Footy Fix: Port just played the best quarter of the year – and it was so good, they hardly showed up for the other three


Port Adelaide’s first quarter on Friday night at GMHBA Stadium was the best any team has played in 2024 to date.

The next three quarters were… less so.

In a nutshell, that’s the problem with the Power, and the reason why they’re almost impossible to get a read on from week to week. For three quarters of a game – actually, three quarters of a season – they’re a mediocre, defensively vulnerable outfit that get punished on the turnover and struggle to lay hands on the ball; and then, with little warning, they’ll explode into a devastating beast of a team that wins every centre clearance, kicks the ball beautifully inside 50 and piles on a swathe of goals to leave you thinking they’re a legitimate premiership contender.

On this occasion, it was enough to dismantle Geelong so brutally that it took them two and a half quarters of slowly piecing themselves back together to so much as get close. Not many teams going around are capable of doing that to the Cats, on their own turf no less.

There will be a lot of discussion in coming days, both internally and externally, about how the Power nearly fumbled a 49-point lead and let a game totally in their keeping be flipped so comprehensively on them.

But I hope that doesn’t distract from how phenomenally good Port’s first quarter was – and so it’s that eight goals to three withering burst that broke the game open that I’ll be focussing on here.

Ken Hinkley cops a lot of flak among the general footy fandom, Power fans included, but he coached the absolute lights out to quarter time. Minus Connor Rozee in midfield, he shifted his magnets and ensured a single-minded aim at the coalface: get Jason Horne-Francis the ball, and watch him explode.

The epitome of the Power’s inconsistency at the moment, Horne-Francis is still a burst player at this stage of his career, but there are few midfielders with his mix of strength, pace and power – and the ones that do tend to win multiple Brownlow Medals.

With Ollie Wines and Willem Drew alternating as the defensive midfielder at stoppages, tasked both with covering for Horne-Francis defensively and preventing quick breakaways from the Cats, the stage was set beautifully for the former No.1 draft pick to thrive.

From the first boundary throw-in of the night, Horne-Francis demonstrated how lethal he is: with Jackson Mead pushing up to the stoppage to leave extra space in Port’s forward half ahead of it, all he needed to do once gathering possession is scrub a kick forward, along the ground so as not to bring Tom Stewart and the Cats’ other interceptors into the game.

The moment Mead’s kick leaves his boot, Horne-Francis is bolting forward with ferocious speed, and not a single Cat can go with him. Charlie Dixon gathers the loose ball at half-forward, gives to the Hornet, who has left the Cats’ mids in the dust, and from there, the finish is the easy bit.

Jason Horne-Francis bursts away and boots the opening goal!

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

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) May 10, 2024

An even better example of how the midfield unit, especially at centre bounces, was designed to free up the No.18 didn’t actually lead to a goal, but once again showcased Port’s desire to take the game on, burst from the midfield and give their forward line looks before the Cats could set up.

Lining up on Horne-Francis at the bounce is Mark Blicavs, the closest thing the Cats have in there to a stopper: he’s fast, more than a match physically, and has a decade’s worth of experience cutting young, talented upstarts down to size.

From the resultant scramble, Blicavs first looks to block Horne-Francis off the ball, then spies an opportunity to punish him going the other way: seeing Tom Atkins lead the race towards a loose ball, he peels off for the handball receive.

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The problem? Atkins can’t gather cleanly, buffeted off the ball by Jed McEntee, who has come up from half-forward and dragged his man, Stewart, with him. The ball spills loose onto the wing, and Horne-Francis, with no Blicavs to worry about, races to the ball, picks it up cleanly, and only errs when he second-guesses his move to pass inside 50, stops, props, and moves laterally to allow the Cats to set up.

But this wasn’t just a lucky break that could just as easily have backfired on them had Atkins actually picked up cleanly: Wines, having started opposed to Atkins on Port’s attacking side of the centre bounce, makes a beeline for Blicavs as the ball rolls into dispute and the Cat peels off, quite literally covering Horne-Francis’ backside.

Richmond used to do this every week for Dustin Martin, letting him be the attacking weapon he was at his prime while the rest of the group, Trent Cotchin and Kane Lambert especially, did the dirty defensive work. With seven tackles to go with his 33 disposals, 15 of them contested, Wines did the grunt stuff all night.

Hinkley’s management of his strike weapon was also fascinating: Horne-Francis’ first ‘rest’ of the night wasn’t on the bench, but moving into the forward line. With the quarter having gone for barely four minutes up until then, it’s a rare sight to see a first-choice on-baller pushed so quickly into attack, but the coach knows the Power are off to a hot start and wants him on as much as possible.

Horne-Francis’ first half has been quality, as Richo and Hodgey highlight #AFLCatsPower

— 7AFL (@7AFL) May 10, 2024

The Power played four key forwards on Friday night – Charlie Dixon, Jeremy Finlayson, Mitch Georgiades and Todd Marshall – and yet it was Horne-Francis who served as the deepest forward in the play that led to Port’s third goal.

Matched up with Jake Kolodjashnij, one of the Cats’ premier stoppers, the Power ace was simply too good on the lead, shoving off his opponent at the perfect time to give himself two metres of space, pushing hard at the ball and honoured by a perfectly directed Ryan Burton kick.

