Brandon Zerk-Thatcher celebrates a win in his club debut. Image: Matt Sampson.

SIX months ago, Aliir Aliir stood out more than he should in the Port Adelaide defence. He was the tower surrounded by shorter team-mates needing to repeatedly play above their height.

Now ...

"Sometimes you intimidate the opposition by the size that is in front of them," says Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley. "You slow them down ... and we have not had that in my time. We finally have a bit of that."

Aliir Aliir, 194cm, no longer is the tallest man in the Port Adelaide back half. The All-Australian has the support of Esava Ratugolea, 197cm, and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, 195cm.

And the pressure to deal with power forwards is off Ryan Burton and Miles Bergman, who does have a memorable game in a key defensive role against Geelong forward Jeremy Cameron at Adelaide Oval last season.

List manager Jason Cripps has delivered on a pressing need by his trade plays at Geelong for Ratugolea and at Essendon with Zerk-Thatcher, proving again Port Adelaide can be described as a "destination club".

Brandon Zerk-Thatcher sings the song after his first win in Power colours alongside Esava Ratugolea and Ivan Soldo. Image: AFL Photos.

Five weeks into a new AFL premiership season with a new set-up in defence - and a new line coach with Tyson Goldsack succeeding Nathan Bassett - the numbers tell a story:

NO watershed score of 100 points or more conceded to West Coast, Richmond, Melbourne, Essendon or Fremantle.

AVERAGE score conceded of 73 points - down on last year's average of 85 points. The best figure since the 69-point average of 2021.

CONCEDED 363 points in total  - only the defensive set at Fremantle has been more miserly in the 18-team national league.

And it is just five games into a set of partnerships that should get better with greater understandings - connections, as the speak is today - between Aliir, Ratugolea and Zerk-Thatcher.

Defenders Esava Ratugolea and Aliir Aliir embrace following the side's Round 5 win. Image: AFL Photos.

"We help them a fair bit," says Hinkley of the Port Adelaide gameplan "with low numbers of entries (to the defensive 50)."

There is that. But for much of the past two seasons, the constant knock on Port Adelaide was its vulnerability to tall forwards while Aliir defended with the workhorse Trent McKenzie (191cm) and then captain Tom Jonas (188cm) in the key match-ups against the AFL's power forwards.

And Saturday night at Adelaide Oval against an impressive winning midfield unit from Fremantle, the need for strong defensive match-ups and systems could not have been more relevant.

"I am really liking what that is looking like," adds Hinkley. "The big boys really help you look solid behind the ball."

Zerk-Thatcher returned to South Australia - after being called by Essendon as the No.66 pick in the 2017 national draft - through the October trade window, putting aside his boyhood allegiances to the other AFL option in Adelaide.

Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, spending the first six years of his career at Essendon, has found a home at Port Adelaide. Image: Matt Sampson.

After 51 AFL games in five seasons at Essendon in the No.30 jumper, he has lived up to the scouting notes for consistency in a new-look defence. New colours, new number (25) and a new reputation is being cast for the 25-year-old in a team system that is - as Hinkley notes - more supportive of its defenders.

"We will improve each week," says Zerk-Thatcher.

"Aliir and 'Sav' were unbelievable (against Fremantle)," added Zerk-Thatcher of the answer given to those who questioned if two players renowned for their intercept plays could work in the same defensive zone at Port Adelaide.

"They stood up in some really good moments. You could say that for all the defensive group - we stood up when it counted."

The Lachie Jones run-down tackle of Fremantle midfielder-forward Bailey Banfield on the exit from the western wing makes that point sink in.

"It is exciting to be part of a new group," said Zerk-Thatcher of the Port Adelaide defence. "All of us want to connect very quickly - and be successful in a winning team.

"If you can stand up as a group it is better than working solo. There is nothing worse than running around with someone (as an opponent) with a whole paddock of grass. When we work together, it makes all of our lives easier."

Zerk-Thatcher points to an off-field strength built at Alberton as the key to all that is unfolding behind centre - and the reason he opted to be traded to Port Adelaide. It is part of the "culture" theme many clubs speak of, but very few can define.

"It is that family connection," says Zerk-Thatcher. 

We go that extra mile to hang out with each other. We are building that connection.

- Brandon Zerk-Thatcher

Zerk-Thatcher crossed the great divide in South Australian football - after a pre-AFL story at Murray Bridge and Sturt in the SANFL - finding Port Adelaide more than suited his needs and wishes beyond football.

"Everyone is different; everyone has their own reasons for choosing to move clubs," Zerk-Thatcher said. "For me, there was family and friends here. 

"It is a great culture (at Port Adelaide) - and that is why people want to come here. Ken Hinkley drives that. It is seen throughout the whole football club. It is an amazing place to be.

"Culture, when I heard Port Adelaide had a real family culture that was music to my ears. And the list here is so exciting. I just see great things for this group. And I want that success.

Brandon Zerk-Thatcher poses with his family ahead of his first game at Port Adelaide. Image: Matt Sampson.

"I was not a Port Adelaide supporter, but now I would not change it for the world. I love being at Port Adelaide. I was lucky enough to be picked up by Essendon (in the national draft); and you support the club that gives you that chance. But it is easy to change to Port Adelaide where it is all about people."

Jonas's exit as captain and team leader has put Aliir in the commander role in defence, years after he left Sydney marking Port Adelaide as his destination.

"Both 'Sav' and I are taking great learnings from Aliir," said Zerk-Thatcher. "He is very vocal out there. I am trying to be as vocal him - and so is 'Sav'. When one person is not as loud, another steps up."

Most notable about the Port Adelaide defence is the intent to be more than stoppers, reinforcing the gameplan that makes Port Adelaide have a high count on "time spent in forward half".

"We like to be brave with our defence," said Zerk-Thatcher. "Standing in front, going forward ... it is a little bit different for me (after playing at Essendon). But I love every bit of it."

Zerk-Thatcher returns to the MCG this weekend to deal with the AFL premiers of Collingwood seven days after Port Adelaide matched Craig McRae's magicians for being on the right side of close finishes.

"Sometimes you just have to find a way," says Zerk-Thatcher of the three-point win against Fremantle that reaffirmed Port Adelaide as a top-four contender.

"We get a lot of belief. We can just find a way. It is awesome to see the boys stand up in such a game."