Footy Fix: The subtle coaching move from Matthew Nicks that won the Crows the Showdown


For somewhere between two and three and a half quarters, depending on how generous you want to be, Adelaide didn’t do a whole lot more than grimly cling by their fingernails to control of the Showdown as Port Adelaide threw everything, including the kitchen sink at them.

Close Showdowns are far from a rarity, but games that feel close without being so on the scoreboard are far less common: even as the Crows extended their lead beyond five goals as the Power continued to butcher chance after chance, there was always the decided feeling that Port were only one explosive burst away from piling on a stack of goals and clawing their way back into the match.

But the Crows always had the edge: that edge being their five goals to one start where they caught the Power unprepared with speedy, aggressive ball movement from defence, lethal efficiency and a Matthew Nicks coaching set-up that might just be his most significant move in the box since taking the job four years ago.

It was a counterintuitive strategy considering the Aliir Aliir-sized hole in Port Adelaide’s defence; logically, you’d have thought the Crows’ plan would be to try and keep their trio of key forwards in Taylor Walker, Elliott Himmelberg and Darcy Fogarty as deep as possible, attempt to isolate them one out against a vulnerable Power backline with Esava Ratugolea and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher as its talls.

Nicks went the other way: all three would regularly present much further afield than we’re used to seeing them, and at the same time, leaving space behind them for smaller, quicker Crows to run into and use their one key advantage over the Power: speed.

Fogarty had two marks inside 50 in the first quarter – one from a sprayed Walker set shot where he was too strong for Lachie Jones and jumped too high for Port ruckman Jordon Sweet to stop him, the second overpowering Jones again from a centre bounce breakaway. They’d be his only two disposals inside 50 for the night.

Walker, too, had just two disposals inside 50 for the evening – one from the first centre bounce of the second half, the other to set up that set shot that Fogarty grabbed. Ditto Himmelberg, with just two disposals and no marks inside 50 – and, tellingly, six of his 10 touches in about a 30-metre radius of space on the half-back flank.

Nicks’ strategy was twofold: get all of Walker, Fogarty and Himmelberg up the field, take advantage of their aerial prowess in helping exit defensive 50, confuse Ratugolea and Zerk-Thatcher and scramble their positioning, and then have Izak Rankine, Ben Keays, Brayden Cook go hell for leather into the open space behind them.

Ben Keays celebrates a goal. (Photo by James Elsby/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

It worked perfectly for three of the Crows’ five first-quarter goals, and allowed them to score four majors from their first five inside 50s, while Port Adelaide repeatedly peppered their own attack at the other end into a sea of players for no reward.

The best example of how effective the unorthodox strategy was came in the second of these goals: the Crows win the ball back at half-back and Lachie Sholl goes long down the line, with three big teammates at the fall of the ball – Himmelberg, Walker and Reilly O’Brien, with Fogarty on the bench.

The Power have Ratugolea set up behind the ball, but with Zerk-Thatcher and Ryan Burton as the only Power players to match that Adelaide trio, the former Cat gets spooked. He abandons his spot behind the ball and tries to impact a contest he didn’t have a hope in hell of getting to.

At a stroke, Port’s defensive structure falls apart; normally, Ratugolea might have expected to be able to stay back behind the ball guarding the deepest opposition tall, but the change throws him enough to commit a pretty basic mistake, one you never see the likes of Steven May or Sam Taylor or Harris Andrews – or Aliir Aliir, for that matter – commit. While athletically as imposing as anyone in the game, his poor reading of the play at times and unspectacular footy IQ was the source of some pretty significant issues in Geelong’s back six last year, and it reared its head again on Thursday night.

O’Brien is the one who takes the mark, and as he handballs to a running Matt Crouch, it becomes clear just how properly screwed the Power out. 40 metres in front of the play, with not an opponent in sight, is Izak Rankine – in most situations you’d call it cheating, but so brazen is his set-up forward of the ball that it’s clear, just as it has been for the last month, that this is a plan from Nicks to maximise his menace in the most dangerous positions on the ground.

An all but certain goal becomes a gift when Jones, the last Power player between Rankine and the goals, plays it about as badly as he could: he leaves his man, Ned McHenry, all alone and streaming towards goal, and makes a beeline for Rankine. He’s still a good five metres away when the Crow kicks over the top to the goalsquare, where McHenry marks and puts it through.

The Crows are on FIRE early, with four goals from just five inside 50s! ????????????

???? Watch #AFLCrowsPort LIVE on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) May 2, 2024

It was probably a goal anyway, given Rankine’s brilliance and the absence of anyone else even remotely close, but Jones had to force him to be the one to kick it: follow McHenry, allow Rankine to run in as close as he dared, and then pick the right moment and pray. It turns a 100 per cent goal into a 90 or even 95 per cent, but sometimes, the unexpected happens.

