia Park.
4) RISING BAR Those who wanted Port Adelaide to pack away its 1902 black-and-white prison bars guernsey - to consign it to a museum - have much to note from the fans' phenomenal response to the auction of the 22 jumpers worn during Showdown XLVIII. Plus the significant count of signatures on the club-endorsed petition calling on the AFL Commission to allow Port Adelaide to wear the bars in future Showdowns presents more evidence that the supporters want the bars to be part of the club's future and not just its past. Click here to sign the petition.
5) SHOW ME THE MONEY AFL clubs clearly do not like media-sitting directors from rival clubs publicly declaring the terms and financial details of their players' contracts. The day professional Australian footballers have their salaries made public - in line with pro sports elsewhere in the world - seems a long, long way away.
JUST SAYING ...
Port Adelaide's plan to wear the club's traditional black-and-white bars in both Showdowns from 2021 has spawn a petition to put the Adelaide team in the SA State jumper when it hosts the derby.
Have we not been through this before (2014 when the SANFL revoked earlier approval to register and protect the red guernsey for state games only)?
In an era when so many great South Australian-born players have been denied the chance to wear the SA jumper while Origin games have fallen into recess since 1999, it would be so wrong for club players with no South Australian heritage to have a State jumper in their collection.
v West Coast, Metricon Stadium, Gold Coast
Saturday, 1.15pm SA time
HERE is the first test for Port Adelaide against a 2019 top-eight side - and another fascinating clash with West Coast on neutral territory.
For the first time, Port Adelaide and West Coast will play without a home-field advantage ... although both clubs would say they have not found such a bonus on their rival at their new home grounds.
Since moving to Adelaide Oval in 2014, Port Adelaide has lost all five games - including the 2017 elimination final in extra time - to West Coast.
At Perth Stadium, West Coast has hosted Port Adelaide twice since 2018 for a 1-1 count. Add in Subiaco Oval since 2014, Port Adelaide is 3-1 against West Coast in Perth.
Port Adelaide has a good vibe in south-east Queensland having opened the season with a commanding 47-point win against Gold Coast followed by a 29-point victory in the hub against Fremantle on Sunday night.
By stark contrast, West Coast is finding Queensland does not live up to the theme of beautiful one day, perfect the next .... it has lost to Gold Coast by 44 points at Metricon Stadium and by 30 to Brisbane at the Gabba since moving into the hub.
The Saturday afternoon match has one dream match-up of two former team-mates - Port Adelaide lead ruckman Scott Lycett, a premiership winner for West Coast in 2018, against Nic Natanui.