AFL 2023: Interview with Ken Hinkley, Connor Rozee and Zak Butters power Port Adelaide

For Ken Hinkley, the recruitment of the Kangaroos’ Jason Horne-Francis was about both family and football as he joins an exciting group of power youngsters.

Ken Hinkley, eating a mediocre sirloin steak with a side of potatoes, seems unconcerned in the footballing world.

He rarely exudes concern, Kenny, although he’s pragmatic about 2023. His team needs to recover because if they don’t he could miss a very exciting time for Port Adelaide.

We go back before we go forward.

After two consecutive provisional finals in 2020-21, when Port won more games than any other team, his side bombed a 0-5 start before recovering for a 10-7 finish that lost four with 14 points or less included.

With Zip-Five, there wasn’t much room for error.

That’s mostly forgotten on this Monday night as not even the Premiership coach likes to dwell on the past, let alone coaches who start their 11th season without much graduation.

But the constant preseason focus on Hinkley is a bit boring, isn’t it? Give him at least a month of serious football.

For the veteran coach, 2023 is not about the soon to arrive Generation X but Generation Now, Port’s ability to regenerate on the run was so great.

And the two rising stars – could they be superstars? — are Connor Rozee and Zak Butters, two 22-year-olds at this magical crossroads in their young careers.

Will they become Port Adelaide greats or just two other very good players?

“Both are very special,” says Hinkley.

“They have to do the work now, but what I see are two young men who not only want to be very good players, but great players.”

Hinkley doesn’t play favorites.

With Rozee, the lithe and gifted onballer, Hinkley cites “elite-level preparation” as the big difference this preseason.

“I think he’s a player who understands more what it takes to be great,” he said. “Last year he had a little taste and I think it was a starter.

“We had a lot to ask from Connor and Zak in the first few years and they delivered, to be fair to both of them, but Connor really got his own career under control in Round 5 last year.”

It was against Carlton in Round 5 at MCG.

The Blues led Port by 49 points at halftime. The game was over and a goal was needed and Rozee was pushed into midfield at half-forward.

He would finish with 24 disposals and a goal, Port rallied to lose by three points and a star was born.

He was already a talent – he’s scored five goals in his third game at the Gabba – but if history records the No 20’s turning points, that day at the ‘G will be seen as a day of movement.

So who made the move?

“The trainers,” Hinkley said.

Which ones in particular? “I think the coaches took the step together. It was all about. I can remember a conversation with Connor that evening on the flight home. I just felt that moment, that day, when Connor made a statement himself,” he said.

“Our obligation as a coach to him was to make sure he knew what that obligation meant and that it was about being physical, fighting and playing football in the right way.

“He knows what he’s capable of

“He realizes his abilities are quite unique, it’s explosions and power, he can jump, do some pretty exciting things but he does it with a little more confidence in what he can do.”

In Butters, the similarities to retired champion Robbie Gray are unmistakable.

He has a harder edge than Rozee, as well as an envious ability to gauge space, movement, and disposal in the shortest possible time. It’s a manager’s quality.

“Rob liked Zak’s vision, we all like Zak’s vision,” Hinkley said. “We picked him 12th in the draft, he wasn’t 25 or 35 in a very good draft. It’s one of the best designs you’ll ever see. It’s the King brothers, Walsh, Rozee, Bailey Smith.

“Zak is a different player. He has an elite level of decision making in and around traffic. Robbie Gray gave him his sweater for an obvious reason.

“We see composure and leadership in Zak and what he’s trying to bring.

“He’s such an ambitious person, but he’s starting to understand now that to help other people get to that level as well, he has to bring other people along with him.”

The manager reckons Butters will be more center forward than centre-forward. “He’s tough, too tough, but he’s going to clash with Petracca, Dangerfield and Fyfe, and they’re big bodies,” Hinkley said.

Collectively, Hinkley has noted a “change of baton” in training in relation to the two Tyros and their older teammates. “The handover of training standards is becoming more and more evident,” he said.

“You lead these two young men.”

With vice-captain Ollie Wines still progressing from knee struggles and Travis Boak being “carefully” managed in the preseason at 34, he’s been managed in a different way, the lead roles being taken by the likes of Rozee and Butters.

“They had to improve and they really improved,” Hinkley said.

For Hinkley, who is entering his final year of contract, his two young players are the flagships of Generation Now.

“It has to be,” he said. “It’s time and I think both guys like being in this moment.”

Xavier Duursma is earmarked for one wing, with Bergman and Bonner on the other, and there are false expectations of 24-year-old Todd Marshall as a key striker from the field.

And of course there’s Jason Horne-Francis who will be another centre-forward.

The noise hasn’t abated since Horne-Francis returned home.

While North Melbourne saw part of an unattached child, Port has seen boots and all contenders.

If push came to shove, Horne-Francis would likely say he just didn’t want to be in North Melbourne and that at 18 he probably wasn’t able to handle it all.

In fact, says Hinkley, the allure of family was too overwhelming for the young man.

Horne-Francis lives with his mother and father, sister and three-year-old brother Fabian Jnr, who Hinkley says with a smile stumbles around behind his 19-year-old older brother at the football club. “He loves it,” he said.

Horne Francis also lives in Christie Downs, a suburb about an hour’s drive from the Alberton training home during rush hour. “He’s very close to his family,” Hinkley said

When asked about the expectation of his valuable recruit, Hinkley said, “He was seeded No. 1 and No. 1s are generally great players.”

He anticipates a midfield rotation of Rozee, Butters, Boak, Horne-Francis, Wines, Drew and Powell-Pepper, with enforcer Charlie Dixon in the ruck. It’s a group that was rebuilt without fanfare or real recognition.

And, dare we say it, it’s hardly going to be a meat-and-potato midfield.

Originally posted when Ken Hinkley sat down with Mark Robinson to talk Port Adelaide’s Generation Now, Jason Horne-Francis and more AFL 2023: Interview with Ken Hinkley, Connor Rozee and Zak Butters power Port Adelaide

Ryan Sederquist

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