ZAK Butters will not play AFL football this weekend. And in his absence - by order of the AFL match review officer Michael Christian - there will be even greater appreciation of the "small kid" with the big bravado who turned 20 on Tuesday.
Since Ken Hinkley started the revival (rather than the "rebuild") at Port Adelaide in 2013, it has been clear he does not let a birth certificate dictate if a player earns selection for AFL action.
Hinkley played teenager Ollie Wines, the No.7 pick in the 2012 AFL draft, immediately at the start of 2013. He kept the bullish midfielder in the Port Adelaide line-up for all of the AFL team's 24 games that season, including the two knock-out finals against Collingwood and Geelong.
While many kept expecting Hinkley to "rest" Wines, the coach kept naming him on the team sheet and declaring at media conferences that many have the flawed habit to "talk young players into tiredness".
Round 1, 2019, Hinkley returned to the MCG to face Melbourne - in a repeat of his first match as Port Adelaide coach and Wines' first AFL game six years earlier - with all three of his recently drafted first-round recruits in the game: Connor Rozee (pick No. 5), Xavier Duursma (No. 18) and Butters (No. 12).
Butters kicked two goals in the 26-point win.
But the attention for the rest of the season was to focus on Rising Star nominee Rozee - and the debate on when his profile would change from forward to midfielder. Duursma was fitting nicely in the No. 21 Port Adelaide jumper that had been made famous on a wing by another smooth-moving teenage sensation in 1981, Craig Bradley. And the "X" man had drawn extra attention with that arrow routine on scoring a goal ...
What we have seen this year with Zak is his ability to make good decisions with the ball, by foot and by hand. And how he is clean in the contest.
Also his transfer (of the ball) and his running ability in the game is second to none.
It is a credit to Zak for the work he did during the (12-week) COVID stand-down period. It has enabled him to step into the midfield and perform the way he has.
I'll put up my hand to say how surprised I've been with how well Zak has gone with his midfield time. We have seen great progression this year with Zak.
Port Adelaide midfield coach Jarrad Schofield
This year, Butters has become the shining star among the trio. He was on track to completing a full season, until Saturday night's split-second bump on North Melbourne midfielder-forward Jy Simpkin at Metricon Stadium copped the appropriate two-game penalty from Christian who is working in line with the AFL's concern for concussion.
Later in this game, Butters endured - and survived better - the bump of North Melbourne captain Jack Ziebell. He also took on "Goliath", North Melbourne ruckman Todd Goldstein - despite giving up 20 centimetres and 31 kilograms - to honour the spirit of David by winning a holding-the-ball call.
There does not seem a moment that puts fear into Butters. And there is growing admiration beyond Alberton for a young player adding a new cult figure image to Port Adelaide's No. 18 jumper that became famous with David Granger in the SANFL in the 1970s and '80s and for a club-record 300 AFL games by four-time best-and-fairest winner Kane Cornes.
"Zak Butters," says Essendon premiership forward Matthew Lloyd, "I've fallen in love with him, as have most people in the game. He has a bit of (GWS star) Toby Greene about him."
It is rare for a player to draw rave reviews while being put in the dock to await Mr Christian's verdict at match review.
Lloyd admired how Butters immediately after the Simpkin moment - that would have weighed heavily on any player's mind, regardless of age or experience - tackled Goldstein in his next contest.
"(Butters) plays with an edge that not many players in our game do," Lloyd added. "His next hit was on a big boy, Jed Anderson. And in his next contest he had Jack Ziebell coming at him ... and he laughs and he smiles about it. He's hard, he is skinny ... and his football, he is so smart. He will do all the hard stuff."
"Hard - and fair," says Hinkley.
There is no debate about the merit of Butters' playing style, not when he repeatedly plays without fear - and without malice. The growing question on where Butters ranks among the three 2019 first-round draftees at Alberton is phrased in former Hawthorn hard-nosed midfielder Daniel Harford's admiration: "Zak Butters is the best of (Port Adelaide's) second-year players. What a terrific kid this young fella is, love him."
Port Adelaide defence coach and 2004 AFL premiership defender Brett Montgomery recently said: "Nothing surprises us with Zak Butters. He invests in his game - and with his team-mates."
