You get the feeling it kind of has to be, don’t you? Depends who you listen to, really.
They have loaded up, bringing Brandon Zerk-Thatcher from Essendon and Esava Ratugolea from Geelong to bolster a defence that was unable to go with some of the more powerful forward combinations in the game last season.
They added Ivan Soldo from Richmond and Jordon Sweet from the Dogs to a ruck division that was… well, pretty much non-existent when Scott Lycett was hurt in 2023.
They have extended their perpetually under-the-pump coach, Ken Hinkley, despite a straight-sets exit from the finals, and former players petitioning for his axing.
And they have given their ageing champ, Travis Boak, one more year to get it done.
On the surface, you can see why some are saying its now or never.
Yet, when you look at things a little deeper, there is no real rush for Port Adelaide. Studying their list, there is immense talent all over the park with plenty of footy left in them. Their captain is about to turn 24. Their vice captain is even younger. They had midfield bull just starting to show what he can do, and he has just turned 20. On top of that, they have just three players aged 30 or over.
Yes, I am sure many would like to see the back of Port from contention – some people seem hell-bent on celebrating when they fall in a hole. However, when you look at where they’re at, who they have coming into their prime, and their recent record of relative success, Port are positioned not just to make a run at this year’s flag, but to keep their window open for a while.
And there’ll be a few who hate reading that.
It’s that time of year, already.
The break after Christmas and New Year is over. The holidays are finished for AFL players, and the hard stuff starts now. Yes, the teams had been training for well over a month prior to Christmas, but as we head into 2024, the ante is upped and the intensity increases.
This is where premierships are won and lost. This is where improvements are made and lists come together. New faces, new colours, old heads with renewed passion… so much feeds into the making of a contender. And as the days tick down toward to the intra-club clashes, practice games, and eventually the real stuff, questions are raised about each team and how they’re going to perform in 2024.
We don’t do things by halves here, at The Mongrel Punt. When we do a season preview, we go all out to make sure it is the best, most comprehensive coverage you’ll receive. We pride ourselves on it. If you are going to read one season preview for your team, or any team, this series provides it.
The way it works is as follows.
Each club has a minimum of 15 questions asked about the upcoming season, their coaches, their players, and their expectations. The answers are not glossed over. We dive deep on each and every one – some singular answers would normally be long enough for an entire column. The first five questions/answers are free for you to consume. The next 10-14 for each club are for our members, including a special appearance from Mrs Mongrel to throw her two cents in the mix.
Isn’t it a bit early for a season preview? Well, I suppose, but do you know how long it takes to write seven thousand words? That’s 18 x 7,000… gets out the calculator… that’s 126,000 words. The average novel is about 85,000 words, so buckle the hell up with these previews.
Also, if there are any issues that arise after the publication of the preview, they will be covered in standalone articles to act as additions to this preview.
You will not read a deeper season preview than this – I guarantee it. This is where we start the run to the new season and believe me – nobody does it better than The Mongrel.
IS THE RUCK PROBLEM NOW SOLVED?
Hmm, this is a tough one to start out. I guess it depends on how much faith you place in the abilities of both Ivan Soldo and Jordon Sweet. Whilst recruiting two big blokes allows for injuries and/or form to be covered, it doesn’t necessarily place Port at the top of the charts when it comes to talented big men.
We need to explore this a little more.
Let’s start with Sweet. He’ll be 26 by the time the season commences, which is the absolute perfect spot for a ruck to make a big step. His body is mature, he has plenty of experience in the system, and he knows what is required to play at the top level. That said, he hasn’t really set the world on fire in his formative seasons, has he?
Playing backup to Tim English, Sweet played exactly zero games in 2023, which left him at a career total of just 11 over his five seasons in the league.
Don’t worry, too much – Sweet puts in, but as a backup to a young bloke who runs all day, he was not often a required player at senior level. Instead, he played VFL footy and, in the back half of 2023, really started to demonstrate what he was capable of. Over his last seven games last season, Sweet averaged over 17 disposals and 44 hit outs per contest.
