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Q&A — Tom Rockliff

After a quiet 2018 season, Port Adelaide midfielder Tom Rockliff appears to have found his mojo again. The 29-year-old opened up to about Port’s start to the season, his time at the Lions and fatherhood.

They call you the ‘Fantasy Pig’, and on the weekend you didn’t disappoint. You had 41 disposals and 10 clearances in a Showdown loss. It’s been a pretty consistent start to the year for you, are you happy with how things are going?

You’re always looking to improve your game and to do certain things better. From where I was twelve months ago – struggling to find the footy, to find form, my body wasn’t quite where I needed it to be – I think in that space, I’m a lot better. I feel like I’m contributing to the team and trying to play my best footy – to organise and instruct out there the best I can to help the guys around me. I’m one of the older boys in the group now, so it’s important that I take control when I have to and give guidance to the younger guys.

Over your career you’ve been a prolific ball winner but your 2018 season was a little quiet. You’ve spoken about dealing with some niggling injuries that year. How do you explain the turnaround in form this year? Is it feeling more comfortable at Port Adelaide and finding your role in the team?

There are a number of factors but I think you hit the nail on the head a bit there. Obviously, it helps knowing my teammates a bit more and them knowing me and the way that I play. It also helps having a full pre-season. Last year, I got a niggle at the wrong time – at the back end of pre-season. I didn’t get any pre-season games in and was playing catch-up a bit. I just couldn’t find my feet, couldn’t find balance in terms of where I fitted into the team, and so I went back and played a couple of games in the SANFL. After the Essendon game (before I played in the SANFL), Brendon Goddard approached me post-game and said, “you’re not playing the way you have for so long. You’re not going to get the ball. Just see it and go get it.” He was probably right.

Looking back, I was probably trying to find my feet too much and so I was hesitant to get in the way of the other guys. Now I feel we’ve got the balance right and that we all understand the way each other play. That’s been a big factor. Another is knowing the system and having a better understanding of the way that we want to play as a team. My body is also in better shape – particularly my shoulder. Across the board, I feel like I’m in a much better position than what I was. Now it’s just implementing that and stringing together a few wins so that we can build a bit of momentum towards the second half of the season.

Port Adelaide sit 4-4 at the start the season. The club has shown glimpses of promise, particularly the gritty win over the Eagles in the west. How have you assessed the season so far?

A little up and down, I guess. I think we’ve been in most games we’ve played, probably besides the Collingwood game. They just blew us out of the park early, we wrestled a bit of momentum back, but they controlled the game. I feel like we’re in a really good position – it’s about getting our efficiency right going inside 50, improving our ball movement and making sure that we take our chances in front of goal when they come up. I think that our defence has been really sound throughout the whole season. They’ve been really strong on their opposition and they’ve stopped a lot of score launches from the opposition. The midfield is starting to click together; we’re getting a good balance in there. And, in terms of our forward line, we have to focus on delivering it a bit better to them and making sure that we kick goals when we’ve got the opportunities. Hopefully we can start to get a few guys back over the next couple of weeks – that will really boost the boys. We play Gold Coast this weekend, so it’s a really good challenge for us, on our home deck, to go out there and play the way we want to play.

A couple of seasons have passed since you left the Brisbane Lions. How do you reflect on your time there?

I loved my time at the Brisbane Lions. I wouldn’t change too much about my experience there. Obviously we didn’t have the success that we would have liked as a group, but I think the club is in really good hands with Chris Fagan and David Noble. It’s good to watch them playing some really good footy – hopefully they don’t play too well the next time we play them. There’s no doubt I still hold a soft spot for them. When all is said and done and I finish footy, I will follow both Port Adelaide and Brisbane and keep a keen eye on both teams.

You were Brisbane’s captain for two seasons (and later vice-captain) in what was a very difficult period for the club. Did the challenges you faced then take their toll on you as a captain? 

There’s no doubt. When the club’s not operating as well as it probably could have and you’re not getting the results you’d like, there is added pressure. It definitely took a toll for those couple of years, but I wouldn’t change anything about that. I think I learnt a fair bit about myself – and some life lessons – through that period and those experiences. It’s something I’ll hold onto for the rest of my life and it’s something that I was very proud of – that I was able to captain the Brisbane Lions.

Have you been able to draw on your experiences from Brisbane in a positive way at Port Adelaide? 

Absolutely. There have been things that I’ve learnt along the way and I’ve been able to pass on my knowledge (to my teammates). It’s a very different environment in Adelaide compared to Brisbane. It’s an AFL state, which is a good thing. It’s about appreciating the opportunity that we’ve got as AFL footballers. The life of the game – you’re not in it for that long, so it’s important that you get as much out of it as you can and do the right things to give yourself the best chance to succeed.

You were part of the leadership group in your first season at Port Adelaide, but they’ve had a slight restructure this season. Is a leadership role something you’d like to return to, or do you have an unofficial leadership position without the title?

Yeah a little bit. With Ollie not playing at the moment, I feel like me and Boaky (Travis Boak) really control that midfield group. If I can help in any way, and pass on any knowledge, I’m happy to do that. I think we’ve got a really good balance at the moment in our leadership group, we’ve experimented with a few structures in the past; I think we had seven or eight in the leadership group last year, and we’ve got three this year. A leadership role is not something I actively aspire to but I do enjoy the leadership side of AFL and post footy I think I will look to do something in that space – it’s something I take pride in and enjoy doing.

We know Adelaide Oval is a hostile environment for opposition clubs. How different is it playing in an AFL state like South Australia? Has it ever felt like a bit of a football bubble?

Absolutely – just walking down the street you get noticed more and everyone wants to come up and chat footy to you. You don’t really get that at all in Brisbane. I love it down here: there’s no doubt there’s more pressure on you to perform and the Port Adelaide faithful are very passionate about the game – and that’s what you want. They tell you when you’re not playing so well, but they also give you a pat on the back when you’re going alright. It’s just important that you embrace it and see it for what it is.

You’ve had a few concussions in your time – including one against Brisbane earlier this year. Do you worry about the effect of repeated concussions? Do you think the AFL is doing enough to manage player concerns?

I think the AFL has taken a huge step forward in the previous seasons with concussion and it’s something that they’ll continue to work on. Because there’s so much grey area with concussion, it’s important that we (as players and clubs) are cautious with it and give players the opportunity to recover. Everyone wants quality of life post footy and it’s only a short period of time that we’re in the game. You don’t want to mess around with your head and the mental side of it.

Lastly, you became a father shortly before arriving at Port Adelaide. How has that changed your life? Has it changed the way you approach football?

It’s an instant life changer. Obviously they’re depending on you, of course, but throughout their early years they’re probably more dependent on their mother than they are on their father. It’s something that I love. Jack’s been an absolute blessing and when things weren’t going as well as they could on-field, it was always good to come home to him. He was always there whether I played well or not. Instead of getting caught up worrying about yourself, you quickly focus on them and what you can do to help them.

That’s all from me, Tom. Thanks for your time and good luck for the rest of the season.

Thanks Katie.