The Tom Rockliff decision – Carlton or Port Adelaide?

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    AFL free agency opens for 2017 on Friday, and while the year has seen the list of prospective free agents whittled down significantly, there are still some big names there, including former Brisbane Lions captain Tom Rockliff.

    For the next few days I’m going to look at one player who might move clubs in detail per day. For those who have been following my list management series, I’ll be looking at Adelaide and Richmond after the trade period. For now, let’s talk Tom Rockliff.

    Footy changes pretty quickly – a few years ago I would’ve said with confidence that Rockliff would be a Lion for life. The passion and loyalty he showed for the club in those days was second to none.

    Now instead a bloke who once took a parting shot at players leaving the club on Twitter is set to walk out himself, with the word being that unless something changes dramatically soon, he’ll be playing at either Port Adelaide or Carlton next year.

    Why has this happened? We can only speculate, but personally I suspect that Brisbane have played some if not most of the role in Rockliff’s decision to leave.

    They’re aware that Rockliff leaving by free agency, netting them a top 20 compensation pick, is probably the best thing for the club, and that may well have led them to put in front of him a contract offer designed to prompt thoughts of more lucrative possibilities elsewhere.

    Footy isn’t entirely a business, but it’s at least a little partially a business, and even a romantic loyalist knows how to read the writing on the wall – and when it’s a young man starting a family, a larger financial offer is the sensible decision rather than a greedy one.

    It’s taken some time for likely destinations to emerge however. Port Adelaide were first mentioned a few months ago, Carlton only in the past few weeks.

    Rockliff has gone through the classic cycle in the AFL of being underrated, to being overrated, to now being so often criticised as overrated that he’s become underrated again.

    He’s a game-mashing inside midfielder who can win clearances and rack up possession like few others – and he’s not a bad pinch-hitter up forward, either. He is a limited player in some respects but what he’s good at, he’s very good at, and you know he’ll deliver with consistency and reliability.


    (AAP Image/Joe Castro)

    For this reason alone he’s a perfect fit at Carlton. They’re looking for mature midfielders who can protect the kids long enough for them to develop, and Rockliff offers this in spades.

    He’ll be 28 when the next season starts so it’s reasonable to ask if he’s at all likely to play in Carlton’s next premiership. Conventional wisdom would say no, but conventional wisdom hasn’t gotten a flag right in at least two years.

    However Rockliff isn’t just a logical fit for Carlton in an on-field sense – he’s also an acquisition that, despite his age, makes perfect sense for their overall list strategy.

    When I reviewed Carlton’s list in August I said that the best move this offseason would be for the Blues to trade Bryce Gibbs and sign Tom Rockliff to replace a decent portion of his output. To toot my own horn a little, this was before news of Carlton having a genuine interest came out.

    It’s simple logic – trading Bryce Gibbs will net the Blues draft picks, but because Rockliff is a free agent, signing him won’t cost them any. If the Blues can spin whatever they get for Gibbs into a trade for Devon Smith and Matthew Kennedy, then they’re effectively getting three quality players (two of them quite young) for one – it’s got my thumbs up.

    As for Port Adelaide, they would certainly benefit from having Rockliff in the side but personally, I don’t believe he is the smart choice for them to recruit.

    They’ve got some great contested ball winners already and while it’s always handy to add more depth in that area, they surely only have so much more room in the salary cap to spend, and have to do this on their top priorities.

    For mine, their number one focus should be finding more players who can kick goals – and unless they plan to reinvent Rockliff as a high half forward, which isn’t the worst idea but not the best one either, this should probably rule him out.

    On top of that, signing Rockliff – or Steven Motlop for that matter – will immediately cancel out any free agency compensation they might have otherwise received for the impending departure of Jackson Trengove.

    That would only be worth a second-round pick at best but in a season where Port have already traded away their first-round pick, something, anything, is better than nothing.

    Whether it’s a wise move or not it appears that Port certainly are putting in an offer to Rockliff, but they’re also reportedly targetting Motlop and Jack Watts, and I doubt they’ve got the salary cap space available to bring in all three.

    Tom Rockliff Brisbane Lions AFL 2017

    (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

    As for Rockliff’s perspective the decision likely comes down to two factors – the chances of onfield success, and the best choice for the future of his young family.

    In nine seasons and 154 games Rockliff has never had the chance to play in a finals match, never even gotten close really, and so the chance to have some immediate success is something that will surely be tempting.

    That is obviously more likely at Port Adelaide than it is at Carlton, given the respective finishes of both clubs last year, though if Rockliff can play out another four or five years he’s every chance of experiencing September footy at the Blues.

    He has to be aware that Carlton are not recruiting him with the idea of him being a premiership player however, but as a mature player who can guide a developing young generation.

    Port Adelaide on the other hand very much are looking at him as someone who could play a premiership side as soon as 2018.

    As for what the best choice is for Rockliff on a financial level, this is something we can only speculate on without knowing the strength of the relevant offers. Carlton would certainly have the salary cap room available to make a larger offer than Port Adelaide, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they have.

    Carlton may also have some appeal as being located in Rockliff’s native Victoria, which would presumably place Rockliff much closer to the rest of his family than Port Adelaide, a consideration which goes beyond the financial component of the deal.

    My tip? Port Adelaide have many targets this year and surely cannot afford all of them, so they will have to work out an order of priority at some point. If Rockliff is not at the top of it, then he will most likely sign a deal with the Blues.

    Expect that to land Brisbane either an end-of-first-round or second-round compensation draft pick. Given they finished on the bottom of the ladder, it makes no difference – they’ll have picks 18 and 19 either way.

    Josh Elliott
    Josh Elliott

    Josh Elliott may be The Roar's Weekend Editor, but at heart he's just a rusted-on North Melbourne tragic with a penchant for pun headlines - and also abnormal alliteration, assuredly; assuming achievability. He once finished third in a hot chilli pie eating contest. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshElliott_29 and listen to him on The Roar's AFL Podcast.