That’s important to mention because it sums up how utterly at sea Port’s defence was in the first quarter, conceding five goals from 11 inside 50s and consistently getting torched out the back.

The Crows, meanwhile, were making smart decisions at every turn, Walker’s superb goal on the run, the first of those ‘out the back’ goals, the prime example.

What a start for Tex and the Crows.#AFLCrowsPower

— AFL (@AFL) May 2, 2024

The instinct for many footballers, as it was for Port all night, would have been to look to pass or hit the hot spot from about the moment Walker takes a bounce. Indeed, it’s only then that everyone, Power defenders included, realise what his plan is.

The Power have a four on three ahead of the ball, and only once he bounces does Dylan Williams, the spare, try and close in on him. But it’s too late. Walker reaches 50, knows he has the kick in him, and it never looks like missing.

Sure, there’s some good fortune, as well as skill, in converting such a low-percentage shot, something the Power struggled at all night. But the strategy and the thinking leading up to it gave Walker and Adelaide the best possible chance to take maximum advantage of the opportunity provided. And again, it came from the talls roaming further afield than you usually see key forwards roam, and proving oh so damaging going back towards goal instead of leading up from them.

Support your AFL team in style – check out The Oodie! They’ve got Adult Oodies for all 18 teams as well as Kids Oodies and even Dog Oodies available in selected teams.  Made from the softest, premium fabrics they are the comfiest memorabilia you’ll ever wear!  #GetYourOodieOn

The third of these counterattack goals follows a similar pattern: a hacked kick forward from Mitch Hinge from half-back hits the wing, with both Walker and Himmelberg underneath it.

Walker turns spoiler this time, fisting away from Zerk-Thatcher and creating a spillage – that’s all he really needs to do. Because once the ball hits the ground, the Crows are in business.

Knowing the gameplan is to move the ball forward as quickly as possible, Josh Rachele doesn’t bother with riding a tackle or picking the ball up at all: he soccers it out to the wing, where Keays has bolted into space. An overlap is created, with a worried Kane Farrell peeling off his man – Rankine – running forward to try and pressure.

As with Ratugolea, as with Jones, as with Williams, he’s too late, and his attempt to affect Keays does nothing more than to free up Rankine as the next man over the top. Keays scrubs a kick to him at half-forward, and two options present: one, Himmelberg, who has dashed back inside 50 from that spillage and is free with Ratugolea abandoning him to rush at Rankine, or the more difficult option of Brayden Cook, closer to goal but with Williams nearby.

You’ll struggle to see a better kick all weekend.

Cook has bolted forward from the wing, totally burning Bergman by about 30 metres, and he’s rewarded with a superb pass that gives Williams no chance and sets up a simple set shot from 15 metres out on a slight angle.

In a low-scoring game, that five goals to one start was everything. It meant the Crows had a substantial buffer when Port inevitably challenged in the last quarter, put doubts in the minds of the Power backs that undoubtedly contributed to some telling errors at key stages, and put Ken Hinkley on the back foot in the opposite box – not his favourite place to be by any stretch.

The Power course-corrected after quarter time, held their structure with more desire, and continued to dominate the inside 50 and clearance numbers. Yet the die had been cast: after two late goals to end the first term, it took Port another hour to add a third, with the Crows and in particular Mark Keane punching above their weight to handle a dangerous Power forward line, and the midfielders working back hard to clog space and make every shot difficult enough to make missing more than a reasonable chance.

The ‘expected scores’ makes it look bad, with Port almost 23 points in arrears in that stat while the Crows finished more than 16 in front, but if you look at every individual data point, it’s worth noting that of their 16 listed behinds, only four of them carried an expected score of more than 3, which is as close as the metric offers to a 50/50 chance. Essentially, that high expected scores number is only based on the fact that eventually, the law of averages suggested that some of those low-percentage chances would go through, not that Port were butchering golden chance after golden chance.

It took the Crows until the last quarter to kick more goals for the rest of the game than they managed in the first 21 minutes of the Showdown: it was that burst that broke the game open, and ensured that no matter what Port threw at them, they always had the edge.

Sports opinion delivered daily 


The result was a famous win for Nicks and his Crows; and a disastrous loss for the Power and for Hinkley especially.

But I hope in all of the praise for Jake Soligo, the discussion of the Power’s waywardness and the criticism coming their coach’s way, that time is reserved to give Matthew Nicks his due – because without his boldness, a third straight Showdown victory for Adelaide might not have been possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.