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Heading into Saturday night’s Preliminary Final, Port Adelaide had every reason to feel rather good about themselves. They’d won seven in a row. Their qualifying final had been a breeze. They had the Brownlow Medal favourite. They had a home final - a luxury these days. Compared to nearly every other AFL club, they’d been dealt some pretty good cards throughout the pandemic. For years, they’d flattered to deceive, been desperately unlucky at times, shot themselves in the foot at others. But there was a sense of destiny about them.
Besides, the visitors were surely out of aces. They’d been shunted from one end of the country to the other. They’d been subject to all manner of bureaucratic indignities. They’d lost their key defender, their leading goal kicker and their best small forward. Their marquee player was on one leg. They brought in a 34-year-old ruckman who hadn’t played a full game since April. Their prize recruit was “distracted, disinterested, confused, sad and helpless” (but otherwise ok, presumably), according to one columnist. The bookmakers wound them out to $3.50. The Port fans raised their scarves, belted out some INXS, dabbed their eyes, adjusted their settings to ‘boo’, and prepared to progress to a Grand Final.
But just like that, it was over. Just like that, they stood revealed. The Western Bulldogs ambushed them. They mauled them at ground level. They dominated in the air. They outfoxed them in the coaching box. Port couldn’t stick a tackle, hit a target or summon up a fraction of the vim you need in a preliminary final. By the time they’d woken up, their season was done.
Ken Hinkley seemed bewildered. His counterpart was as clenched, as bonkers and as brilliant as ever. Before the game, Luke Beveridge said this final would be won on “emotion and psychology”. The ‘us against the world’ nature of the task certainly played right into his hands. But it was his tactical nous – his ability to think on the fly, to plug holes, and to blunt opposition strengths – that sent Port packing. He quelled the All-Australian centre half back with Josh Schache, who most definitely had not been in All-Australian calculations. He reshuffled his backline. He unleashed Aaron Naughton – a spring healed, sticky fingered, majestically-mulleted 21-year-old star. His team lost the disposal, hit out, and centre clearance counts, yet won in a canter.
But now he has a 208-centimetre problem. The previous night, Max Gawn had sauntered onto Optus Oval, high-fived his teammates, smiled wryly through the Mayor of Perth’s ceremonial offerings, and proceeded to systematically brutalise Geelong. He answered football’s full suite of demands. He pushed back to outnumber in defence. He unloaded running goals from outside fifty. He snapped others from ruck contests. His set shot kicking was straighter than Lyle Shelton. He made his opponent Rhys Stanley, who Nick Riewoldt once described as the most naturally gifted athlete he’d ever seen in football, look like he’d just been rescued from the surf. In terms of individual Preliminary Final performances, his third quarter alone surely stands up alongside Gary Ablett in 1989, Wayne Carey in 1994 and Mason Cox in 2018.
But even as Gawn controlled the air, this final was won on the ground. All evening there were Melbourne players waltzing out the front of a stoppage, while the Cats defenders tottered drunkenly around them. The Cats were old, slow and surely at the end of their line. The Dees were the youngest outfit in the final eight. They were the future. It’s hard to remember a Melbourne side ever playing better.
With the game iced, and soft tissues to protect, Simon Goodwin ordered his prized assets to the bench. Gawn looked like a logger at the end of a hard day in the forest. He joined the two best defenders in Australia, and two of the game’s prime on-ballers. They lolled about, perhaps pondering a date with Port Adelaide. For decades, this club has carried a boulder on its shoulder. This lot seemed utterly unencumbered by any of that.
And so, the two sides welded to the top of table for the best part of four months square off again. But now they must wait. Luke Beveridge has a dozen days to plot, to refresh, and to work Melbourne’s locks. The WA Premier has a dozen days to crack a smile, to exhibit a kernel of joy that his state is hosting this thing. Melbourne-based Demons and Bulldogs fans have a dozen days to pace their lounge rooms, to dream of an MCG bathed in blue, red and white. Footy is taking a pause. It’s all rather ridiculous. But so are the times. And so was the preliminary final weekend.