WHEN Sam Walsh spent three years living in Darwin growing up, the footy-mad youngster would sell copies of the local Record outside games for the Northern Territory Football League.
The Walsh family relocated to the Top End for three years from 2010-12 as Sam’s father Wayne took up a job with AFL NT. Going to games every weekend became Sam’s routine.
“I’d make a bit of pocket money, and then once games would start I’d finish up and get a pie and a can of coke and watch the games,” Carlton’s NAB AFL Rising Star told AFL.com.au this week.
One time, ex-Blues star Brendan Fevola, then playing in the competition for Waratah, stopped to buy a Record. Or so Walsh thought.
“He picked it up from me and had a read through it, and checked if he was on the front cover or not and then gave it back to me. It was pretty funny,” Walsh recalled. “I was a bit star-struck and then I thought he was going to buy it off me and maybe give me a tip, but he just gave it back.”
Walsh returns to Darwin this week in something of a parallel universe. This time he, not Fevola, is the Blues’ gun, and this time he will be running out onto TIO Stadium as Carlton takes on Gold Coast in the opening game of Sir Doug Nicholls Round on Friday night.
“I never really thought I’d be able to play an AFL game up there. I played a lot of junior footy at TIO and got to meet a lot of great people, so I’m looking forward to it,” the 20-year-old said.
Walsh’s time in Darwin was important in his evolution as a player.
He remembers the heat and humidity of the Territory, but also the open and “flairy” brand of footy that was played. It was where his representative career begun, playing for Northern Territory in back-to-back under-12s state carnivals against the likes of Rhylee West (Western Bulldogs), Curtis Taylor (North Melbourne) and current Carlton teammate Finbar O’Dwyer, who were on opposing Victorian sides.
It was also where he immersed himself in the game. In the winter competition, Walsh would play in the under-12s side. Once the NTFL season started, he played in the under-14s Nightcliffe team – as an 11-year-old.
Often the junior side would play at TIO Stadium before the main games, so Walsh will be familiar with the surrounds against the Suns.
“They didn’t bring the boundary line in for those games either, which might have helped with my endurance,” he said. “It was a big ground to cover but it’s pretty open and it suited some free-flowing footy. I think this week might be a bit different, Gold Coast like a contest so we’ll be up for that as well.
“Those three years being in Darwin shaped my footy a fair bit. I was pretty fortunate to have footy all year round. To go back to a place that’s helped my footy a lot as a junior and where I really started to grow a love for the game is going to be pretty cool.”
Walsh will hit the game in good form, too. He gathered 24 disposals and kicked a goal in Carlton’s last-ditch win over Fremantle last week, following 20 touches and a goal the previous week against West Coast. He has booted five goals from Carlton’s previous five games as he becomes accustomed to a new role almost permanently on a wing for the Blues.
Champion Data statistics show Walsh has spent 85 per cent of this season playing on the wing, compared to 9 per cent in the midfield and 6 per cent in attack. By contrast, he played 48 per cent of last year as a wingman and 36 in the midfield.
Despite being outside the centre square rather than right in the middle of it, the No.1 draft pick’s numbers remain similar to last year’s brilliant debut season.
Walsh said heading away with the Blues to the Gold Coast, then to Perth, then back to the Gold Coast and now to Darwin, had given him a chance to focus on how he wanted to finish this year.
“Coming up here, I just wanted to reset. I probably wasn’t playing the way I wanted to early in the year, and I think I’m just back to playing to my strengths and really using my endurance and reading of the game to help me out and get me involved,” he said.
“Off the field I’ve been doing a bit of stuff to keep on building on my strength, which is a big focus area for me and probably will be for the next couple of years.
“But even little things like trying to get forward more and impact the scoreboard has been a bit of a focus for me.”
Extra time with teammates has also led to other things, like devising goal celebrations. Walsh’s on the weekend – when he extended his arms to his waist after slotting the goal – was a homage to an NBA star.
“LeBron James does the odd celebration where he pumps the bent leg and I did a smaller version of that. Especially with the basketball being back on TV, it was a bit of a tribute to LeBron,” he said.
“We always have a bit of fun during the week around what our celebrations will be or our favourite celebrations, so it just popped into the mind and I went for it. It got a little bit of airtime.”