THE NEW generation of Port Adelaide's leaders have been set, with Connor Rozee last week announced as the Power's captain and Zak Butters as the club's new vice-captain.
The star pair sat down with Cal Twomey this week while on Port Adelaide's training camp on the Gold Coast to discuss the significant new titles, their new contracts, new teammates and how both are preparing for bigger things in 2024 after the Power's finals exit last season.
It has been a massive week for the club. Has it sunk in yet that you're the new captain and vice-captain of Port Adelaide?
Connor Rozee: I don't think much has changed quite yet and the big stuff will come after Christmas. The group's been really good so far for both of us. We had probably already been pushing ourselves to lead a bit more last year so it's come a bit more naturally. All the major things that we'll have to do will probably come in the new year.
Zak Butters: It's probably helped being on camp this week and away from Adelaide and being able to be with the group, coaching staff and some of the footy department as well. That's probably helped in keeping everything natural and smooth. In terms of footy stuff it's pretty much the same with our leadership and when we get back in the new year we'll start rolling into games and it will sink in a bit more.
This has been in motion since the end of last season so you've had some time to get your head around it. What was your reaction when you were told?
CR: 'Kenny' (Hinkley) had hinted at it a little bit during the year so it wasn't a huge shock but still a surprise that he wants you to step up so early given I'm still young clearly. It's nice to be able to be given that sort of confidence from the leaders at the football club that are already there and it was an exciting off-season. We got told together, Kenny sat us down and we had a chat at his house after the best and fairest just before Zak flew out.
Did you sense that was on the agenda when you both get the call to pop over to Ken's place?
ZB: Yeah, we had been in dialogue about the potential of it and had some little chats together as well. It was a good time to know so we could get the gist of it before we headed back with the main group. And even going into the off-season so you could think about it and what type of leader you wanted to be. For both of us, we don't want to change who we are. It's what has gotten us to where we are so I'm sure we'll hold each other accountable.
Ken said there wasn't much splitting you two in the leadership roles. How do you think you'll work together?
CR: I'm really excited by that. We're clearly slightly different people and we have slightly different strengths so that will be good for us in the long run. I'm going to have things I'm not as comfortable doing and so will Zak but we'll be able to fill each other's spots more easily. Clearly we've got a close friendship and that makes things a lot easier in terms of chatting about issues or things that are going on. I feel like hopefully if things go well it can be a long-term thing.
You have become synonymous with each other since both joining Port at the 2018 draft. What are your first memories of one another?
ZB: I first heard of him at the under-16 championships when he won the competition medal up here on the Gold Coast. I was saying to the boys the other day at that age he was probably the best player I'd seen play live. He was pretty dynamic in that series and from back then I thought 'This guy's a freak'. I was lucky enough to be drafted with him and on draft night we didn't know each other, we'd never spoken to each other. We hit it off pretty well and we're both easy going and love all our sports, like golf, and love competing. It's been a pretty easy friendship.
CR: He was a bit of a larrikin when we first met and he hasn't changed much. He keeps me on my toes a fair bit. We lived around the corner from each other for three or four years so we've been close ever since we got to the footy club and we've got a broader group of seven or eight of us who are pretty close. It's exciting that we're able to take this next step together.
I've been lucky to sit in some Port meetings over the last few years and again this week and have seen you both become more and more talkative in those. Has that been a conscious adjustment?
CR: A little bit. Some of it comes naturally and some of it you have to force yourself to do a bit. A lot of it comes from the confidence of performing on-field and that gives you the confidence to talk in front of the older guys who have been around a while. When you first get to the club and haven't played many games or had any experience in certain positions you don't want to talk over guys who have been playing for 15 years.
You're always sitting in the front row, Zak. Is that deliberate to take every single thing in you can?
ZB: Yeah … it probably doesn't help that I'm small. Sometimes it's hard seeing over the big fellas. I like being up the front, I feel like it keeps me alert. I haven't got too many around me there so I can lock in pretty easy. And like Connor said, we're in that middle part of the group now where there's older guys and also some younger guys coming through, so if we can keep pushing the older guys like Miles Bergman, Mitch Georgiades, Dyl Williams to start to speak up a bit more and give them the confidence to talk more when they see us doing it rather than maybe Charlie (Dixon) or 'Boaky' (Travis Boak) or the older guys. If we can bridge that middle ground it would help them get involved more.
Connor, do you feel any pressure that comes with being the AFL's youngest skipper?
CR: I didn't actually know that when it first got announced. I don't think it adds extra pressure. More of the pressure is internally from me in not wanting to drop away my performance but still be able to help others. There's going to be a challenge in that, I'm sure of it, but clearly I've got good people to help me in Zak and the other leaders but also my family and friends outside the football club who have been great already so far. There'll be a balancing act between trying to keep my performance high but most of the pressure comes from myself. I can be my harshest critic so I don't think I'll be worried too much about what any external voices are saying.
Will you reach out to some of the other younger captains of recent times – Selwood, Cotchin, 'Bont', Boak of course – for some advice?
CR: Clearly Trav has been easy to access being at our football club. I've actually spoken to some of the other guys in the past a few times just briefly about what it was like when they first got into being a captain and how much they've changed throughout that process. It's nice to know that people have been in the same position in the past and have dealt with it well. I'm sure I'll take a slightly different path to the people who have come before me but I'm excited to see how it goes.
I liked how you've said a few times this week that there are plenty of things you don't know about what you're stepping into.