To put those numbers into context, the number one hit out player in the AFL in 2023 was Jarrod Witts. He averaged under 40 per game. I know that Sweet may have been dominating against inferior talent and size, but to get your hand on the footy that often means that he is not going to be fodder in ruck contests in the big league. He should, just by being a lump of a bloke, be able to hold his own and not be shoved aside with ease. After 2023, break-evens are a win for Port.
As for Ivan Soldo, even when he plays VFL, he is not as prolific – he is not a huge ball-winner and never will be. However, what he does provide is a crash-and-bash option capable of leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. Last year, in the eight games he played for Richmond, he enjoyed sneaking forward to hit the scoreboard, finishing the season with seven goals – almost a goal per game is a pretty handy return for a ruck.
He has arrived at Port seeking more opportunity, as when you look at him and Toby Nankervis’ games side-by-side, they’re not too far removed from each other. It’s just that Nank was performing better, and was the Richmond captain. Soldo saw his place in the pecking order and knew that the only way he was going to get an extended run at Punt Road was if Nankervis was hurt. The other option was to hit the road, himself.
So, how much of an upgrade is this pair on running with Scott Lycett and Jeremy Finlayson in the role?
It’s a loaded question, really.
Finlayson adds a different element to the ruck contests when he heads into the middle. For so long we heard about how having Brodie Grundy was like having another midfielder, but Finlayson is even more akin to that description because he is simply not a ruckman and had to be another midfielder. Perhaps he is used sparingly now, only when Port are looking to generate more run from the midfield? It’s not like he’s gone – he remains an option to throw onto the ball when required, particularly as Port are not exactly struggling when it comes to tall forwards.
As for Lycett… I may be in the minority (I am genuinely not sure), but I liked what he brought to the table when he was healthy. He was a hard-at-it player who rarely took a backward step. Perhaps he is one to keep an eye on when the mid-season draft rolls around. After an extended break to rest up and heal up, a good team having issues with their ruckmen would be wise to invest in him. I look at what Soldo brings and cannot help but feel Port are replacing like-for-like with him.
Do Port play both at once?
I can’t see it happening. The Port forward line, as mentioned above, is already stacked with talls. Dixon, Georgiades, Marshall, Finlayson… to have a resting ruck in the area could make them too top-heavy.
It will be those times when Port comes up against clubs with dominant rucks that we find our answers about these two recruits in 2024. Teams like Melbourne (Round Three) and Fremantle (Round Five) will test just how well these acquisitions can hold up against top tier big men.
If these two can stand their ground and break even most weekends, the Port midfielders will be a hell of a lot happier with the service they receive than they were when the team was almost operating without a ruck in 2023.
If we were looking at the players like used cars, Port haven’t made the fanciest selections in the lot, but what they have done is traded out one that had a lot of kilometres on the clock and was a bit banged up, after having served them well, for two more recent models that may have a scratch or dent, but have a bit under the hood, as well.
Time to get behind the wheel and see how they perform in traffic.
WHAT DO WE EXPECT FROM MITCH GEORGIADES IN 2024?
I can tell you what I expect, but don’t think we’ll get it from some supporters – patience.
For those who have never had a knee injury before, the physical healing is just one part of the recovery. The biggest challenge for many is not getting the “all clear” from medicos, but genuinely feeling confident in your body again.
Ask me how I know.
After an ACL injury, every time you fly for a mark upon your return, you instinctively protect the knee. To some, it is not all that apparent, but to someone who has done it, you see the telltale signs – a player goes to ground rather than attempting to land on his feet after flying for the footy. Or a player is too easily shaken by a fleeing opposition player when he changes direction a couple of times – the mind tells the body to be careful, to protect itself, and when you’re careful at the highest level, I reckon you’re made to pay.
This can be particularly so for a player like Georgiades, who is such a high-flyer and in the past, has launched at the footy like a man without a care in the world. If he suddenly starts caring, how does that change the way he plays?
Prior to his injury, the development of Georgiades was excellent. Having never averaged under a goal per game (a brilliant result considering he was sharing forward duties with Charlie Dixon, Jeremy Finlayson, Ollie Lord, and Todd Marshall), I am sure many expect him to pick up where he left off, and it might not be that easy.
