Can Port Adelaide break an unlikely AFL premiership hoodoo?

Port Adelaide has held the top spot on the AFL ladder every single week of season 2020. Photo: Mark Brake/Getty Images
Port Adelaide has held the top spot on the AFL ladder every single week of season 2020. Photo: Mark Brake/Getty Images

One of the oddities of recent AFL seasons has been that while teams need to keep winning regularly to reach a finals campaign in a position of strength, the numbers, if not logic, suggest it doesn't pay to win too frequently.

Beg your pardon? Well, check AFL ladders of the last decade-and-a-bit. In 12 completed seasons since 2007, of a dozen teams who have finished the premiership rounds on top, just two have emerged a month later holding the premiership cup.

They were Collingwood in 2010 and Hawthorn in 2013, and as you might remember, the Pies did so only after a drawn and replayed grand final against St Kilda, and the Hawks in the finish by just 15 points against Fremantle.

That doesn't augur well for Port Adelaide, which has had the rare distinction in 2020 of having sat at the top every single week of this season thus far.

But even that isn't the reason the Power aren't getting much critical love when it comes to discussions about just which team might emerge from this extraordinary football year with the silverware.

Familiarity may or may not sometimes breed contempt, but in football it seems, it's always still a safer option than unfamiliarity. Which is exactly what, in premiership terms, Port Adelaide represents.

The Power has had just one fleeting finals appearance in the past six seasons, three years ago, and some of the key members of that incarnation, like Chad Wingard, Paddy Ryder and Jared Polec, are no longer part of the equation.

Two of its three defeats this season have also seen them pull up well short of rival premiership contenders in Brisbane and Geelong, though they have managed to knock over Richmond, West Coast and Greater Western Sydney. But we do seem to demand a lot of flag contenders before we're prepared to accept their bona fides.

Just ask Brisbane, which came from the clouds, and 15th on the ladder, to last year head into a finals campaign in second place and with the considerable advantage of two home finals.

The Lions led eventual premier Richmond for much of the first half of their qualifying final, and lost a heartbreaker to GWS by just three points the following week. But in practical terms, that straight-sets exit served only to confirm the scepticism about the flag chances of teams which haven't served a considerable finals apprenticeship.

Thus a popular question even now remains: "Can the Lions really win the flag?" despite Brisbane having a record of 27-11 since the start of 2019.

I'm asking it myself, more so with Port Adelaide, and if you were to ask me right now my three most likely premiers come the end of October, my answers in order would still be Richmond, Geelong and West Coast.

That's even with the knowledge that two recent premiers - the Western Bulldogs in 2016 and Richmond the following year - both ended up holding the cup having largely avoided long finals apprenticeships.

The Doggies, who'd only finished the home and away rounds seventh even when they won the flag, had played just one final in six years before surging through the 2016 finals series. And in 2017, Richmond had suffered three well-documented elimination final oustings and a disastrous 2016 before going all the way for the first time in 37 years.

And the fact is, when it comes to the hard and fast world of key statistical indicators, Port Adelaide in 2020 shapes up pretty well.

The Power is ranked second for average points scored, a weakness of the past two seasons which has been rectified via a strong season from spearhead Charlie Dixon, greater support from Justin Westhoff, and two very dangerous ground-level goalkickers in Robbie Gray and Zak Butters.

Port ranks third for fewest points conceded, its defence led by the still-underrated likes of Tom Jonas, Tom Clurey, Darcy Byrne-Jones and Hamish Hartlett having been a strong point of its make-up for some time now.

And its midfield is ticking over very nicely, veteran Travis Boak having had an outstanding season, Ollie Wines in terrific recent form and back to his best, and Tom Rockliff a second straight solid year, having flown under the radar somewhat since his underwhelming debut year for the club in 2018.

That's a pretty seasoned trio to be taking into a midfield engine room for a finals campaign. And indicative generally of a Port Adelaide list which whilst overall is still the seventh-youngest in the AFL, is at the same time in terms of games played the equal fifth-most experienced, indeed almost 15 games per player more seasoned than is Brisbane's.

On the differentials, the Power is ranked first for both clearances and tackles, fourth for contested ball and third for uncontested possession. They average more inside 50 entries than any rival, and are ranked fourth for percentage of scores from those entries.

It's a handy profile with which to be hitting the finals in a season where Port Adelaide has turned its traditional flakiness into consistent performance. But in the minds of the pundits (yep, me too) it does seem that a rare off day against Geelong a few weeks ago has had a lot more impact.

That will scarcely bother Port coach Ken Hinkley. It simply ensures the critical pressure will be diminished, which would hardly be the case for, say, Richmond, had it sat in first spot on the AFL ladder all season.

It seems like an appropriate year for the football mould to be broken. And if Port Adelaide, without a finals pedigree and set to finish in that seemingly cursed top spot, does end up winning the premiership, the mould won't just have been broken, but smashed to pieces.