CR: I don't know what sort of captain I'm going to be – I haven't been captain, clearly. So I'm just trying to take a mindset of looking forward to what it evolves into rather than being nervous and anxious about what it might be. It's more of a conscious mindset more than anything. I don't know how it will go but I'm sure if I'm more positive then it is going to end up being better than worse.
You've got a family connection with Gill McLachlan through your fiancé Maisie. Will you speak to him for any leadership advice?
CR: I spoke to him in the off-season about it and he came over for Maisie's sister's wedding. He's clearly been a great leader of our competition for a fair while and I'm not sure I'll be buzzing his phone too much to hassle him in the next few months but he's been a good point of contact. He just told me what a lot of people told me and that's to not change who I am because you don't want to force your personality to be like someone you've seen growing up or someone you look up to. You want to be the best version of yourself.
Zak, what type of captain do you expect Connor to be? And what do you want to bring to your position?
ZB: He's clearly ready for the role. I've seen him grow since we got drafted together and he's clearly mature and well balanced and the last few years his footy speaks for itself. He's more than ready. He's a fierce competitor on the training track and game day and he has really good people skills and relationships. I know all the boys love him and what he brings on and off the track. And for my role it's nothing too special – I'm sure we'll have a few chats and I'll be whatever he needs from me.
Connor, how have you seen Zak's leadership develop?
CR: It's grown a lot. I mean, I didn't think I'd be a leader this early but I definitely don't think Zak would have thought he'd be vice-captain going into his sixth year. It's extremely exciting for him and he's evolved a lot as a person and his maturity levels have come a long way. That's shown not only on-field but also off-field and clearly when you've been sitting in our meetings you've seen him speak up a lot more and he's an extremely smart footballer and the boys look up to him. When he speaks in meetings people tend to really take in what he says. He's probably our hardest trainer and hardest worker. People really look up to him.
He can be a scrapper and a yapper on the track and in games. Have you ever clashed at any point?
CR: I think I'm the only one who gets a bit of a free pass around the club! I think I know him too well to put him in that position.
You've both signed new deals too. Connor, you're locked in until the end of 2032 with a massive eight-year extension. How was that decision?
CR: It was pretty easy from my end. When the chats first started I said to my manager that I'd rather do longer than shorter. My family's obviously in South Australia and I've had some pretty big things going on over the off-season so I wanted to make sure that first and foremost I was able to take care of my family. That was No.1 for me. Then after that I didn't want to go anywhere and that was pretty obvious. When they said 'We'd like to do a really long deal', I said 'Yep, sure, that'd be great'. I think it's great for both parties. There's a bit more responsibility that comes with it but at the end of the day I don't think it's that much different to signing four two-year deals. It's the same thing so I'm just excited to be able to call Port Adelaide home for hopefully my whole career.
Zak, you signed an extra two years, which takes you through to free agency. What was your thinking behind the extension?
ZB: I was happy to get the three more years (to the end of 2026) and I've still got family back in Melbourne but I was really happy to commit to the footy club. I've come a long way to loving Adelaide and I am pretty settled there now. When my manager asked me at the end of last season I was pretty happy to get something sorted and keep the ball rolling. I've got family in Melbourne but also feel like I've got a second family in Adelaide now and that made the decision pretty easy.
A few years ago, when you were battling the homesickness more, did getting through to the eight-year mark feel a long way away?
ZB: It did. There were definitely some tough times early on living away from home and finding my feet a bit as well, and if you told me then I'd get to eight years I probably would have said you were kidding yourself. But now I'm five or six years in that's happening and I wouldn't see myself anywhere else. It's funny how things change pretty quickly and I've been lucky to have some good people in my corner like Connor and Kenny and some of the other boys like Mitch and Dyl who are also from interstate. We've formed a good little crew, which helps.
It's easy to see watching you two that every day is about getting better. What did you get out of walking the Kokoda Track over your break, Zak?
ZB: I went to America the year before with a crew and I want to get something in every off-season that could make me and my game better, whether that's physically or mentally and I thought Kokoda ticked both of those boxes. It was good to get away with one of my best mates away from footy as well spending a week there with no phone. The challenges every day of knowing what you were going to be in for but not being able to escape it were the main things when you're out there in the jungle. And then there was the element of surprise – you don't know where you're camping every night, you don't know what you're eating or drinking every day as well. The gratitude part probably surprised me the most. The villages we'd see and how the locals live over there and experience life and how it's so different for them was the thing that really hit home for me when I was over there.
How much does last year's finals series sit in the stomach?
CR: We didn't end the way we'd have liked. It was a very exciting season as a whole. We've been in two prelims already in our short career but I feel like our group is now primed to really take that next step. We probably did think we were in the position to do that last year but it didn't end the right way. But I think it will hold us in good stead. We've obviously got a young group and a lot hadn't actually played finals before. It's turning that disappointment into a positive and how we can actually learn from that and make changes to make sure we have long-term success rather than short-term. It's a bit of fire in the belly to get back and hit the track hard and we've done that and we're ready to go.
It's early in your pre-season and this week we've been up in Gold Coast for your training camp. How impactful are you hoping the four trade recruits are for the group?
ZB: It's been really exciting to get four players in the Trade Period and four boys in the draft. There's some fresh faces and that always brings energy. They've shown some good things on the track – (Ivan) Soldo is a really good runner which probably surprised me a bit and moves around the ground well for a big fella so I'm sure Connor and I will like having that around the midfield. And Esava (Ratugolea) is just a bit of a beast and I'm excited to see him and Aliir (Aliir) go to work down there. It keeps me up at night knowing what those two could do for us, it's pretty exciting. I've thought about it a few times – if they get going they'll be pretty hard to beat.