Butters "rests" for the next two games, although he can work in the "scrimmage" matches for players not on AFL duty. Absence will certainly make the heart grow fonder for seeing Butters in AFL matches - and it will be more than Port Adelaide fans feeling such.
Just to jog the memory ... how did Port Adelaide get that No.12 draft pick that brought Zak Butters to Alberton in the triple-treat of first-round draftees in 2018?
Port Adelaide traded wingman Jared Polec and defender Jasper Pittard in a package deal that landed draft pick No. 11 (that was pushed out to 12 on draft night) from North Melbourne.
The AFL trade period this year will be - free agency, October 30-November 6; trades: November 4-12. The national draft will run from December 7.
Port Adelaide v Essendon
WIN - and Port Adelaide (12-3) stays top, as it has been since this complicated home-and-away season began in mid-March. Twelfth-ranked Essendon (6-1-8) would no longer carry that thin coat of hope known as "mathematically" still in contention for a top-eight finals berth.
They are coming at each other from vastly contrasting corners to the perfect canvas at Adelaide Oval on Saturday.
But at a time when the look of the game is again in question after so many low-scoring matches, there is the promise that this encounter will be different. Both teams must win - rather than not lose.
Port Adelaide strives to score rather than just defend. Last week, in the first and third-quarter blitzes against North Melbourne, there was the ultimate response to those who question where is the scoreboard pressure to come if key forward Charlie Dixon is locked in a super duel with a determined full back. Port Adelaide scored 11 goals - two from Dixon, nine from eight other players, in particular midfielders locked in a tough contest with hard-at-it North Melbourne rivals.
Essendon's scoring power was highlighted in the last visit to Adelaide Oval - highest score of the season (87 points from 13.9), an 11-goal second-half blitz against Hawthorn and the big return of key forward Joe Daniher (who has been "managed" into this game).
As the ruck debate continues with Port Adelaide, Ken Hinkley's match staff has reason to look at how Essendon dismantled Hawthorn by shifting its talls, in particular Cale Hooker from defence to work in tandem with Daniher.
At selection - where Hinkley had young ruckman Peter Ladhams back on the whiteboard after clearing away his three-game ban from the AFL for breaching COVID protocols - the model for this game is:
TWO ruckmen with Scott Lycett and Ladhams
FLEXIBILITY with Dan Houston and Brad Ebert
HEIGHT in attack with Charlie Dixon, Todd Marshall and Ladhams
By the numbers, Port Adelaide outranks Essendon for inside-50s, 46-40. Port Adelaide puts up more scores, 20-15. But Essendon counters the difference with a stronger conversion, 53 per cent to Port Adelaide's 48.5. More productive v more efficient - but both notably strong in seeking scoreboard pressure.
In the past six Port Adelaide-Essendon matches, at least one team has broken the once-landmark 100-point barrier. There have been game totals of 28, 30, 28, 27, 24 and 37 goals in these six matches (with 20-minute quarters rather than the current 16).
Port Adelaide's defence continues to be shaped by injuries - again to half-back Ryan Burton - but remains on a solid foundation with the unheralded trio of captain Tom Jonas, the feel-good story of the season in Trent McKenzie and the modest Tom Clurey.
The defensive system also is supported by the pressure themes in the front half of the park where Port Adelaide's tackling numbers inside-50 tell of a torment to opposition defenders seeking comfortable rebounds.
This is a Port Adelaide gameplan - and team - built to take advantage of Adelaide Oval. A win against Essendon enhances Port Adelaide's right to two finals at Adelaide Oval. There is much to play for - and this also applies for Essendon.
IT is the second-last round to the truncated premiership season, the penultimate series of the home-and-away that has redefined "home" and made Queensland the only "away" destination this year.
Since 1997, Port Adelaide has had a 13-10 win-loss record in what has been the AFL's round 21, 22 or 23 across recent decades ... and is round 17 this year.
There have been three Showdowns for a 2-1 count on Adelaide (with the wins in 1999 and 2006; the loss in 2016).
