REMEMBER the adage defining the race to an AFL premiership as a marathon and not a sprint?
Welcome to the "Festival of Football" - top-flight football every day, starting on Wednesday, July 29 and ending on Monday, August 17 (when this challenged AFL fixture will again need to take stock of Australia's status, State by State, with the COVID pandemic).
A total of 33 games in 20 days.
Port Adelaide's cards are -
Thursday, July 30 v Melbourne at the Gabba in Brisbane. A stand-alone game with free-to-air national television coverage on the 150th anniversary of Port Adelaide's first competitive football game (v Young Australian in the Adelaide north parklands).
Monday, August 3 v the Western Bulldogs at Adelaide Oval. It will be the first time the Port Adelaide fans sample the Monday night timeslot since the club advanced to AFL company in 1997. The spike in COVID numbers is making health officials more cautious in their approach to opening up more seats at the Oval, as noted with the pull back at the gate on Saturday night.
Saturday, August 8 v 2019 premier Richmond at Adelaide Oval with the twilight zone. Who will shine with the stars; who will fall into the shadows of a crater?
Friday, August 14 v Geelong at the Gabba in the stand-alone premier timeslot. This will mark Port Adelaide's eighth game in Queensland this season.
Four games in 16 days. A five-day break from round 8 to 9; then four days; followed by five days and finally five days.
The marathon turns into a mid-season sprint (when usually there would be a mid-season pause). And there is no blueprint in Australian football (unless you turn back the pages to when State teams were on quick rotation during the Australian national carnivals, first played in 1908 in Melbourne; last played in 1988 in Adelaide with State-of-Origin teams).
It is true to tournament play put before international football teams, particularly at a soccer or rugby World Cup.
Australian football is brutal enough that it is very rare for any AFL team to be blessed with no injury - nor form lapses from individuals - to allow a coach to run the same 22 players across four consecutive games. And that is when football is a week at a time (another adage that falls in this "unprecedented" season).
This sprint will have 18 clubs working to differing theories on resting and rotating players. Some will get a bye; some will push on to get 12 games to their records. Training programs will differ with each theory and depending on the breaks between matches. The final notes - from both coaches and fitness staff - are going to make for some fascinating academic papers.
For Port Adelaide, now 6-2 and still placed top, the mid-season sprint is a significant test - two games against 2019 top-four sides (Richmond and Geelong); one against a 2019 top-eight finisher (the Western Bulldogs) and a 2019 also-ran (Melbourne). It is time to see what Port Adelaide stands for in Season 2020.
FIRST quarter, 23rd minute. Port Adelaide key forward Charlie Dixon took a strong mark beyond the top of the 50-metre arc on the eastern side of Adelaide Oval. The switch was on, right across the arc to finish with Robbie Gray on the opposite side of the approach to the southern goals.
It was the neatest, calmest transition of play - and finished with a goal, an encore of what Gray did in more dramatic circumstances after the siren at the Gabba to have Port Adelaide beat Carlton six days earlier.
Those excited fans from the 4.19pm train from Alberton in search of their football fix, after being locked out of Adelaide Oval since Showdown XLVIII on June 13, were in fine voice (and fine attire with their bars jumpers).
Port Adelaide did look at home after six weeks on the road, either in a hub or on day trips to Queensland.
It didn't last.
For the next two quarters it was intense. As expected, both Port Adelaide and St Kilda put so much speed on the game that the ball became too hot to control at times. The players even seemed jolted by having a vocal crowd reacting to their moves. St Kilda coach Brett Ratten was forced to come to the boundary waving his arms up and down to, as he put it, appeal for composure from his players.
The margin was never more than eight points in the first three quarters, each time in Port Adelaide's favour during the frenetic second term. Only St Kilda managed a run of consecutive goals without an answer from its rival - twice, first in the second term and then in the third. Port Adelaide was having more shots on goal - 12 (with six goalscorers for the six goals) to seven at three quarter-time when St Kilda led by a point.
Without the ball, St Kilda was defending territory even better than it did on Monday night. "We learned (from Monday's clash with Adelaide) how to play the ground," said Ratten. "It allowed us to adjust."
To contain Port Adelaide to just 36 inside-50 entries highlights the point.
