To be the best, you’ve got to beat the best.
The old cliché could not ring truer for Port Adelaide’s Willem Drew, who has taken on some of the game’s best onballers in shutdown roles throughout the season as he develops into one of his side’s most promising midfield prospects.
Drew is ranked ‘elite’ for tackles (seven per game) and pressure acts (25 a match), and has also displayed his own ball-winning ability by claiming 10 or more contested possessions on 11 separate occasions throughout 2021.
But for now, the 22-year-old is happy to play his role for the premiership-pursuing Port Adelaide team.
“Throughout the year I’ve played a few different roles, and I’m more than happy to play a shutdown role or a defensive role on opposition mids if that’s what the coaches want,” Drew told aflplayers.com.au.
“It’s just something I’ve grown up doing, doing little things for the team. Playing senior club footy as a 15-year-old, the way we were coached was everyone had to dig in and tackle and do the little things.”
“It’s a great way for me to fast track my development, playing on some of the game’s best midfielders and seeing the things that they’re doing.” – willem drew
Drew’s early debut for the Koroit seniors, whose home ground is not far from south-west Victorian town Warrnambool, produced an early chance to take on the hardened bodies of country football.
Even in the AFL limelight, he has remained grateful for that opportunity.
“I definitely wouldn’t be where I am today without their support,” Drew said of the Koroit Football Netball Club.
“I was more of an outside sort of wingman. I was lucky enough to be given games as a young player coming up against more experienced and senior bodies. I think that experience taught me a lot. Looking back, it’s definitely helped my footy.”
If Drew’s ascendance from precocious country footballer to reliable AFL hard nut is reading as a rosy one, be assured that it wasn’t.
Drafted in 2016, his top-level debut would not come until 2019, when a midfield spot was vacated by the injured Ollie Wines. Last year, his development was slowed by a season-ending foot problem.
“Once you get to the club, you realise how hard you have to work and things you have to do. I didn’t think I was coming in as a ready-made player; I knew I had to work for it,” he explained.
But in 2021, Drew has found his feet.
He isn’t going head-to-head with the likes of Clayton Oliver and Patrick Cripps purely to shut them down, either — he’s taking ingredients from their recipes and adding them to his own dish.
“It’s a great way for me to fast track my development, playing on some of the game’s best midfielders and seeing the things that they’re doing. It’s something I look back at after games and think of the things they do to make them so good,” Drew said.
Drew says he has learned much from his own teammates, too, including the evergreen Travis Boak and Brownlow Medal fancy Ollie Wines, but there has also been a two-time Brisbane best-and-fairest winner in his corner.
“Tom Rockliff has been another one who’s been a massive support ever since he came to the club,” Drew said.
“Especially this year with him going down with injury, and now that he’s retired, he’s pretty much become a coach. He’s been a great support in teaching me a lot of things.”
Rockliff still recalls his first impression of Drew: “I couldn’t believe how much he could eat,” he laughed.
“Drewy lived with (former Power player) Joey Atley, and those two would come over for dinner a fair bit.”
The former Lion Rockliff arrived at Port Adelaide in 2017, a year after Drew was drafted.
“He was struck down with injury and didn’t get a real crack at it,” Rockliff reflected. “He had some super summers where he looked like he was going to break out, and then, unfortunately, had a couple of issues with his feet and what-not.”
But in the gloom of injury clouds, Drew’s diligence shone through.
“The way he’s approached his rehab, he hasn’t whinged and moaned about it. He’s always got on with it. That’s probably half the reason, I would say, the club continued to back him, because of the way he attacked his rehab and his attitude around the place,” Rockliff said.
“It’s a testament to him and his character, the person that he is and what he wants to get out of his footy life. He’s certainly done it the hard way … but he’s reaping the rewards of all of his hard work now and it’s good to see.”
Rockliff has remained a trusted adviser to Port’s on-ball brigade since retiring, and has worked in tandem with Power midfield coach Jarrad Schofield to prepare Drew for his run-with assignments.
“‘Schoey’ probably does the bulk of it — we’re pretty lucky that we’ve got some really good assistant coaches — so Schoey’s more the technical side, and I’ll just talk to Drewy throughout the week on what [the game] might look like, things that I’ve found that have worked really well for me in the past, how to manipulate [opposition] bodies to try and get them out of position, how to lock them in so that they can’t get any space,” Rockliff explained.
“He’s been outstanding for us this year as a pressure player, shutting down the opposition’s best midfielders and also finding the footy as well.”
Finding the football is not foreign to Drew. He has amassed 25-plus touches four times throughout the season in games where his defensive role hasn’t been required, and Rockliff says it gives a glimpse of just how good he might become.
“The next phase for him will be to get off the chain and have those big breakout games, but at the moment he doesn’t have to, because we’ve got ‘Boaky’, Ollie and Karl Amon doing that for the team,” Rockliff said.
“There’s no limit to [Willem]. Once he discovers he can find [the ball] 30, 35 times a game, he’s got the right mindset to continue to work and continue to get better.
“His defensive side of his game is his real strength at the moment, but once he gets his offensive side up and going, he’ll be a really hard matchup for anyone.”
But while he might be the best one day, Drew’s focus — for now — remains fixed on beating the best. On Saturday night, that comes in the form of what is arguably the deepest midfield unit in the league.
“We’re just really excited and looking forward to the game,” Drew said of the imminent clash with the Western Bulldogs.
“[Finals] has been really enjoyable. That’s one of the things we were told, to embrace it all, enjoy it and realise it doesn’t happen all that often.”