Port Adelaide has played Essendon just once in the penultimate series, losing by seven points at the Docklands in 2011 in the match that is remembered for John Butcher's four goals after his six against the Western Bulldogs in the previous match.
The greatest penultimate AFL game for Port Adelaide is a contest between two matches, one at home, the other away at the toughest venue in Victoria.
CHOICE 1: Port Adelaide's second-half workover of the finals-bound Adelaide in Showdown XXI at Football Park in late August 2006. Down by nine points at half-time, Port Adelaide - living off the enthusiasm of Chad Cornes and his 28 disposals and 13 marks - won by 14 points, 14.11 (95) to 11.15 (81).
CHOICE 2: Captain Dom Cassisi's goal with less than 10 seconds to play that allowed Port Adelaide to become the first team in 16 attempts to leave Kardinia Park denying Geelong the four premiership points.
Moments after watching Geelong super star Gary Ablett give the Cats a one-point lead with a trademark goal from a contest, Cassisi responded with his own opportunistic goal to put Port Adelaide in the frame to finish second on the back of this stunning five-point win, 16.10 (106) to 15.11 (101).
SCOTT Lycett and Peter Ladhams resume their ruck partnership for the first time since August 14 when their 29 hit-outs combined produced a winning indicator against Geelong pair Rhys Stanley and Mark Blicavs.
Ladhams has been forced to the sidelines in the past three games by the AFL order for his breaches of COVID protocols on August 3.
After being dropped to work on his form (rather than injury concerns after taking a heavy knock against Sydney in round 14), former vice-captain Brad Ebert resumes.
Defender Riley Bonner is the third addition, returning to the AFL line-up for his eighth senior game of the season - and first since playing in the 26-point win against Sydney at Adelaide Oval on August 29.
Injury forces half-back Ryan Burton to the sidelines while second-year midfielder-forward Zak Butters can keep up fitness and touch in the scrimmage matches while he serves a two-game ban from the AFL judiciary.
Midfielder Cam Sutcliffe falls out of the match 22 after playing against Sydney and North Melbourne.
In: Bonner, Ebert, Ladhams
Out: Burton (quad), Butters (suspended), Sutcliffe
Coming into the last two games, we'd like to settle the side down.
Assistant coach Michael Voss
HE'S back ... key forward Joe Daniher returns to the Essendon attack after being rested last week.
Daniher is among five changes that bring into the heavily reconfigured Essendon line-up Brisbane recruit Tom Cutler to work in the midfield or defence, forward Brayden Ham, midfielder Mitch Hibberd and well-travelled ruckman Andrew Phillips (formerly of Greater Western Sydney and Carlton).
Essendon's injury list takes in defender Michael Hurley (inflamed ankle joint), midfielder-defender Dyson Heppell (ankle) and exciting novice Irving Mosquito (knee). The selection hook drags the out-of-form Cale Hooker and defender-midfielder Mason Redman out of the 22.
In: Cutler, Daniher, Ham, Hibberd, Phillips
Out: Heppell (ankle), Hooker, Hurley (ankle), Mosquito (knee), Redman
(the little stuff that matters most)
Where: Adelaide Oval
When: Saturday, September 12
Time: 4.35pm (SA time)
Last time: Port Adelaide 19.12 (126) d Essendon 9.13 (67) at the Docklands, round 20, August 3, 2019
Overall: Port Adelaide 17, Essendon 14
Past five games: W L L L W
Scoring average: Port Adelaide 100, Essendon 92
Tightest margin - Port Adelaide by three points (109-106) at the Docklands, round 7, May 8, 2010; Essendon by two points (62-60) at Adelaide Oval, round 16, July 5, 2014.
Biggest margin - Port Adelaide by 96 points (158-62) at Football Park, round 1, March 28, 2004; Essendon by 94 points (156-62) at the Docklands, round 1, March 9, 2000.
By venues - Adelaide Oval (1-2), Football Park (8-3), MCG (1-1), Docklands (7-8).
By States - SA (9-5), Victoria (8-9).
FINALS, it is often said, are decided by defence. Since being belted by Geelong - and conceding its highest score of the season, 91 points - Port Adelaide has been tight by allowing just nine goals to Hawthorn, seven to Sydney and six to North Melbourne.