So, what should we expect from him, taking everything into consideration?
It’s a tricky one, as on talent alone, he is one that should be in the side for Round One, but he has appeared to be a confidence player during his time in the league, as evidenced by his kicking at goal. Once the little man on his shoulder starts whispering in his ear, Mitch tends to listen.
Whilst it is reasonable to think he will continue at the pace he was at prior to get hurt, expecting him to offer more is probably a bridge too far in 2024. If he settles in at around ten touches per game and slots his standard goal, then do we walk away content, or do Port fans need more from him?
Does Port need more right off the bat?
The Power have others that can slot in and cover for Georgiades when it comes to scoring. They would be wise to play the long game with him, as there are plenty of forwards with big wraps on them that have not produced the way he has over his apprenticeship.
If he is going to jump out of the box in 2024, it will likely be after the bye rounds. By that time, he should have a bit more confidence that his knee is not going to buckle under him (if you know… you know) and will be feeling as though things are right with him again. As long as there is no residual soreness (another killer), I reckon his back half of 2024 will tell a big story.
IS TODD MARSHALL ABOUT TO ENTER THE SWEET SPOT AS A FORWARD?
So much of what Port Adelaide can achieve in 2024 and beyond rests on the broad… no, scratch that. It rests on the narrow shoulders of Todd Marshall.
After slotting 45.15 in 2022, many thought that he would take things to another level in 2023, but the opposite occurred, with Marshall finishing the season with 36 goals. However, was it really a step backwards?
At this time last season, with Marshall coming off his best year, I wrote about Marshall in our season preview, warning against marking him harshly should his numbers drop away at all. I’m providing that excerpt for you, below
Is there implied pressure on Marshall to continue to improve on what he provided last season. Is a return of 50 goals within his grasp this season?
It’s a tough call to make, given that the dynamics have shifted in the Port forward line. If Lycett is fit, Finalyson moves back inside 50. If Fantasia is healthy, room must be made for him, and with Rioli one of the coveted off-season acquisitions, you know he is going to be buzzing around. Perhaps it means that the love is shared in the Port attacking zone, and if that is the case, we must be wary of pointing the finger at Marshall and stating he has fallen away.
In a forward setup where everyone is contributing, there is inevitably some sacrifice. Just because Marshall’s numbers are down (if they do go down at all) does not mean he is not playing his part. This Port forward line has a heap of moving parts – I will be reserving my judgement on how Marshall is travelling until halfway through the year.
Don’t jump at shadows with him – Port have to get the balance right, and that could mean he must give up a bit of the carcass so that others can join in the feast.
The Rioli and Finlayson points are interesting – they finished with a combined 69 goals in 2023, where as the year before, there was no Rioli, and Finlayson had 21 goals (and a lot more hit outs). Marshall may have been down on his own goals kicked, but others were the beneficiary.
In 2023, things have changed again, but this season I believe Marshall has to take the steps to become the man inside 50. Playing the team game is fine, but his time is now. Marshall strikes me as a player who is, at times, a little too unselfish. Unfairly, some may call it passive. This is the case when it comes to deferring to Charlie Dixon as the number one forward.
Dixon is a huge presence and demands the footy be kicked in his vicinity. He looks like he could chop a tree down with his bare hands, and to be honest, if he was eyeballing me and telling me to kick it to him, I’d most likely kick it to him.
In contrast, Marshall strikes me more as the type of bloke that’d write me a nice note, detailing why I should kick it to him and ask that I respond within three-five business days. He’d probably also leave me a chocolate frog with it, just to show he is being friendly.
When under pressure, I’d be kicking it to Dixon! What is Marshall gonna do? Take my frog away? I already ate it!
But is Marshall now the obvious better option? Should he be the first option?
