Once upon a time, the AFL talent identification process was as easy as turning up to an underage or state league game and recording the best performers of the day. These days, it isn’t so simple. Character, attitude, upbringing and athletic attributes are scrutinised just as intensely as on field performance, which is why Gippsland Power Vice-Captain Callum Porter has been getting so many knocks on the door from AFL recruiters in recent weeks.
Porter was on the radar coming into the season after a very consistent bottom age year as a hard at it inside midfielder, but dramatically lifted his impact on games in 2017 to take out Gippsland’s best and fairest and win a place in the TAC Cup Team of the Year that was chock full of high profile names. The accolades and outstanding on field output came even as a surprise to the man himself on reflection.
“I definitely exceeded my expectations this year. If you had have told me at the start of Power in the 15s, 16s and starting 18s that I was going to win a best and fairest, I would have been surprised to hear that. I’ve always just focused on making the squad and getting a game and keeping a pretty basic mindset. I was lucky in my bottom age year to play 15 games, which gave me confidence going into my top age year,” Porter explained.
Although individual awards aren’t what motivate the balanced midfielder. He is a competitive person, one who is set apart by his commitment to the team and others. Finals were the ultimate goal and Gippsland were able to achieve that.
“I wanted to play the best footy I could and try to play finals footy, which we ended up doing and was a great experience. Playing finals footy was something we were striving to do and I really wanted to do. The individual awards like the best and fairest are just a bonus on top of that, it just shows that all the hard work that I had done and everything I had sacrificed during the year was worth it,” Porter stated with a sense of pride.
“Even though it’s not an ideal situation, it was a conversation that I really appreciated. It kick started my form and got me back to playing the way I wanted to play,”
Porter ended the season with an impressive resume of achievements, but there were still lows along the way. It began with a slightly slow start the season, which would ultimately become a defining moment along the way.
“The first 2-3 rounds I wasn’t playing the level of footy I wanted. I was getting too focused on the deficiencies of my game and the things people wanted me to work on. I was too focused on trying to bring those things into my game, instead of doing the things that had held me in good stead in the first place,” Porter said.
“I wasn’t being as physical as I should have been, I was probably focusing on things I had to improve on, which is a bit more outside footy, a bit more of a balance,”
The burning desire to improve his football meant the strengths he had proven over the past 2-3 years were unknowingly put to the side. It led to some honest conversations and implementations before the Round 5 Sandringham clash that would become critical to the development he strived for.
“I sat down with Leigh Brown and Pete Francis and they had a big chat to me about it. They said we need more out of you, we think if you focus on these things like your physicality, that’s what is going to get you back into the games. I think that was a real turning point in the season,” Porter explained.
“Even though it’s not an ideal situation, it was a conversation that I really appreciated. It kick started my form and got me back to playing the way I wanted to play,”.
From that point on, the courageous ball winner would be named in Gippsland’s best for 12 of the next 14 games, displaying a perfect mix of the inside strengths we already knew of with a greater impact in space. Although a return to form may have come a game or two too late for a key goal, as the Vic Country squad was announced a short time later and unfortunately, Porter’s name had been cut from the original trial lists.
“There were a lot of great players who played for the Vic Country side, especially in the midfield. I take nothing away from those guys for getting a spot over me. Any of us would have been deserving, but I think it was one of those things that you’re allowed to be a little bit disappointed in and I was, but I didn’t let it affect me too much. I kind of used that as a motivation, put it behind me I guess and focus on proving people wrong,” Porter said with a determined tone.
You could argue that the non-selection would be a blessing in disguise as it would spark a purple patch of form for Porter, starting with one of the best individual performances of the year against Geelong at Colac. He would collect 36 disposals, 23 contested possessions, eight clearances, 12 tackles, four contested marks and kick four vital goals to be instrumental in defeating the eventual premier.