Something had to give eventually - and many will point to Port Adelaide veteran Justin Westhoff's costly turnover that gave Dan Butler an unexpected set shot from inside 50 at the Riverbank southern end and St Kilda a damaging 11-point lead.
This game went to script, but with St Kilda surprisingly finding more advantages while those on the 4.19pm city bound train were up on their feet wanting to check the three field umpires' tickets. Deliberate out-of-bounds is now as confusing as holding-the-ball.
By the end, St Kilda was more at home - winning twice in six days at a venue where its last victory was during football's pioneer days in 1877. The 29-point margin put a full stop on the eight-game losing streak to Port Adelaide.
And this result leaves many questions for Port Adelaide to face before the "festival of football" puts AFL games on the sprint cycle with its own set of tricky puzzles for coaches and players to solve.
From the top of the list ...
Robbie Gray. A hero in one moment at the Gabba; still not at his lofty standards throughout games. Seven disposals, one centre clearance when he was ushered into the midfield mix ... and once again no free kick (although there was a seemingly obvious holding-the-man call missed at the goalfront in the first term). These are not Robbie Gray-like figures.
Justin Westhoff. Granted a reprieve from his demotion at selection when key defender Trent McKenzie had to withdraw with back spasms during the warm-up - and given a defined role in defence (rather than ever-changing orders as the fix-it utility). There were a few moments to suggest the veteran has a challenge he has not faced in his previous 13 seasons. The one certain to be highlighted is the turnover to Butler inside-50 at the southern end that started St Kilda's four-goal charge to victory.
Stoppages. Port Adelaide took a game-defining hit here - losing the clearances (30-42) and ultimately having less of the ball (267-294 disposals).
In pairing this season's losses to Brisbane and St Kilda, Hinkley notes: "A couple of times we've been beaten (on the scoreboard, and around the ball) is where we've been beaten."
St Kilda certainly gained an advantage with its impressive ruck tandem of Rowan Marshall and former Port Adelaide lead ruckman Patrick Ryder (40 hit-outs) to novice Peter Ladhams' 14 (with two more won by Westhoff and Dixon). The two-ruck model does work in shortened games when both ruckman can contribute in field play, as Marshall and Ryder did with their four goals - a third of St Kilda's score.
At a time when many are advocating the game try 16-a-side (which can mean the lawmakers repeat the VFA theme by culling wingmen to artificially create more space), it would not be surprising to hear Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley say, "Leave the game alone." More so when he is running a fascinating rotation of four wingmen, as seen on Saturday night with Xavier Duursma, Karl Amon, Kane Farrell and Zak Butters.
Port Adelaide enters the mid-season sprint at 6-2 - and still top. To stay there in the next three weeks will need another response now that some deeper questions are being asked of Port Adelaide - it comes with the territory of being a team others want to beat to enhance their credentials as a top-eight contender.
STATISTICS on free kicks are always subjective - how many were warranted, how many were missed, how many were wrongly called. For the record, the count was: Port Adelaide 15, St Kilda 21.
"I'M not an umpire basher at all, but gee, that was an interesting game.
"I will say this. The challenge with the umpiring is that it should not change from week to week. That is confusing for everyone - players, for the umpires.
"The umpires walk off there tonight and they got a heckling and that is not their fault, most of it.
"The game shouldn't get adjusted from week to week. The rules are the rules. They don't need to change. We just need to umpire them consistently, like what I want my team to do - play consistently.
"You can't tell me that coaches talking about the umpiring, (AFL chief executive) Gil (McLachlan) talking about the umpiring, or me talking about the umpiring and trying to make an adjustment (helps) - that doesn't work. That's not the way the game should be.
"And for umpires to have a week-to-week focus; their week-to-week focus shouldn't change from round one to round whatever we play ... their focus should be to umpire the rules as they are written. Then everyone will become really clear with what to expect.
"There is absolutely no doubt that it's more confusing today than it has ever been.
"The umpiring should be left to be umpired by the umpires ... it shouldn't be, 'I don't see the rules changing' or 'I don't understand that'; we play the game every week, we should play it with the same rules every week. I don't know that we need to make adjustments.
"We shouldn't behave like there is something that needs to be fixed every week."
