Brisbane’s Dayne Zorko is the league’s best-kept secret

And yet Zorko, despite being All-Australian in 2017, remains rather underappreciated outside of his home state, despite being a legitimate star of the competition.

Give his coach Chris Fagan a chance to speak about him and he never fails.
“He’s been great. His enthusiasm is infectious, he’s a can-do sort of a guy and that rubs off on everybody else,” he said on Thursday.

“The other excellent part about his leadership is he leads from the front defensively, he’s one of the better defensive players in the AFL, if you look at his statistics.”

So: at present, Zorko is second in the competition for tackles, with 87, three behind West Coast’s Elliott Yeo. He’s first for tackles inside 50, with 27, one ahead of Hawthorn’s Paul Puopolo.

He’s also ranked first competition-wide for pressure acts, fifth for goal assists and 12th for metres gained. These are the kinds of numbers that make him a coach’s dream, far more than his rating of 11th in the competition according to the AFL’s overall statistical rankings.

But the 30-year-old is trying to improve another part of his game: his captaincy. And in his leadership, he’s followed a similar path to coaches Damien Hardwick (Richmond) and Collingwood’s Nathan Buckley.

“Probably the biggest tool I’ve added is the ability to listen and to give other people a voice,” he says. “When Dayne [Beams] stood down, I felt like I took control a bit and tried to steady the ship somewhat.

“Obviously getting re-elected this year and having a very similar leadership group, just adding a few players in, just meant being able to delegate and let other people take roles and really developing their leadership.”

Zorko has never been backward in coming forward. Again, this is how he plays his footy. But he’s learned to temper his attacking instincts.

“When I was in the leadership group, I obviously had my strong opinions. I felt like they were the right things,” he says. “But 48 people plus coaches, there’s a lot of great ideas out there. Sometimes the best thing to do is just listen.”

This is where Luke Hodge, in his final season after being lured out of a brief retirement by Fagan, has also come in. “He backs me up, supports my decisions. He’s obviously done it at the highest level under the highest pressure.”

It’s a upward curve matched by his team, which has had two weeks to sit on an unexpected loss to Carlton, who are on their own trajectory.

“It certainly hurt,” Zorko says. “It hurts more when you’ve got a six-goal lead and you let that fall away right in front of your eyes.”

But he is quick to credit the Blues, who he says “played with no fear”, led by a rampant Patrick Cripps (Zorko, all of 175 centimetres, describes trying to find a match for the 195-centimetre Cripps that day as “not ideal … He’s certainly got a bright future ahead of him, hasn’t he?”)

It left the Lions at seven wins and five losses, and a lot less assured of a top-eight spot than they seemed, making today’s game against St Kilda almost a must-win. But Zorko talks a bigger picture than finals. It’s a decade since the Lions made them, and he hasn’t played one.

“We’ve won seven games in the first half of the year,” he says. “We’d won five the year before, five the year before that, maybe four the year before that. So it’s fantastic that we’ve been able to win seven games.”

Constant overall improvement is the theme. “I guess this year we’ve had a lot more highs, which is fantastic, and hopefully that trend keeps continuing. We understand it’s not going to just happen for us, we need to keep working.

“We want to be the best. Just because we win a game, you’re never guaranteed anything, you need to constantly improve and the day you stop improving is the day it starts spiralling down.”

And with the interview over, Zorko – like he’s just been passed the ball – bolts through a crack in the captain’s room door, and starts spiralling down the stairs, racing to get to his son’s birthday party.

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