All up in 15 matches this season, Port Adelaide has conceded 795 points (a miserly 53-point average). Of the teams still in the race to play top-eight finals this season, only Collingwood (774) and Geelong (781) have conceded less.
On the Malcolm Blight pointer of using the percentage column as the indicator of the two teams destined to play in the AFL grand final, Geelong holds the No.1 ranking with 145.1 percentage points; Port Adelaide is No. 2 at 131.4 and has the second most-productive attack behind Geelong (1045 points to 1133).
Port Adelaide can score fast; it can defend hard - and with a group of defenders who are not often in the limelight. Key defender Trent McKenzie this week earned his reward with a two-year contract extension at Alberton.
HOW the footy gods work .... Yet again Port Adelaide has to deal with a team that has been shamed publicly for its on-field performances. Premiership player Dean Wallis went whack this week: "If there was an Olympic Games for imposters in the AFL, Essendon would win gold, silver and bronze."
The "good news" for Port Adelaide is the certainty of getting a genuine pre-finals work-out. Essendon has lost four of its past five games - and the most recent, the 66-point loss to the rampant Geelong at the Gabba in Brisbane, has pretty well eliminated the Bombers from the top-eight finals race.
Essendon is virtually playing for pride, to answer the biting criticism of club heroes such as goalkicking great Matthew Lloyd: "Too many Essendon people are sick and tired of excuses. It's just been too long. I've heard so many words, so have Essendon members and fans who are passionate about this club. They haven't seen a finals win for 15 years, but they're all words until you can show it out on the footy field."
That red on the Essendon sash will be radiating much heat this weekend.
THREE men have left the Essendon Football Club in the past 43 years to become premiership heroes at Port Adelaide - including Brownlow Medallist Gavin Wanganeen in his return home to be the club's first AFL captain and Damien Hardwick.
The third gave up the Essendon sash - for the second time - to don the black-and-white bars at Port Adelaide for his only league premiership success: Geoff Blethyn.
Slim, bearded and with those famous black-framed glasses. Blethyn arrived at Alberton in 1977 - after being courted by several SANFL clubs - to fill a critical need in the Port Adelaide attack.
Blethyn had quit Essendon after topping the VFL club's goalkicking list (39 goals) in his comeback season. He had been Essendon's leading goalkicker in 1970 and 1972 (107 goals) during his first stint at the club (1968-1972). In between, he had been at WAFL club Claremont kicking 104 goals in 33 league games in 1973, 1974 and 1975.
Blethyn played 11 SANFL league games while working with Tim Evans and Randall Gerlach in the attack that delivered an end to Port Adelaide's 12-year premiership drought - and the much-treasured SANFL centenary premiership in 1977.
Blethyn kicked one goal in the grand final win against Glenelg to close his season tally at 13 - and finish his league football career with a premiership. He had played in Essendon's 1968 grand final loss to Carlton at the MCG where he kicked four goals.
In his profile in the Football Budget in 1977, Blethyn described his greatest thrill in football (before the premiership triumph) as: "Kicking my goal in 1972 - twice!"
"I had kicked 99 for the season and I had a shot for goals," Blethyn recalled of the moment with Essendon against Fitzroy in round 21 at the Junction Oval. "A team-mate shepherded the ball and as it ran through the goals, spectators ran from everywhere to congratulate me.
"But the umpire had paid a free kick against us and disallowed the goal. They cleared all the spectators from the oval and about a minute later I kicked a goal from almost the identical spot ... and out came the spectators again."
QUOTES OF THE PRE-GAME
"I can't fault the way Peter Ladhams has gone about it since his suspension. He knows the best way to win everyone back is through his game-day performance."
Port Adelaide senior coach Ken Hinkley repeating the theme that applied to defender Dan Houston last week.
"We're working together well with three tall defenders ... it makes it easier when the team is going well and we've got a pretty solid back line."
Key defender Trent McKenzie
"The guys I look after in the midfield are going to have their hands full."
Port Adelaide assistant coach Jarrad Schofield
"Once again, as a club, we have shown how powerful unity can be."
Club chief executive Keith Thomas
Port Adelaide by 32 points