If you’ve watched Sam Walsh play over recent years, you can understand why he looms as the hot Pick 1 favourite for next week’s AFL national draft.
Composed with the ball? Tick. Can hit the scoreboard? Wins the ball inside and outside? Tick, tick. Excellent work ethic? Massive tick. Leader? Tick.
But perhaps the biggest box Walsh ticks is the one next to ‘passionate about footy’ — because you mightn’t find a bigger footy nut this draft class.
Walsh’s journey to Pick 1 favouritism has encountered a few bumps. But it’s how Walsh has rebounded that has impressed those close to him.
In this one-on-one chat with foxfooty.com.au, Walsh discusses the prospect of joining Carlton, his incredible Darwin footy experience and the subpar Under 16 carnival that sparked a grand surge up draft boards.
Ben Waterworth: OK, imagine I’m Brendon Bolton at the lectern. “With Pick 1, Carlton selects Player 123456, Sam Walsh of the Geelong Falcons” – sounds pretty good, right?
Sam Walsh (with an awkward smile): Well the Pick 1 favouritism is something you don’t take lightly, but I try not to think about it too much because it’s out of my control. I honestly try to go week by week, as cliche as it sounds, and I think that’s held me in pretty good stead for this year.
But would you like to go Pick 1?
It’d be nice, but it’s just a goal to get drafted and I know there’s a lot of great players in this draft. To be picked up anywhere and get the opportunity would be awesome.
The Blues did rock up at your doorstep last month. Went smoothly?
I enjoyed the experience. Carlton were great and they presented well. They’ve got a really young list and looking to build.
Last year you lined up alongside Paddy Dow for Vic Country when you played as a 17-year-old. Next year you could do it again in navy blue …
Paddy was great to play with last year. To watch him on the big stage and see how well he did at Carlton this year was really impressive. It’d be awesome to play alongside him.
You’re not a Carlton fan though and you don’t go for the Cats either, despite growing up in Victorian’s south-west. How and why are you a Brisbane Lions man?
So Dad’s twin brothers, who are younger than him, they were mad Fitzroy growing up. When I was born, they brainwashed me and took me to a lot of AFL games when Brisbane were up and about and winning lots. It probably made my decision a bit easier. And growing up in the south-west with Jonathan Brown, you look up to him and it’s pretty cool.
Have you had anything to do with Browny?
Not much, but I love watching him in the media now. He just has that passion for the game and passion for Brisbane, so you can’t help but respect him.
Tell me where your passion for the game started? When did you realise you wanted to do footy full-time?
It was always a goal growing up in Cobden. Gary Rohan and Ben Cunnington were coming through at the time when I was six, seven, eight years old. You watched AFL but you thought ‘that’s the distant goal’. But when you see people that you’ve been associated with achieve it, it gives you hope. I remember coming to watch them both at Etihad Stadium at the Under 18 champs and they’re the things you strive to get. From an early age, it was always back of mind that’s what I wanted to do and as I progressed and started to take my footy pretty seriously, that sort of thing early on got me into the position I’m in now.
Do you keep in contact with Gary and Ben?
Dad was coaching Gary and Ben down at Cobden, so I was always saw them around the footy club. They keep in contact with Dad and also see them around. I remember the AFL Academy played against North Melbourne in the VFL this year and you’re running out on the ‘G and you see Ben Cunnington on the sidelines and he gives you the thumbs up. To see them do so well at AFL level is something you don’t take lightly. They’ve been so supportive through the journey with a few messages that probably doesn’t take them much but it means a lot to me.
How influential has your dad been on your footy journey? He seems to have ample footy experience.
He’s watched me play since I was very young and he knows all my strengths and what I can keep on working on, so it’s good to recap with him on those things. He used to play a fair bit in the Hampden League growing up in that south-west area then he got involved in coaching at a pretty young age and was playing-coach for a while there.
Speaking of young age, you had a pretty big move north before you’d even reached high school.
Yeah we moved up to Darwin for three years and Dad worked in the AFL up there and coached a lot of Under 16s teams. A few of the boys playing AFL footy now, like Willie Rioli, he’s seen come through.
I imagine it would’ve been a pretty eye-opening experience for a young kid moving from a south-west Victorian country town to the top of the country.