He would follow that up with another inspired performance a week later against GWVR, gathering 31 disposals and kicking two more goals. He also produced one of the highlights of the year, winning the clearance from the first centre stoppage after the three quarter time break, carrying the ball toward the forward arc and flushing a 55 metre drop punt goal to help lift his side to victory as captain that day. No one could have responded to disappointment in any better fashion and, more importantly, it highlighted his resilience and character traits even further.
Those character traits aren’t just on field relevant, as Porter takes great pride in the professionalism he presents around the club. He is a standard setter, especially when it comes to training habits, preparation and leadership. Everyone you speak to internally just raves about his off field qualities. It is something he gives his parents great credit for as role models and the environment he was able to grow up in. While admitting to already being “wired that way”, watching Ben Ainsworth and learning from Leigh Brown has fasted tracked him further in that area from a football point of view.
“The guys I’ve learnt off from my bottom age year like Ben Ainsworth, he is the main one. He is someone you watch and want to emulate everything he does and learn off. It was only a season I played with him, it was quite a limited time, but I tried to soak up as much information and advice. He is someone I keep in touch with regularly. He has been super.”
Now the shoe is on the other foot and Porter is being the mentor, passing on the influences and lessons from Ainsworth and taking level one AFL Academy member Caleb Serong under his wing. Serong is already benefiting from playing, training and rooming with Porter.
“I looked up to Cal and have watched his training habits and preparation and tried to implement some things. Especially in preseason and then the leader he was during the season,” Serong said.
As late as last Friday Porter was seen at Gippsland Power training, not only keeping himself in good shape for the upcoming season, but passing on knowledge and interacting with the next group of draftable prospects from the region.
“Having that experience, it allows you to put yourself in the some of the younger players’ shoes. You can kind of recognise how you are acting and how that is going to affect the group. How you can do things to benefit yourself in terms of preparation, but it’s also paving the way for the other guys to do the exact same thing and it’s a ripple effect. I think that makes footy even more enjoyable for me,” Porter explained.
When describing his own footy, it is no surprise to see him nominate Rory Sloane and Joel Selwood as AFL influences to the way he plays. On the inside he hunts the ball and craves contact, has clean hands and uses his elite agility to evade and escape traffic. He has improved dramatically on the outside as stated earlier, getting in more offensively dangerous positions and using his pace to greater advantage. He is extremely underrated overhead and will often fly into aerial contests with absolutely no consideration for his safety. That is where the Selwood comparisons come in, along with leadership and a rare ability to lift himself and his teammates when a game is on the line with inspiring actions. He is light at 76kg, but proved that he can mix it with senior AFL bodies during a VFL game for Casey and has plenty of physical development in his 182cm frame.
He has some elite athletic traits too. At the recent state combine, he finished second in the agility test with an 8.25 second run and was even faster earlier in the year with a time of 7.81 seconds. He finished ninth with a 21.1 level Yo-Yo test to prove his endurance and ran a 2.97 second 20 metre sprint at the TAC Cup testing day.
Porter is also extremely honest when talking about areas of improvement.
“My disposal, especially by foot, is something I’ve been constantly working on and I think is something that’s been a knock on me. That is something I’ve recognised and something I can never stop improving or working on,” he stated.
In saying that, his kicking efficiency and decisions by foot were some of the key reasons he developed so quickly on the outside in 2017. There is also scope to win higher disposal tallies on a more consistent basis, but an average of 21.15 touches over 19 games in a low possession side is still good going.
Callum Porter has produced a very solid body of evidence to suggest he has the ability and attitude to succeed at AFL level and the clubs have taken note. While there are absolutely no guarantees in AFL land, he has been in contact with seven clubs, six of which have visited him at home in Officer. The interest includes Melbourne, Gold Coast, Geelong, Essendon, Doggies and GWS, while Hawthorn has gone as far as providing a tour around Waverley. One thing is guaranteed. If a club does select Porter, it will know that it is taking a player that will do everything possible to succeed. He is a “leave no stone unturned” footballer and will make a better fist of making a career than almost every other prospect available.