PORT Adelaide spent 16 weeks in the top four and climbed to second in the final fortnight, earning two home finals and setting up an ideal premiership tilt.
It had survived injuries and got itself to the pointy end of the season in close to perfect shape, with its best team available after a dominant qualifying final win against Geelong.
But the Power's year will be remembered for the finals flop that came thereafter, losing a preliminary final at home to the Western Bulldogs in embarrassing style, going down by 71 points.
The Power entered the year with a list that was ready and won nine of their last 10 games to be ideally placed in September.
Their failure to deliver when it mattered sets up what will be a difficult post-mortem for the club and coach Ken Hinkley as they search for answers.
Port's recruiting was magnificent going into 2021, with defender Aliir Aliir and forward Orazio Fantasia each playing key roles in the strong home and away season. Former Sydney defender Aliir won selection in the Therabody AFL All-Australian team, and ex-Essendon goalkicker Fantasia was terrific at the pointy end of the season. Karl Amon was among the game's best wingmen in that important role, averaging a career-high 23.6 disposals and 47 inside 50s, while Willem Drew (17.7 and 3.9 clearances) elevated his game as an inside midfielder. The club got solid value out of tall forwards Charlie Dixon (48 goals), Mitch Georgiades (32) and Todd Marshall (24), with each enjoying games as the standout forward and providing the team depth in that position. Teenager Lachie Jones looked a ready-made recruit in defence before suffering an ankle injury, while second-year player Miles Bergman was versatile and played 23 games, establishing himself in the best 22. Prime midfielder Ollie Wines took his inside game to a new level, giving star sidekick Travis Boak more support at the coalface.
Injuries to talented young trio Zak Butters, Connor Rozee and Xavier Duursma prevented all from taking the next step in their careers to the degree expected. Their importance to the team and the energy they bring when in form can't be denied, and their failure to fire in the preliminary final was a blow to the Power. With the trio out of the team and then working their way back to form once in it, Port lacked the midfield depth it would need come the second- last weekend of the season. The Bulldogs, with arguably the deepest engine room in the competition, exposed the Power midfielders, winning the clearances (41-35) and dominating contested ball (+30).
Midfield bull Ollie Wines was relentless all season and returned to his strengths to rank No.3 in the competition in disposals (32.4) and No.4 in contested possessions (14.75) – both career-highs. Hinkley warned he was ready to take hold of the competition, and so it proved, with Wines rarely putting in a bad game and ending the year as a leading contender for the Brownlow Medal. The key for Wines was having confidence in his body and realising he didn't need to be everything for the team and he could be of better use if he focused on his strengths. Boak was the biggest benefactor, with Wines able to take heat off the veteran at the coalface. He became more damaging, with his score launches improving and earning recognition with a third placing in the AFL Coaches Association Award.
Miles Bergman shaped as a depth option early in his career when he was recruited to an already strong list with pick No.19 in the 2019 NAB AFL Draft. But, with injury concerns behind him, he lifted in his second season to establish himself in the best 22 with his football smarts at either end of the ground and polished, courageous ball-use. The 19-year-old was also a wing option and should be backed for another big lift going into his third season after averaging 14 disposals and 1.7 inside 50s.
Veteran midfielder Tom Rockliff suffered an MCL injury on one knee and a medial meniscus tear on the other, requiring surgery, but that was not the worst of it. The clearance specialist then suffered deep vein thrombosis in May, requiring a hospital stay and monitoring. It was horrible timing for the 31-year-old, who was putting himself in contention for senior selection, going into the second half of the season. He would have provided the depth Port needed in its inside midfield rotations, but ended the season with two games as a result of injuries and retired after an excellent 208-game career with Brisbane and the Power.
The excitement grew about the Power's premiership chances after their 43-point qualifying final win against Geelong. Hinkley's men had taken the big scalp they needed to prove their flag credentials and had a week off to freshen up for the preliminary final. They were ferocious at the ball and their opponents, with their best players shining. It was the type of finals performance that had them spoken about as premiership favourites in the immediate aftermath, with no obvious weaknesses in their game or list.
Their next match would be their final game for the season, failing to bring the ferocious attack on the ball and man that had typified the qualifying final win. Stunned by the Bulldogs at the outset, they conceded five unanswered goals and went down by 71 points, with president David Koch describing the performance as 'embarrassing' and 'soft'. The Bulldogs prevented Aliir from having the same impact he had two weeks earlier, and exposed a lack of midfield depth. It was a big-stage choke of the highest order and one that will leave a sour taste in the players and coaches' mouths for some time, ending the season with a preliminary final defeat for the second straight season.
How should they approach list management?
The Power are in the fortunate position that they have both drafted well in recent seasons and topped up with talent through trade and free agency to balance their list on almost every line, setting up a relatively quiet NAB AFL Trade Period. But the one hole that remains is midfield depth and the club faces a decision between either filling that internally through the natural improvement of players like Butters and Rozee, or looking outside for reinforcements. The talent available in South Australia is likely to convince them to hold onto their draft selections and back their young stars to take a leap in 2022, but a player like Sydney's Dylan Stephens should appeal.
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Early call for 2022
The Power have too much talent and too much ammunition now to not finish top four in 2022, and defeats like they have suffered the past two years should fuel them to win a premiership. It is unlikely they will have a better shot while Boak and Dixon are in the team, so the time to strike is now.
7 out of 10. Survived injuries to finish top two and time their run perfectly, but must be penalised significantly for the manner of their preliminary finals defeat.