Yeah but culturally it was just an awesome experience. I went up there not really knowing what to expect, I was only 10-years-old and pretty young. But the things you learn culturally and how different it is, even the lifestyle, I definitely learnt a lot of things and it’s put me in good stead.
Is this around the time footy started to get serious for you?
I was always involved in a lot of Auskick down in Cobden. But I got up to Darwin in the wet season and Under 14s started then. I was 11 years old playing in the Under 14s, so thrown into the deep end there …
To say the least …
It was good though, because in the dry season it’d be the junior comp like the Under 10s and Under 12s and I went to the Under 12s. It was footy all-year round for me but I loved it. The opportunities I got through school sport and to play with some great players at 12 years old that are doing great things now like Brandon Parfitt and Zac Bailey – to see where they’re at now it’s pretty awesome.
Did playing all-year round turn you into a footy nut?
Definitely. From a young age being around local footy in Cobden, I’ve always loved my AFL footy and a lot of my mates love their footy as well. But footy all year round, you just learn to love it. You can’t get enough of it, really.
What do you love about the game the most?
Definitely the relationships you make in football – that’s massive. I love working hard for a goal and that feeling you get after a win or achieving something special, it’s something you can’t really articulate. But you see what footy means to a lot of people and what makes it so enjoyable.
Well you’re the Pick 1 favourite for a reason. For a person that hasn’t seen you play before, how would you describe yourself as a player?
I’d like to think that I work extremely hard out on the field. I’m a good decision-maker, pretty composed and like to get from contest to contest.
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A few on-lookers have compared you to Adam Treloar.
I like to look at Adam’s game and I really like him as a player with his clearance work and his inside and outside mix of winning the footy. That really stands out.
I suppose many people will concentrate on your 2018 campaign, but your rise to Pick 1 favouritism really gathered momentum last year. How satisfying was it to do so well in 2017 to set you up for your draft year?
It’s a good point. Playing Under 16s national carnival for Vic Country really made me realise the level I’ve got to get to. I was still pretty light then but I knew if I put in the big pre-season I’d hopefully have a consistent TAC Cup year. I didn’t really know what to expect, but to be in a good team with some great training throughout that off-season with Dan O’Keefe down at the Falcons, I felt pretty prepared and took my game to another level, playing both inside and outside and using my running ability to find the footy and be a contributor.
Did you do anything different over the pre-season to set you up?
I tried to develop my strength and also keep my running up to a high standard and did a fair bit of work on my kicking. I just tried to keep well-rounded and touching the footy as much as I could with a lot of craft work. I wanted to take my clearance and inside work to another level. I think that’s what holds me in good stead now is my balance between inside and outside football. I knew in 2018 I was going to be targeted a little bit more and my strength over the contest with the footy needed to be high. It’s the little things you pick up on that turn into big moments in games.
You captained Australia, you captained the Geelong Falcons and you captained Vic Country – all in the same year. How significant is it be a captain of young men in these settings?
In a lot of teams I’ve been involved in, there’s been a lot of great leaders that probably could’ve got the opportunities like me. But I was fortunate enough to be voted captain of Australia – that’s pretty surreal. From there, I’ve tried to work with a lot of different people to develop my leadership. I’ve been involved in a few teams where we haven’t been getting results that we wanted, which made for a good challenge and you look to work on different things in your leadership.
And you’ve captained nearly every side but you’ve won nearly every award possible, including the Larke medal. That trophy cabinet must be pretty full.
It’s looking alright … but I’ve been pretty lucky with the awards I’ve won. There’s a lot of great players playing out there, so the awards you win you don’t take lightly. It’s not what you play footy for, but it’s what comes off the back of hard work. This year has been a pretty good year individually, but there’s a lot of people that you play around that help you to make it happen.
Were you a bit stiff not to win the Morrish Medal?
Nah they got that pretty right. We played against Liam Stocker and a few of those boys that finished up the top that had great years.
Last one: 12 months ago, did you think you’d be in the position you’re in now?
Probably not, but I’ve always tried to think that I’ve worked really hard for the goal. In many of the programs I’ve been involved in, I’d like to think that I’ve developed my game pretty well with the help of a lot of people. That’s put me in good stead into the position that I’m in now. I’ve always had a dream to be where I’m at now, but for it to be a reality is another thing. I’m pinching myself a little bit.