The last fortnight in football has, undoubtedly, been the most important two weeks all season. Particularly in a competition in which not only every win, but every percentage point, is vital in determining those that will have the opportunity to play come September and those that have a legitimate claim at contending for the 2017 premiership.
While these two weeks have seen Adelaide comprehensively defeat a Melbourne side that had handed them their biggest defeat at home this season and a Geelong team that has effectively had the wood over them for multiple seasons, Port Adelaide backed up their impressive win at Domain Stadium with a demolition of the equal bottom side at home before being outplayed in their weekend matchup by the Demons, raising further questions about their ability to compete against those fighting alongside them for a finals berth.
Adelaide, although top of the ladder already have seemed to iron out the deficiencies within their game and elevated it to another level over the last two weeks. The saying goes "a picture tells a thousand words", but so do statistics and I'm certainly a stats bloke. The past fortnight has been a clear demonstration of just how quickly things can change in football, particularly in this year's competition. In comparison to their first meeting earlier this season at Adelaide Oval, Adelaide's round 17 match against the demons saw a stark contrast in the most important statistical categories which measure as a barometer for Adelaide's most impressive performances. +87 in final margin, +27 in tackles, +16 in contested possessions, +19 in clearances and most importantly +11 in marks inside 50.
In an article a while ago, in review of their loss against Hawthorn, I stressed the importance of Adelaide being able to lower their eyes and hit targets inside 50 without blazing away in the hope of a contested mark. Those sentiments were echoed by fans discussing the Crows' scope for improvement, after a seven-week period in which they went 3-4. The above numbers speak for themselves and are a credit to Don Pyke and Adelaide's coaching staff to identify their flaws and fix them in such a short amount of time.
Last Friday night however, was in my eyes the most impressive win of their season and vital to ensure Adelaide has no doubt about their ability to beat any team in the competition. Fittingly, it was the win that completed Adelaide's victories over every AFL club since Pyke took over at the beginning of the 2016 season. In previous meetings, Adelaide have been outplayed by Geelong consistently, and with the reality that the two teams may probably meet come finals, their ability to stand up and refuse to be bullied was a reflection of the progress that has been made by the ladder leaders this season.
Similarly to their match against the Demons, against Geelong on Friday, Adelaide recorded a much improved performance in contested possessions (+43), clearances (+18) and marks inside 50 (+7). It was obvious to see the difference in the tenacity in which they hunted the ball and man around the contest, effectively eliminating any psychological edge Geelong may have perceived that they had over the Crows. Even more pleasing to Pyke would have been their defensive capabilities in keeping the Cats to 10 goals without one of the competition's youngest elite defenders in Jake Lever, with debutant Alex Keath winning multiple contests and slotting in nicely.
Confidence around West Lakes should currently be sky high, however with Eddie Betts announced to miss this upcoming weekend's match against Collingwood at the MCG and Brad Crouch to unfortunately miss at least the next fortnight with a fractured cheekbone, Adelaide will need to ensure they don't let their 6-point lead at the top of the ladder slip against a team that isn't in the frame to contend for a finals spot.
A short distance away at Alberton, Port Adelaide's routing of North Melbourne had fans excited about their teams form, following their best win this year against West Coast interstate, but a win against Melbourne would have given the Power the chance to remain in the top 4 and maintain their distance from some of the teams below them. Ultimately, a defeat at the hands of the Demons has seen them drop to 5th, with only one win separating them from St Kilda (Who they meet this weekend in Adelaide) in 11th place.
Port's Round 17 match was a beauty to behold, they dominated every facet of the game and held a 6 goal advantage over the Kangaroos by the first change before kicking away against a North side that capitulated after half time, recording 8.9 to 3.6 to win by 70 points. That has probably been the best part of Port's season, winning in such a manner that demoralises their opposition and continuing to step on the throat when in a winning position. Their superior percentage is worth its weight in gold, as even a loss this weekend to the saints would see them remain in the 8 with a percentage that is the second best in the competition.
Chad Wingard continued his inspired form to collect 30 possessions (18 contested) with 6 clearances and 3 goals, while one of their 3 milestone gamers in Sam Gray collected 25 with 10 marks and 4 goals in a performance sure to grab the attention of umpires and one which garnered praise from coach Ken Hinkley with a shot at his critics "For some reason people still want to knock Sam, he's one of the best role players we've got". Port collected 36 more contested possessions, 19 more clearances, and 16 more marks inside 50 as they dismantled the helpless roos that now find themselves equal bottom of the AFL ladder.
While the Power have been praised throughout the competition for the manner in which they've defeated the teams below them this season, a consistent knock on them has surrounded their inability to defeat those in the 8 on a regular basis, as admirable of some of their efforts have been. Port travelled to Melbourne knowing that a win would further solidify their credentials as more than a mere passenger come finals this season. However, the game was effectively over by quarter time, with Port finding themselves in danger of recording their lowest ever half time score before kicking three late goals in the second quarter to bring the margin back to 32 points just before the main break.
Ken Hinkley has publicly recognised all season the issues that Port have to address, which should gain respect from supporters and counterparts. However, the glaring difference in this game was their lack of intensity from the first bounce, reflected in his comments post-game.
"It was very obvious to everyone, bar the last five minutes before half time we were totally outplayed, they were more physical than us," Hinkley lamented.
"It was just a poor, poor start from us in the contest".
Port ended up losing the inside-50s by 17, contested possessions by 29 and the clearances by 12 in a role reversal of the previous week.
The message at half time from Hinkley certainly got through to his players, as they won both quarters in the second half, but although their leaders in Robbie Gray (31 touches with 19 contested and 9 clearances) and Travis Boak (24 disposals and 4 goals) tried their hardest in bringing the game back within reaching distance, it was ultimately too little too late, with Melbourne victorious by 23 points. Unfortunately, Chad Wingard, arguably their best player of the last month in imperious form, suffered an ankle injury in the second half and has been ruled out for the next two weeks at a minimum. This only adds to the woes of the Power, who come up against another top-8 contender in St Kilda this weekend, before staying at home to the top-of-the-table Crows in what is shaping to be one of the most important Showdowns in history.