Zerk-Thatcher is flourishing within the Port Adelaide environment.

Port Adelaide coach Ken Hinkley emphasizes the impact of size on intimidating opponents, stating, “Sometimes you intimidate the opposition by the size that is in front of them. You slow them down … and we have not had that in my time. We finally have a bit of that.”

With the addition of Esava Ratugolea, standing at 197cm, and Brandon Zerk-Thatcher, at 195cm, alongside All-Australian Aliir Aliir (194cm), Port Adelaide’s defensive lineup boasts significant height. This relieves pressure on players like Ryan Burton and Miles Bergman, allowing them to focus less on handling power forwards.

List manager Jason Cripps’ successful trades for Ratugolea from Geelong and Zerk-Thatcher from Essendon address a pressing need for Port Adelaide, reinforcing the club’s status as an attractive destination for players.

Five weeks into the new AFL premiership season, featuring a revamped defensive setup and a fresh line coach in Tyson Goldsack taking over from Nathan Bassett, the statistics paint a clear picture:

There hasn’t been a single instance of conceding 100 points or more against West Coast, Richmond, Melbourne, Essendon, or Fremantle.

The average points conceded per game stands at 73, a decrease from last year’s average of 85 points. This marks the lowest average since 2021’s 69-point average.

In total, only 363 points have been conceded, making Port Adelaide’s defense one of the stingiest in the 18-team national league, second only to Fremantle.

These promising defensive numbers come after just five games into the season, indicating room for improvement as the partnerships between key players such as Aliir, Ratugolea, and Zerk-Thatcher continue to develop and strengthen.

“We provide significant assistance,” says Hinkley regarding Port Adelaide’s game plan, particularly in limiting entries into the defensive 50.

Indeed, for much of the previous two seasons, Port Adelaide’s Achilles’ heel was its susceptibility to tall forwards, with Aliir often defending alongside Trent McKenzie (191cm) and then captain Tom Jonas (188cm) against the AFL’s formidable power forwards.

Saturday night’s matchup at Adelaide Oval against Fremantle, boasting an impressive winning midfield unit, underscored the importance of robust defensive matchups and systems.

“I’m really pleased with how it’s shaping up,” adds Hinkley. “The presence of our taller players really solidifies our defense.”

Zerk-Thatcher, recruited by Essendon as the No.66 pick in the 2017 national draft, returned to South Australia via the October trade window, setting aside his childhood allegiance to the other AFL team in Adelaide.

After playing 51 AFL games over five seasons at Essendon, donning the No.30 jumper, Zerk-Thatcher has seamlessly transitioned into his role in Port Adelaide’s revamped defense, embodying the scouting reports’ praise for consistency. Sporting new colors and a new number (25), the 25-year-old is forging a fresh reputation within a team structure that, as Hinkley acknowledges, prioritizes support for its defenders.

“We’ll continue to progress each week,” affirms Zerk-Thatcher.

Reflecting on Port Adelaide’s recent match against Fremantle, Zerk-Thatcher praises the defensive prowess of Aliir and ‘Sav’, debunking doubts about whether two players known for their intercept plays could effectively collaborate in the same defensive setup. “They really stepped up in crucial moments,” he remarks, highlighting the collective resilience of the defensive unit.

The impactful run-down tackle executed by Lachie Jones on Fremantle’s Bailey Banfield further underscores the defensive group’s cohesion and effectiveness.

Excited about being part of Port Adelaide’s evolving defense, Zerk-Thatcher emphasizes the importance of unity and collective effort. “Working together as a group makes our jobs easier,” he asserts, stressing the significance of collaboration over individual efforts.

Zerk-Thatcher credits the strong off-field bond cultivated at Alberton as the driving force behind the team’s defensive cohesion, a key factor in his decision to join Port Adelaide. This familial connection, integral to the club’s culture, resonated deeply with Zerk-Thatcher, reflecting the club’s reputation as a close-knit unit.

Crossing over from Murray Bridge and Sturt in the SANFL, Zerk-Thatcher found Port Adelaide to be an ideal fit beyond just football, citing the club’s strong culture and sense of community as major draws. Inspired by Coach Ken Hinkley’s leadership and the club’s overall ethos, Zerk-Thatcher is optimistic about the future and eager to contribute to the team’s success.

“I wasn’t originally a Port Adelaide supporter, but now I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I absolutely love being a part of Port Adelaide. While I was fortunate to be drafted by Essendon, you support the club that gives you that opportunity. However, transitioning to Port Adelaide, where the focus is on people, was an easy decision.”

With Jonas stepping down as captain and leader, Aliir has assumed the role of commander in the defense, fulfilling a vision he had years ago when he chose Port Adelaide as his destination after leaving Sydney.

“Both ‘Sav’ and I are learning a lot from Aliir,” Zerk-Thatcher noted. “He’s very vocal on the field, and I’m striving to match his level of vocal leadership, as is ‘Sav’. When one of us isn’t as loud, the other steps up.”

What sets Port Adelaide’s defense apart is its intention to do more than just prevent goals, aligning with the gameplan that emphasizes spending significant time in the forward half.

“We aim to be bold with our defense,” Zerk-Thatcher explained. “We’re proactive, pressing forward… it’s a bit of a shift for me coming from Essendon, but I’m loving every aspect of it.”

Returning to the MCG this weekend, Zerk-Thatcher and the team face Collingwood, just a week after a narrow win against Fremantle, which reaffirmed Port Adelaide’s standing as a top-four contender.

“Sometimes you just have to find a way,” Zerk-Thatcher reflected on the close victory. “It boosts our confidence. We believe we can always find a solution. It’s fantastic to see the boys step up in such crucial moments.”

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