Horne-Francis’ set shot only ends up leading to a goal thanks to a Geelong miscommunication on the line that allowed Dixon to tap the ball back into play and in the direction of Willie Rioli, who snapped it through; but luck’s a fortune sometimes, and none of it would have happened if he wasn’t quick enough, strong enough and good enough to outpoint Kolodjashnij in the first place.

Hinkley’s forward structure likewise deserves plenty of credit for the early onslaught: not many coaches are brave enough to pick those four talls, but he has backed in Finlayson, Georgiades and Marshall’s aerobic capacity to prevent the attack getting too top-heavy.

That trio are all leading key forwards, as opposed to Dixon, who’s more of the ‘sit it on my head and let me bully whoever’s on me’ breed; to make the most of a forward line like that, you can’t just bomb haphazardly in. The ball movement needs to be quick, eyes lowered heading inside 50, and kicks looking to find targets rather than gain territory.

By quarter time, the Power had six marks inside 50, including a goal apiece to Finlayson and Georgiades from being pinpointed by bullet passes to perfect spots against mismatched opponents.

The first had Mead bursting Horne-Francis-style from a centre bounce as his opponent, Atkins, gave the umpire a serve for awarding a free kick, with Georgiades marking uncontested 15 metres out after his man, Mark O’Connor, showed he’s a key back in the broadest of terms only by making no body contact and horrendously mistiming his leap at th footy – everything defenders aren’t supposed to do.

The Power have burst out of the blocks and kicked the first four as the Cats are all over the place!

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

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) May 10, 2024

You earn a mismatch like that with brave selection and aggressive kicking: if that ball from Mead is under pressure and spills loose, O’Connor will be dangerous going the other way. But Hinkley was willing to take that risk, and confident in his talls’ pace to be able to cover defensively – on both counts, he was vindicated.

The seventh goal of the quarter might be the best example of all of Port at their best.

It begins with the Cats in a position of strength: Jeremy Cameron sprinting down the wing, a paddock of space ahead of him. It’s a sight to strike fear in the hearts of opposition coaches everywhere.

Except Cameron can’t bang it long, because ahead of him is only Tom Hawkins in a two-on-one against Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, the loose man Burton, and closer in and ready to try and stop him in his tracks, the defensive midfielder, Wines: precisely the set-up that fell apart spectacularly in the Showdown, when Adelaide walked goals in at will as Port’s defence pressed far too high.

That indecision opens the door for Butters to close in and swallow Cameron in a perfect tackle: switching from defence to attack, Wines gathers the ball, and tries to hit up Marshall on forward 50.

The chase down from Butters! His first quarter:

10 disposals
4 score involvements
3 inside 50s
3 clearances#AFLCatsPower

— 7AFL (@7AFL) May 10, 2024

Normally, Marshall dropping the mark would have been the end of the play, with Cats closing in everywhere. But Marshall is nimble enough to regather the loose ball, which has the double effect of dragging Tom Stewart up in a futile attempt to affect the contest, leaving the Geelong defence vulnerable behind him.

Marshall handpasses over his head to Rioli, who, like for so much of the first half, has no Cat within ten metres of him: with a plethora of options, he chooses Finlayson near the top of the goalsquare, with Jack Henry caught equidistant between him and the other tall who’s his nominal opponent, Dixon, who has led to the forward pocket as a semi-decoy to let Finlayson have the more dangerous space.

For the first half especially, Port’s forwards do that beautifully: it’s rare to see two of them lead in the same direction, let alone fly for the same ball. They know the Cats don’t have enough key backs to cover them all in the air, and are set up to divide and conquer. It’s working wonderfully well.

With a little over a minute left in the term, there’s time for one last Power special: a centre clearance goal, their third of the quarter – good even by their standards as one of the best teams in the competition at scoring from them.

This one is down to talent: Dante Visentini, Port’s third choice ruckman who was good enough to force Chris Scott to sub out Rhys Stanley before quarter time, taps down expertly to the advantage of Butters, who shunts Cam Guthrie under the ball and is already running into space as the ball settles into his hands.

Stewart is off for a rest, and his absence is telling as Butters kicks a rainmaker up towards half-forward: it’s O’Connor and Max Holmes representing Geelong underneath it, and while both have other excellent traits, none are a patch on Stewart for reading the play.

O’Connor flies and has the ball whistle comically through his hands; Holmes, caught ball-watching, lets his man Rioli race free out the back and towards goal, and is lucky he’s not used.

Willie Rioli celebrates a goal. (Photo by Darrian Traynor/Getty Images)

He doesn’t need to be, though – Byrne-Jones, O’Connor’s man, is also free at ground level, and with ridiculous ease, he gathers the loose ball, runs in unopposed, and kicks another goal.

Call it poor Geelong defending, or a lucky bounce of the ball or two: but Port came to GMHBA Stadium with a plan from the first bounce.

They were going to crash in ferociously for the hard ball, attacking the Cats at their greatest weakness – contested ball-winning midfielders. They were then going to explode away from stoppages, Horne-Francis the key there, while covering themselves at the back – Wines and Drew.

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Then, when going forward, they were going to lower their eyes, honour leads, and hit targets; while the forwards spaced themselves out inside 50 and made it guesswork for any Cats spares or midfielders running back to decide which of their defenders needed help the most.

The result? The highest quarter time score inflicted on Geelong since Chris Scott took over as coach.

Say what you will about Port Adelaide – but any team that can do that to a team like the Cats is one to be feared. Even if it’s impossible to maintain.

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