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Well played. You bastards.

Touch of the Fumbles

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Now, gather round everyone; huddle in close.

As Michelle Dubois used to say in ‘Allo, ‘Allo: listen very carefully, I shall say this only once.

Port. Were. Really. Really. Good.

There, I said it.

It doesn’t mean I like them, of course.

If the devil was to take the form of a football team, do you think he’d be a dull, turgid, incompetent one? No, of course not. He’d play a pacy, free-flowing, highly-skilled, exciting, WINNING brand of football. How else would he expect to recruit unwitting followers to his diabolical mission?

But I digress.

It was the battle of the ports, albeit an entirely symbolic one, since there’s little doubt that Fremantle is really a much better port.

It has the old Fremantle Prison, funky markets and Little Creatures, while Port Adelaide has old prison bar jumpers, funky-smelling pollution and feral creatures.

But regardless, it also has a team that is in a preliminary final.

It was all looking so hopeful for a while there, too; Nat Fyfe was playing like a man possessed, Lachie Neale seemed to have taken on an anti-Port Adelaide bent with the zeal befitting a Glenelg recruit and the long arm of Sandilands seemed to find its way into every contest.

Freo’s first half was, in its dour, suffocating way, rather amazing; reminiscent of their preliminary final last year, when they simply stifled Sydney, not generally a team lacking hardness around the contest. They did, on both occasions, also blow a few scoring chances; last year it was 2.9 in the first quarter, this time 6.11 by the half. They peppered the goals, but at least they were getting near them. The Power were a shadow of the side that bolted out of the blocks to belt Richmond the previous week. They were harried, pressured, indecisive, lacking confidence.

Sometimes there are those moments upon which games of football can hinge; the ‘sliding-doors’ moments that turn the course of a match. Moving Darren Jarman to full forward in the 1997 Grand Final, for instance, summoning that final quarter onslaught of goals, punctuated, joyously, by Bruce McAvaney’s immortal cry: “That will do; that will do!”

And I’m one of those few who still thinks had Luke Jericho kicked straight with a set shot from 50m against Brisbane in 2004, when the Crows were just shy of five goals down in the shadows of half time, we might have been able to come back and perhaps hang on by a point. Instead of losing by 141.

But them’s the breaks.

On Saturday night, when Jay Schulz (as reliable a marksman as you’ll find in the AFL) took a grab in the goalsquare directly in front, only to spray the kick from point blank, it seemed that would be the moment that defined Port’s game.

The Power were woeful in the first half. How bad? Well, they managed only three goals; the first came from a soft fifty metre penalty and the other two both came deep into time on against the run of play.

The margin hit 31 points late in the half; the way the Dockers were playing, it should have been at least 50, and the contest over.

But something happened at half time. Something strange and magical, in a black sort of way.

Port started running hard; they had pace; they were taking chances. Robbie Gray caught fire (not literally). By the end of the term, the Power had added six goals to their total, as many as Freo had managed in the first half. Gray had slotted four of them. Danyle Pearce seemed to think he still played for Port and kept passing them the ball. Wines and Wingard were so good it was scary; to think they are only 19 and 21 respectively makes me want to go and curl up in a dark corner, shaking catatonically.

I don’t think Port will win the premiership this year, but it seems almost inconceivable those players won’t be part of a Grand Final win in the near future (much as I fervently hope to the contrary). I’m trying not to sound too impressed here, but the resolve and execution were kind of extraordinary. I’m starting to suspect Ken Hinkley might know a thing or two about coaching; such a shame he wasn’t available when we were looking around three years ago (that’s my memory of it, anyway).

I’ll give them this much: if they do manage to snag it this year, they’ll well and truly have earned it. The bastards.

Talking of teams who thought they’d recruited a good coach only to discover he had a twin brother who did everything slightly better (which we weren’t), the Kangaroos finally had some vindication against the Cats, with Brad Scott masterminding victory in the ultimate sibling rivalry.

To confuse matters more, either the Scott brothers had swapped colours or they’ve swapped diets, but I’m pretty sure Brad was the one swearing whenever Tom Hawkins went near the ball.

Three years ago, Sam Gibson was a 26-year-old captaining the Box Hill Hawks when he was signed by the Kangaroos as a mature-age rookie. On Friday night, he was best on ground in a classic semi-final. He is known for accumulating uncontested possessions, averaging and totaling the most in the AFL; but on Friday, he racked up plenty of hard ball as well and, more importantly, used it to create opportunities.

Nick Dal Santo proved his worth with a performance that turned the clock back to his headiest days at St Kilda. (Talking of the Saints, Nick Riewoldt recently took out the club’s best and fairest, nudging out Lenny Hayes, which is a cracking endorsement of two legends, but a dire indictment of where the club’s at that a guy with perhaps a year or two left in him is still easily their most important player.)

It appeared all over for Geelong, but Hawkins bobbed up with a dominant individual quarter of finals football, almost single-handedly hauling Geelong back off the mat. The comeback fell a lone goal short, ensuring Geelong finally lost a close game, at precisely the wrong time. It sent the Roos deep into September. Sure, it’ll all end with a preliminary final loss to Sydney, but a top four finish is a solid result for a team whose best was tantalizing but whose worst was woeful.

North Melbourne finals wins are like buses; you wait around fruitlessly for seven years, and then two come along at once.

Meanwhile, Chris Scott’s infamous statement of satisfaction after the Round 22 Hawthorn loss appears to have been the most premature declaration of “Mission Accomplished” since George W. Bush.

Geelong, of course, were doomed from the second the Fumbles jumped on their rickety bandwagon, prompting the wheels to fall off. Cats supporters, you can send your personal letters of gratitude courtesy of InDaily.

To be fair, I tipped Port and the Kangaroos, albeit without great confidence. I figured Port and Freo were locked away as a 50/50 proposition; it’s more like 65/35 this week in favour of the Hawks. I wouldn’t discount Port progressing again, but by Grand Final day, they’ll have spent four out of five weeks on the road, including two trips to Perth. While that Round 23 loss to Freo may seem inconsequential now, its legacy was to rob the Power of an armchair ride to the premiership.

I’ll give them this much: if they do manage to snag it this year, they’ll well and truly have earned it. The bastards.

Six months ago, when this rant first appeared in these pages, I found some solace in the consolation that at least Port are much easier to hate when they’re winning. They have, consequently, made it easier and easier as the year progressed. So, in the spirit of finding hope in adversity, I’ve made a list of positives about Port’s continued improvement:

1) It makes it easy to decide who to barrack for each week, as the pointy end of the competition becomes a Port vs Not Port proposition. (It is, I fear, ebbing towards that unappetising denouement where Crows supporters will be forced to decide between the Power and He Who Shall Not Be Named.)
2) It means I still get to make amusing social media gags about Port supporters celebrating, illustrated with still shots from Dawn Of the Dead.
3) It gives me something to write about.

That’s about it.

Tom Richardson can usually be found commentating on state politics every Friday in InDaily. On Mondays during the football season he also charts the season from a fan’s perspective – this year, a somewhat bitter fan.

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