In a world where momentum can mean everything, three of the brightest young talents on the Port Adelaide list had their handbrakes pulled in 2021.
The 2018 AFL Draft was an absolute goldmine for the Port Adelaide Power – the type of haul that can set a team up for the next ten years. With their first three picks in that draft, Port grabbed the electrifying Connor Rozee, the chaotic and dangerous Zak Butters, and the hard-running wingman, Xavier Duursma. In what can be a hit/miss exercise, the Power hit in a big way.
Rozee was the first to jump out of the gates, his elusiveness and incredible change of direction losing opponents like Brad Hill loses contested ball situations. His bag of five goals in just his third game of senior footy made the AFL world sit up and take notice. Port had a serious talent on their hands.
Xavier Duursma didn’t burst to the fore as Rozee did, but his continued hard, two-way running not only had supporters excited but had those within the club talking up his leadership abilities. He was criticised for celebrating a goal with his archery celebration in a loss, but his enthusiasm for the game, and to excel cannot be denied.
And then there was Zak Butters. Quieter in his rookie season when compared to the other two, Butters was the one to impress in 2020, stringing together a series of performances that saw him added to the All-Australian squad of 40. If Port were rapt with the development of their “big three” in their first season, then the emergence of Butters as a potential superstar in year two would have had them over the moon. In one draft, they had laid the foundation for the future of the club. That was how teams wished they could do it.
However, the road to the top is filled with speed humps and potholes, and in 2021 those three high-performance vehicles found themselves idling by the side of the road, waiting for roadside assistance to make running repairs. In the end, their lack of consistent footy may have been just enough to halt the momentum of a Port Adelaide side that appeared ready to go all the way.
Rozee was first to feel the injury bug bite him, suffering a plantar fasciitis injury right before the season commenced. I don’t know about you, but players going into a new season with foot surgery in the week or so before it commences… it really doesn’t bode well. He returned and played the most consistent minutes of the three, but that surgery, combined with several heavy knocks (cookies early in the year, mainly) just as he looked like gathering momentum again, resulted in what can only be termed as a disappointing season for him.
It must be remembered that as recently as the commencement of the 2021 season, there were many who openly questioned whether Carlton should have drafted Rozee at number one overall, instead of Sam Walsh. Those people are probably a little more reserved when that is discussed now.
Rozee would play 21 games in 2021 but appeared to struggle to find consistency. He did manage a bag of five against Brisbane, but this was offset by the nine games he went goalless and the three games he was held under ten disposals.
Then Butters went down, and with the benefit of hindsight, things could have been much worse. He rolled an ankle in Round Four which turned out to be a syndesmosis injury, sidelining him for 12 weeks. During this time, and following surgery on the ankle, it was also discovered that he had damaged a nerve in his knee in the same incident. At one point, he could not feel his foot or toes – this was no ordinary injury and on reflection, we were lucky to see Butters out there again last season. He was lucky to be able to get back out there at all.
Butters did start the season in excellent form, notching a career-high 36 disposals in Round Two, and looked to be well on the way to cementing his status as one of the best young talents in the league before getting hurt.
In the same round, Xavier Duursma looked like he was in all sorts of trouble, as well, crashing to the ground in a tackle from Richmond’s Shane Edwards. The running man hyper-extended his knee and in the resulting awkward fall, smacked his head into the turf. It was a double whammy for Duursma, who missed the next 14 weeks of the season as he recovered. Rewatching the incident as I write this, he was incredibly lucky to escape an ACL injury. A silver lining, of sorts, really.
All three were back in action for the business end of the season, but after such long layoffs, the writing was on the wall in big, bold letters. You would have been either a blindingly loyal supporter, or have your head in the sand if you expected these three to have a significant say in the finals given the seasons they had to that point. Usually pushing for a starring role each week, all three were relegated to cameo appearances when it was clear Port needed them to play major roles to progress. Their injuries and the residual loss of match fitness simply wouldn’t allow them to do it.
As we head to the 2022 season, these three will be very keen to put a very disappointing 2021 season behind them. Sure, the team itself was able to remain one step from a Grand Final again, but unlike 2020 where they were right there with the Tigers, Port fell away dramatically against the Dogs and looked like a beaten team very early in the piece. Perhaps a trio of young stars finding their best form could bridge that gap? Perhaps it could bridge that gap quite significantly?
Rozee remains the heir apparent to Robbie Gray. His change of direction is one of the best in the business – right up there with Shai Bolton at Richmond, who continually bamboozles opponents with his herky-jerky movements. A fit Rozee becomes one of the most dangerous half-forwards in the game, and if he gets a clean run at it, Kane Cornes, and the Rozee believers may just start having the conversation around his value as compared to Sam Walsh once more.
Duursma’s power running on the wing opposite Karl Amon remains vital to the Port Adelaide structure. Port played Miles Bergman and Riley Bonner in the role whilst Duursma was sidelined, but they are both better suited across half-back at the moment. Neither has the elite running power that Duursma provides. His combination with Amon has the capacity to be the best one-two punch on the wing in the league.
And Zak Butters… is this the year he goes to the next level? He has ‘superstar’ written all over him, and for a bloke his size (he was listed at just 72 kilograms in 2021) he throws his body in as though he is 20 kilograms heavier and made of wrought iron. He is one of the rare breed that completely understands a good shepherd off the ball to create space for a teammate is just as beneficial to the team as running to receive a handball. What he does without the footy is just as impressive as what he does with it. There are not many in the league that can do what he does, and not many that willingly play on the edge and cop the consequences of doing so. I don’t really want to use this comparison, buuuuut… there is a touch of Toby Greene about Butters, inasmuch as he walks a fine line and has the talent to back it up. That’s not to say he is going to boot someone in the ribs, or bump into an umpire, but it is more akin to the attitude that he will take on all comers either via skill or physicality. I’m a bit of a fan, personally.
Whilst I can sit here and lament the reasons the big three were unable to produce the form they’re capable of, the bright spot to come out of the 2021 season was the form of Willem Drew. Taken the year before his highly-regarded teammates, he made the leap to the upper echelon of two-way midfielders last season, and really demonstrated he belonged. If there was a silver lining to the season, his development was it.
The old firm at Port will go around again this season, and will most likely form the nucleus of any tilt at a flag. However, it is the re-emergence of the “big three” from the 2018 AFL Draft, and the continued rise of Willem Drew that will make all the difference in 2022. In terms of relative value, I reckon Port received about 40% of what their brilliant trio is capable of last year. If that is up around 80-90% this coming season, reports of Port Adelaide’s demise may have been greatly exaggerated.
Coming into the 2021 season, both Port fans, and AFL lovers, in general, wanted to see just how good these three could be. We all may have had to wait another 12 months until we find out, however, I get the feeling it is going to be worth the wait.