Returning stars lift Melbourne Demons to crucial win

Holding up: Max Gawn gets to the tap ahead of Port's Paddy Ryder. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media
Holding up: Max Gawn gets to the tap ahead of Port's Paddy Ryder. Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media

At various stages this looked like either a percentage-booster for the top-four smokies Melbourne, or an incredible comeback from a Port Adelaide team unwilling to throw in the towel. Ultimately it was neither. With the Power having whittled down a 44-point second-quarter deficit to trail by just 16 early in the final term, a Dees side featuring a glut of players with precious little senior football experience in recent months looked vulnerable against the side with the shortest injury list in the competition.

But in another example of the Demons' growing maturity and clear readiness for finals football, they held their nerve for the best part of 20 agonising goalless minutes. Jordan Lewis went behind the ball and typified the Dees' desperation, scrapping long enough in a ground-ball tussle with Port speedster Jarman Impey to prevent an almost certain goal. So having soaked up most of what looked like ample time for Port to claim victory, the Dees added a pair of late goals to claim a gritty 23-point win, a result that again highlighted the Power's issues with top eight opponents in 2017.

While Michael Hibberd's drive off half-back was a key to the victory, many of their other best performers were those playing after recent adversity. Jack Viney and Dom Tyson both capped their first games back from injury with terrific showings in the midfield, while Jesse Hogan, Jeff Garlett and Max Gawn were all influential in setting up the hefty first-half lead. And then there was Jack Trengove, the former skipper back at this level for the first time since the middle of last season. While not a standout, several of his disposals drew standout cheers from a home crowd appreciative of his difficult journey.

One column in the quarter-time stats sheet portrayed a glaring issue for the Power. Viney had four clearances, Hibberd and Lewis both had three, the Demons overall had 15, and Port had just two. With such a telling disparity, it was no surprise the Dees dominated possession too, having 38 more first term disposals than the Power. Such was Melbourne's control they led despite a slow start from 150-gamer Jack Watts, who spilled a sitter early in what was his first game in more than a month. It wasn't like every Dees touch was working out either. Garlett – who had himself been in some doubt due to a personal bereavement that took him back to Western Australia during the week – kicked two of the most spectacular behinds of the season in the space of minutes, the first a poster from close-range after a blistering display of speed, the second a dribble from the pocket which bounced into the other post.

Port were therefore fortunate to only be 25 points down at the first change, but a drubbing very much loomed when Hogan kicked two goals inside the first six minutes of the second term. With his first-choice midfield badly beaten, Port coach Ken Hinkley pressed the emergency button, putting Robbie Gray on the ball in an attempt to stem the bleeding. It made somewhat of a difference, but Melbourne's pressure remained terrific, and a wasteful Port were unable to find their first major until the 23-minute mark of the quarter, by which time the margin was 43 points. Mitch Hannan put through a beautiful crumbing goal to again extend the margin beyond seven goals, but a pair of late Power goals – the second of which came after a 50 metre penalty to Jackson Trengove – gave Port some momentum heading into the rooms.

Port had found a foothold in the game, and duly dug in. The question of whether Melbourne had enough run in their legs had to be asked, especially given Max Gawn had rolled his ankle, and Tom McDonald was temporarily hampered by a knock to his thigh. Port skipper Travis Boak kicked two rousing majors in the third term and added another early in the last quarter. His body language suggested this was far from a done deal for the Dees, and when 100-gamer Charlie Dixon goaled after outbodying Michael Hibberd, the margin was less than three goals, with well over 15 minutes remaining, even with Chad Wingard sidelined for the day after hurting his ankle in a smother from Sam Frost.

By the numbers

MELBOURNE –  4.4  8.8  11.8  13.10  (88)

PORT ADELAIDE – 0.3  3.6   6.1    9.11   (65)

GOALS - Melbourne:  Hogan 3, Melksham 3,  Petracca 2,  Garlett 2,  Harmes,  Hannan, TMcDonald. 

Port Adelaide: Boak 4, Westhoff 2,  Dixon,  Wingard, Trengove. 

BEST -  Melbourne: Hibberd, Viney, Tyson, Garlett, Hogan, Oliver, Gawn, Melksham, Neal-Bullen.

Port Adelaide: RGray, Boak, Ebert, Ryder, Jonas.

UMPIRES – Donlon, Meredith,  Nicholls.

CROWD - 27,068 at MCG

This story first appeared on Brisbane Times.