Ken Hinkley, Port Adelaide coach
TAKE IT TO THE BANK
(Five things we have learned in the past week)
1) WELCOME BACK. In an era when technology has made it tempting to stay home (or search for a big screen at a pub), Season 2020 has reminded all - including television executives - that AFL games and venues need fans to create atmosphere. And Port Adelaide supporters inside the echo shell that is Adelaide Oval inject their enthusiasm so deeply into a game that they can make players who have worked inside empty arenas for three months become very, very jumpy ... and some umpires appear easily distracted. What happened to the sound of affirmation?
2) PEARLY GATES. Since round 4, St Kilda has kicked 15.3 v Richmond; 11.7 v Carlton; 11.7 v Fremantle (and lost); 12.6 v Adelaide and 12.1 v Port Adelaide with Dan Butler hitting a post and Tim Membrey scoring the 11th goal with a raised boot intercepting Port Adelaide captain Tom Jonas' attempt to rush a behind. This gives a five-game total of 61.24 and a conversion rate of 71.76. St Kilda's Saints must be seeing the goals like the pearly gates to the Elysian Fields.
3) COLEMAN SHIFT. Sydney goalsneak Tom Papley will close round 8 holding the Coleman Medal as the AFL leading goalkicker with 19 goals from eight matches. The leaderboard is not a roll call of the power forwards but the opportunist "non talls" of Papley, Dan Butler (St Kilda, 15 goals from eight matches), Toby Greene (Greater Western Sydney, 14 from six) and Charlie Cameron (Brisbane, 15 from eight) all sit within the top six scorers. Trend of change or just an exception to the norm?
4) POINTS OR CUPS. Richmond again has lost the grand final re-match, this time to Greater Western Sydney as it did to Adelaide in 2018 and Carlton in 1983 and Collingwood in 1981. But it has three big silver cups at Punt Road to remember winning grand finals in 2019, 2017 and 1980. They are more memorable than the 16 premiership points dropped in grand final rematches.
5) HAMMER TIME. While many are describing Gold Coast running machine Wil Powell's noble act of sportsmanship - by saying he did not touch a Western Bulldogs' kick at goal on Thursday night - as an "Adam Gilchrist moment" of honesty in sport, surely the more appropriate tag comes from remembering the decency of Port Adelaide defender Hamish Hartlett. It was May 2015 at Adelaide Oval where Hartlett - also in the score review days - told the umpires that his shot of goal in time-on of the first quarter against West Coast had clipped a goal post, as he had done the year before at Subiaco Oval against Fremantle. "You save yourself from looking like a bit of an idiot (for celebrating a non-goal when they do go to the review," Hartlett says.
Melbourne v Port Adelaide
Thursday, July 30, 7.20pm (SA time)
ONE hundred and fifty years ago, the boys from Port Adelaide took the early afternoon train from the docks to the city to gather on the north parklands to meet a newly formed team known as Young Australian.
Saturday, July 30, 1870 marked the first competitive football match for the Port Adelaide Football Club.
To the day, 150 years later, the boys from Alberton will get on a plane to play Australia's oldest football club, Melbourne, at the Gabba in Brisbane. In 150 years, someone will question if this is a misprint.
Melbourne, the Australian game's first club, playing South Australia's oldest surviving league club on the 150th anniversary of the Port Adelaide Football Club's first competitive match with the AFL game in ... Brisbane.
Where was the sense of occasion from AFL executive Travis Auld for having this commemorative match at Adelaide Oval, just a few kicks from where the Port Adelaide boys had their first kicks in anger?
FOOTBALL - On Saturday afternoon, July 30, a match was played between the Young Australian and Port Adelaide Clubs on the North Park Lands. The unsettled weather prevented the attendance of many spectators. The past rains made the ground unpleasantly soft and slippery, and several ludicrous falls were the consequence, and at the conclusion the white ducks and singlets presented many variegated shades more conspicuous than ornamental. There were about 15 players on each side - Mr. J. Smith acting as captain of the Young Australians, and Mr. J. Wald for the Port - and playing was very good. The first goal was cleverly made by Mr. J. Wald, and after a lengthened contest Mr. J. Higgins succeeded in gaining a good goal for the Adelaideans, thus making a drawn game, it being too late for prolonging the contest. Some amusement was caused by the numerous slips, several players with a delightful unanimity rolling together into a convenient puddle. The tie will no doubt be played off when the weather is more favorable.
The Register, Monday, August 1, 1870