Dixon will always draw fire. His presence on the field has not been as potent in recent years as it was back in 2020 – age and injury have conspired to render him less of a player, but he retains his own gravitational pull, and defenders are inclined to zone off their own man to ensure Dixon doesn’t clunk a big grab inside 50. As they do this, they leave players like Marshall (and Finlayson, and Rioli, and Lord, and Georgiades) with a bit of room to move, and whilst Charlie is waving his arms around to get your attention like one of those blow up men outside vacuum cleaner shops, Marshall seems to be lurking around like a flasher, hoping you get a glimpse of him at some stage.
He needs to be a little more demonstrative. More like a streaker than a flasher!
Put it this way – if Charlie Dixon is the main target inside 50, the Power had better hope that Willie Rioli and Sam Powell-Pepper are buzzing around his feet at every conceivable opportunity, because that’s where the goals are coming from. However, if they target Marshall just as often, not only does it give Port more to work with, but it also works in Dixon’s favour when the team does decide to kick to him – players won’t be crowded around him, expecting it every time. Dixon still averaged over two and a half contested grabs per game, but he was only able to do it in 14 games. He is banged up before the season even begins, having thrown himself into big contested situations for 13 years..
I’m going to circle back to the original question, here, as I have sidetracked myself.
Yes, Todd Marshall is right in the window to perform at his best. He is capable of being a 50-goal forward this season and, unlike last year, I reckon this is the year he needs to become the one to feed first on the carcass… and leave the others to take what’s left.
The dynamic has shifted inside Port’s attacking fifty. Mitch Georgiades is back and will want a slice of the pie. This year, that pie should belong to Todd Marshall – he needs to own 2024 and create his own gravitational pull. Time for him to start some heavy lifting..
HOW DO ALIIR ALIIR, ESAVA RATUGOLEA, AND BRANDON ZERK-THATCHER WORK TOGETHER?
This is the question on the lips of just about every Port fan as the 2024 season approaches. The club has gone out and invested in key defenders, but how they combine, and whether they have chemistry required to carry a defence will go a long way in terms of whether Port win finals, and possibly win something more, or crash and burn.
No pressure, guys.
Aliir Aliir has been a revelation since his move from Sydney. Best suited to the role where he can zone off his man to help teammates, the low Port Adelaide key defensive stocks have often meant that he has been forced to take the number one option when it comes to opposition forwards.
This has been less than ideal.
Whilst it is not a great situation for his opponent to have to deal with him as a direct opponent, it has meant that Aliir’s ability to intercept has taken a hit. In 2021, he averaged 8.6 per game, enjoying the chance to peel off and chop off kicks inside 50. However, as the number one defender, the freedom to do that is limited, so the drop-off to 7.7 in 2022, and 7.8 in 2023 was not a shock.
That his spoiling number jumped to career-high levels in 2023 are also not a surprise. That became his job – engage the body, bring the ball to ground, wait for the help to arrive.
Well, genuine help has finally arrived, but what does it mean for Aliir in 2024?
Pessimists will happily enlighten you that Zerk-Thatcher “won” the Reverse Coleman in 2023, which means he gave up the most goals to his direct opponent. Of course, what they don’t acknowledge is that this bloke had to stand one-out with Tom Hawkins early in the season and his Essendon teammates basically stood around and watched as Hawkins, outweighing Zerk-Thatcher by a good 15 kilograms, held best position and punished the defender when the ball came in high and long.
Those same pessimists will say “so what?” to the criticism of BZerk’s teammates. I mean, really, shouldn’t an AFL full-back be able to restrict arguably the most powerful forward in the completion and keep him under a career-high number of goals.
Yeah, he should. And he should have help from his fellow defenders, collapsing on the contest with that powerful forward to make his life difficult. Alas, there was none of that.
Pessimists will also conveniently forget that Zerk-Thatcher really came into his own in the back half of 2023, registering three Defensive Double-Doubles in Round Ten (12 one percenters and ten intercepts versus Richmond), Round 17 (13 one percenters and 11 intercepts against Adelaide), and Round 21 (11 one percenters and ten intercepts versus West Coast).
It’s not easy to do (follow our Defensive Player of the Year Award for more on this).
In addition, BZerk averaged 9.63 one percenters over the last eight games of the year. He stood up as so many other Bombers stepped aside. Forget that “Reverse Coleman” stuff – he more than earned his keep in 2023.
