A place in the big dance is on the line.
Can Port Adelaide cash in on a home preliminary final?
Or will the Western Bulldogs move one step away from replicating their 2016 heroics?
Last time they met
Like Melbourne and Geelong, Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs treated us to a blockbuster in round 23.
The Dogs lead from the first score until well into the final quarter, but ultimately came undone, losing by a mere two points.
The experienced trio of Travis Boak (31 disposals, two goals), Ollie Wines (34 disposals, nine tackles) and Robbie Gray (25 disposals, two goals) inspired Port’s spirited resurgence.
While Scott Lycett (40 hit-outs, 22 disposals) was also a key player, his commanding work in the ruck a turning point.
For the Bulldogs, Jack Macrae (29 disposals, six tackles) and Lachie Hunter (22 disposals, one goal) were their best on what proved to be a disappointing day.
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Port Adelaide are unchanged from the qualifying final, with Sam Powell-Pepper the Medical Sub.
Injuries have forced Alex Keath and Cody Weightman out of the Bulldogs side, while ruckman Lewis Young was also omitted. Zaine Cordy and Stefan Martin are the inclusions, and Anthony Scott comes in as the Medical Sub
Why Port Adelaide can win
The odds are stacked in Port Adelaide’s favour.
They beat the Dogs in round 23, even after trailing all match, and there’s no reason they can’t repeat that effort.
A roaring Adelaide Oval crowd will be behind them.
And of course they’re coming off a qualifying final win, something far more advantageous now that the pre-finals bye’s been scrapped.
Then there’s the puzzling fact that COVID restrictions have barred the Western Bulldogs from training in the lead up to the game, despite the fact all players and staff have retuned 14 negative COVID tests in the last 25 days. There’s no doubting that gives Port a serious competitive edge.
Why Bulldogs can win
Although the Bulldogs didn’t get the job done in round 23, they led Port Adelaide for the best part of four quarters, and are clearly capable of matching it with the Power.
Following two straight victories and a rediscovering of their best footy, the Dogs are riding a wave of momentum reminiscent of 2016. Maybe the round 23 loss was a blessing in disguise, as after all, the Bulldogs’ only premiership in the last 67 years came from outside the top-four.
And as was touched on, the Dogs can’t train in the lead up to the match. There’s no doubting this is a disadvantage, but the Bulldogs thrive on the backs against the wall type stuff, and Luke Beveridge has a knack of harnessing negatives to drive his group.
As gallant as Lewis Young’s been, Scott Lycett could’ve single-handedly won the game against him – as he did in round 23. Stefan Martin’s inclusion will only strengthen the Bulldogs team that was narrowly beaten by Port.
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Players to watch
After what Aliir Aliir did to Geelong in the qualifying final, the Dogs will be wary. A repeat performance could see him take the game away before its really begun.
On the theme of defence, the Bulldogs have their work cut out for them with no Alex Keath. Keath’s been a rock all year, and Zaine Cordy or Ryan Gardner must shoulder the load.
With Keath out, Charlie Dixon has to capitalise. He’s averaged two goals a game this season, and should better that on Saturday night.
Is Stefan Martin 100% fit? The Bulldogs would hope so, and Beveridge’s reluctancy to play him means you’d think he is. Either way, he’s tasked with curbing Lycett’s dominance, who was decisive in round 23. A big performance from Martin would work wonders for the Bulldogs, who have become accustomed to losing hit-outs.
Willem Drew has flourished as a tagger this season, and he’ll be putting work into one of the Bulldogs’ many dominant onballers. It’ll be one to watch whoever he matches up on.
And of course there’s the big names. Ollie Wines, Travis Boak, Jack Macrae, Bailey Smith and Marcus Bontempelli. All will have their moments to shine.
The logical selection is Port Adelaide.
They’ve had the week off, they have the home ground advantage, and they can actually train in the leadup to the game. But finals footy isn’t logical.
Luke Beveridge is a rare breed of coach, and the laughable scenario he’s been confronted with is right in his wheelhouse. If any coach can extract the best from his team while facing so many obstacles, it’s Beveridge.
Against all odds, the Dogs will prevail.