It could not get any bigger than this. Port Adelaide and Brisbane, the two biggest powerhouses of the time, facing off in a potential grand final preview.
The 32,000 people who piled into the Gabba that night, saw what was easily one of the matches of the season, as Port defeated Brisbane by the slimmest of margins.
Lining up for Port Adelaide that night was Roger James, who would go on to play a crucial part in the result.
And in The Inner Sanctum’s Round Rewind, he recalled that night 20 years ago.
A tale of two powerhouses
By 2003, there were two clear standout teams of the decade thus far- Port Adelaide and Brisbane. Brisbane was the two-time reigning premiers, while the Power had won its first minor premiership the year before, and was on top of the ladder again going into Round 16.
So it was no surprise that clashes between the two were strongly anticipated, and as Roger James explained, Port players were always wanting to take to the field against the Lions.
“They were big games. Obviously early 2000s, they [The Lions] won the three in a row, I think we’d [Port] won three minor premierships, but never got the chocolates at the end.” James recalled.
“Both our teams were super strong, so to play in those rivalry games was something to look forward to, and they were always close.”
Coming to enemy territory is a daunting prospect for any side, and the Power were to step foot on the Gabba for the first time in nearly a year on this night, a ground on which it had not had much success up to that point, having lost its last five in a row at the venue.
And as James recalled, the ‘Gabbatoir’ was always a tough ground to play at.
“It was always hard to win at the Gabba with those blokes,” he said.
“We knew we were around the mark, and so were they, but they had the home advantage, so it was going to be tough. The result, in the end, we were pretty lucky to get away with it.”
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Despite the Gabba’s reputation, James and the rest of the Port Adelaide line-up did not prepare for a game in Brisbane any differently from any team, as he explained.
“You prepare yourself every week for whoever you play on back then, but obviously Brisbane at the Gabba, they had quality all over the ground, so you knew if you were going to win, you had to play to your levels.
“But, as I said, every time you prepared for a game, they [the opposition] had quality players so it was very similar.”
The battle begins
From the first bounce, the two sides were rarely separated, with the margin going no further than 12 points in the first half. At both the quarter-time and half-time breaks, the Lions led by a solitary point.
James hit the scoreboard early with a goal and spoke about the importance of getting into the game early in such a crucial contest.
“It’s always good to get your hands on the ball early,” he said. “There’s nothing worse than not getting your hands on the ball, and just floating around struggling.
“So, it’s always nice to get your hands on the ball, [and] you do something for your team.”
As the match progressed, the pinball-style football continued, with both teams trading the lead while never being too far from taking it back.
James spoke about the effect end-to-end footy has on a player physically, as well as mentally.
“I don’t know, it’s a hard one to say. Mentally, if you’re not strong, you’re going to struggle, [whereas] mentally, if you’re strong, well, you stay involved in the game,” he said.
“I think both sides were very mentally strong, which is why the game was so close. We had a number of players that were star-studded, they had stars everywhere, and we had a heap of stars. And that’s why it was so good, and so close for the whole night.”
Second half surge
As things began to ramp up in the second half, James hit the scoreboard for the second time of the night with a half-chance from the boundary that gave Port back the lead.
With how tight the game was, nailing half chances became all the more crucial, as James recalled.
“Yeah, every chance you can kick one, you take it. It’s a massive opportunity,” he said.
“You can swing the whole game if things like that happen to you. If I can remember I kicked one on the left foot, didn’t I? I think it was at a stoppage and I snapped one from the boundary on the left. Stuff like that gets the team up.”
With 10 minutes left, Byron Pickett slotted his second goal from the boundary line to put Port up by 11 points- could Port have finally broken the home side? James was hoping so.
“Yeah, you’re always thinking like that, you’re never not thinking that you could win- unless you’re 10 goals down obviously,” he said.
“If you’re close, mentally, you always think you’re a chance, when stuff like that happens, it obviously increases your chances. So, we definitely thought we were in it.”
A perfect pair (of points)
As had been the case all night, Brisbane struck back and took a slim one-point lead close to time on. It was time for someone to step up. James was that man, though not as you would expect.
James would have the final two scoring shots of the match and miss both of them. Yet inexplicably, his second behind gave Port back the lead with less than a minute left.
But in the heat of the moment, James had another feeling in mind.
“I’m cursing myself for missing both goals, they weren’t overly hard,” he said.
“I think the first one was on my left foot, just missed to the right, probably should have kicked it but didn’t.
“And obviously a set shot, you should kick those, again. Luckily enough, we went a point up and held on. Didn’t kick both of them, but we got the result that we wanted.”
Ecstasy to agony to ecstasy again.
The Power had won. And James had two feelings in mind after the narrow win.
“To beat them at home, I think that sort of, gives you belief in yourself. So, we were pretty happy with how the night ended. Obviously, it wasn’t our year, but we were happy with what we did.”
As it happens Port had won the battle but would go on to lose the war. It was a second consecutive Preliminary final loss in 2003 and a third consecutive premiership for the Lions.
So, it’s no surprise that James chooses to remember the events of the following year much more fondly when Port broke the duck and captured its first premiership.
“I often think about how we were successful in 04. They’ve been my memories, 04. Great dudes, not just the premiership players but the whole club,” he said.
“Team, people on the list, doctors. They’re the moments I remember, 04, more than anything.”
While 2003 may not have ended how James, or Port would have wanted, their victory at the Gabba that night shows how powerful the Power was at their peak, which deservedly paid off eventually.
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