Esava Ratugloea is the one I have a few worries about. I hope he comes out and proves me wrong, but watching him closely as a defender for Geelong in 2023, it became apparent that he was very much a “see ball… go for ball” type of player. That’s fine if you’re playing the role of floating defender, but an intelligent forward can take advantage of this, and did so at times in 2023 as Sav took his eyes off his opponent and was caught ball watching.
The Power have to be very mindful that Big Sav can get caught in the moment and will commit to some contests he probably shouldn’t, leaving his man loose at ground level, or with a free run at the marking contest, himself. My impression is that Ratugolea was brought to the club to enable Aliir to get those unimpeded runs at the footy, not so he could have a clear run at it, himself, and have Aliir cover his backside.
I guess we will see soon enough how Ratugolea is instructed to play his role. For mine, he played like Aliir-lite in 2023 and has to become a more accountable defender for Port to truly succeed.
Ken Hinkley has his work cut out for him, there, but Port once again saw a need and moved to address it this off-season. Fingers crossed it has been addressed properly.
IS A RETURN TO FORM FROM TRAVIS BOAK OUT OF THE QUESTION?
2023 was not a great year for the former captain, culminating with several games toward the end of the season where he was played as the substitute and looked like he may have been surplus to needs.
Following the end of the season, there was conjecture as to whether Boak was going to go around for another year, with several of your favourite sources reporting that he and Port Adelaide were coming at the situation from different perspectives and were a fair way off agreeing. I am guessing we don’t need to elaborate on which side supposedly wanted what.
Regardless, when the dust settled and the smoke cleared, Boak signed on for another year and immediately went about his off-season before making his now annual pilgrimage to the United States to get himself in the best possible shape to make an impact on the 2024 season.
This overseas trip was what laid the foundation for him to return to his career-best form back in 2019, when playing half forward the season before didn’t quite sit right with him. He embarked on a different type of regimen that saw him once again establish himself as one of the best and most reliable mids in the game.
After a season to forget in 2023, does he have one more run in him, or are we looking at a player that went on a year too long?
There are many players that fallen into the latter category in recent seasons, headlined by Buddy Franklin in Sydney, but Boak’s drive is just about unmatched, his passion to be the best he can be infectious, as he has taken several of Port’s young stars under his wing and helped them improve their fitness by accompanying him overseas.
Players like Connor Rozee, Zak Butters, and Mitch Georgiades have all travelled with Boak and put in the work that will see them reap rewards for many years. This season, is was reported that Horne-Francis was meeting him in the US to train with him. Whilst Boak’s onfield legacy is a great one, the other legacy he leaves this club may be something more important, as he teaches and guides the next generation of stars in the way of work ethic.
In terms of 2024, however, the focus is off the teammates and is squarely on him. How much can he offer? Will Port prioritise youth over giving Boak time in the guts? Will he be pushed to the wing? To the sub vest again? Will they go all-in on a flag and push the development of the kids back a little further to give themselves the best chance of winning it all?
Because a healthy Travis Boak likely gives them the best chance of doing that in 2024.
Boak’s 15.9 disposals per game in 2023 are his lowest on record, “beating” the 16.1 disposals he averaged in his rookie season. That has to leave a bitter taste in Boak’s mouth, who didn’t complain about injuries last season, but was obviously battling through. He will be hell-bent on leaving the game on his terms, and damn it, he has earned that right.
I am backing Boak to have a much larger influence in 2024 than he did last year. This man is too good, even at 35, to go quietly into the night. He is a club legend, an unsung hero of the AFL, and one of the hardest workers in the game. Irrespective of how much he has left in the tank, you can guaran-damn-tee that every last drop of it will be spent to give Port Adelaide and Ken Hinkley a chance at a flag.
And I kind of want to see Boak cap his career with a premiership medal.
This concludes the free section of our preview. Not bad, huh? The next two-thirds are for our members. You can join, y’know?
As mentioned above, the first five questions are free – the next 10-12 are for our members. I believe my work is worth twenty-five cents per day. If you don’t, that’s fine. You’re welcome to join and keep reading