St Kilda defender Sam Gilbert’s journey from starting Australian Rules Football in his mid-teens to reaching 200 AFL games

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Tonight defender Sam Gilbert becomes the 30th player in St Kilda’s 121 year VFL/AFL history to play 200 games for the Saints when he reaches this milestone in the club’s Round 6 game against Tasmania at University of Tasmania Stadium. Gilbert grew up deep in Rugby territory in Northern New South Wales and Southern Queensland and did not start playing Australian Rules Football until he was 15 years old. Several of the skills Gilbert had picked up playing Rugby League such as evasiveness, tackling, running ability and reading of the play transferred very well to Australian Rules, he made an immediate impression in his new sport and amazingly after his first game he was selected in a Gold Coast representative under-16 team.

Gilbert is the only player on St Kilda’s 2018 list that has played in a Grand Final for the Saints having played in all three that the Saints have contested in the last decade comprised of one Grand Final in 2009 and two Grand Finals in 2010. On Saturday Gilbert joins 10 of his team-mates from these sides in having played 200 games for the St Kilda Football Club, being Nick Riewoldt (336 games), Lenny Hayes (297), Leigh Montagna (287), Stephen Milne (275), Nick Dal Santo (260), Sam Fisher (228), Jason Blake (219),  Brendon Goddard (205), Steven Baker (203) and Justin Koschitzke (200). With close to 1,600 players having represented the Saints Gilbert’s feat in becoming the 30th player to reach 200 games places him in the top 2% for games played in the club’s history.

Two of Gilbert’s team-mates also reach milestones tonight with Blake Acres and Jack Sinclair each playing their 50th AFL games. Gilbert is the most experienced player on St Kilda’s list ahead of four other players that have played over 150 AFL games being, Saints captain Jarryn Geary (168), Jack Steven (159), Nathan Brown (157), David Armitage (155) whilst another five players on the Saints list have played between 100 and 150 AFL games.

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Earlier this afternoon ‘A message for Gilbo’ was posted on saints.com.au with several of Sam’s  friends sending him messages of support on reaching the milestone of playing 200 games. Former team-mate Leigh Montagna commented “I don’t think I have ever met someone as hard working on the field as you, probably up there with Shina (Sean Dempster) as the two blokes who stand out for me for pure effort. You have been a privilege to play with. I will never forget the Grand Final (2010) when you turned the game for us after half-time going forward. It was a privilege to play a lot of football with you and you are an even better bloke, so that’s all-important mate.” St Kilda Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Matt Finnis said “You have been a wonderful leader, for our footy club, an ambassador for our game and a wonderful example that you set for our young players coming through. Couldn’t think of a player that more deserves to reach that 200 game milestone and hopefully we get a win for you on the weekend.”

As a junior Gilbert played Australian Rules Football with Coolangatta-Tweed Blues. After narrowly missing out on being selected in the Queensland under-16 and under-18 teams for the National Championships Gilbert thought that he had no chance of making it onto an AFL list, however this may have been a blessing in disguise as he didn’t place as much pressure on himself and relaxed more playing for Southport in the Queensland Australian Football League (QAFL). Impressive performances as a running defender for Southport led to him being selected in Queensland’s under-21 team, and after playing an outstanding game in Queensland’s upset victory against Western Australia and winning the 2005 QAFL Rising Star award playing for Southport Gilbert was considered a very strong chance to be selected at the 2005 Australian Football League (AFL) National Draft.

The St Kilda Football Club selected 19 year-old Gilbert with a late second-round draft pick at the 2005 National Draft, and after playing just two games in his debut AFL season in 2006 Gilbert showed significant improvement in 2007 to cement himself in St Kilda’s best side, playing the last 18 games of the season.

From 2008 to 2010 St Kilda had one of the most successful periods in the club’s history, finishing in the top four during all three home and away seasons and making the preliminary Final in 2008 and Grand Finals in 2009 and 2010. With his creativity, ability to read the play to gain intercept possessions, and willingness to break the lines and use his evasiveness to full effect when in possession Sam Gilbert was a key player for St Kilda over this period, highlighted by being selected in the All-Australian squad of 40 in 2009 and finishing equal third in St Kilda’s 2010 best and fairest.

In July 2011 left-footer Gilbert played his 100th AFL game, just five years and one and a half months after making his AFL debut, a remarkably quick progression for any player, let alone one that didn’t start playing Australian Rules football he was 16 years old. Gilbert was the ninth player selected at the 2005 National Draft to reach 100 AFL games, six of the players that reached this milestone before him were selected in the first round at the 2005 draft, being Marc Murphy (selection 1), Dale Thomas (2), Scott Pendlebury (5), Patrick Ryder (7), Nathan Jones (12) and Grant Birchall (14). The two selections late in the draft that played their 100th game before Gilbert were Matthew Stokes who was selected with pick 61 by Geelong and Joel Patfull, selected by Brisbane with pick 56.

In a period of just under five years from Round 12 2008 to Round 6 2013 Gilbert was extremely durable, playing 112 of a possible 116 games for St Kilda. In the two years and two and a half months from Round 7 2013 onwards Gilbert had a shocking run of injuries, including knee, and left foot which resulted in him playing just nine of a possible 48 games for the Saints from Round 7 2013 to Round 10 2015. In his sixth season in the AFL Gilbert played his 100th AFL game in Round 15 2011, four years later and after a couple of long-term injuries he reached his next milestone, 150 games, in Round 15 2015.

Since making his return half-way through the 2015 season Gilbert has had a good run with injuries and it took him only two and a half seasons to advance from 150 to 200 AFL games. Whilst Gilbert has mainly played as a defender with an ability to play on talls and smalls, he has been used in many other roles throughout his career depending on what the Saints needed from him at that point in time which has led to him spending some time in the forward-line, midfield and even as a back-up ruckman. In eight seasons from 2007 to 2017 Gilbert played 18 games or more in a season, with the three exceptions below this mark being in a row, only managing a total of 26 games from 2013 to 2015 due to foot and knee injuries.

At a press conference on Thursday 26th April after being asked ‘What does it mean to you to get to the milestone?’ Gilbert responded “It means a lot, it was something I always had aspirations for, but for me personally I just want to be part of a successful side and hopefully we can continue the form we had last weekend.”

Gilbert was born on 19 August 1986, he grew up in the Northern New South Wales town Terranora, and moved to Southport with his family when he was 14. In his younger years Gilbert played Rugby League at junior level with the Bilambil Jets and it wasn’t until he was 16 years old that he converted to Australian Rule Football. Sam’s grandfather Jack Gilbert and great Grandfather Herb Gilbert played Rugby League for the St George Dragons in the National Rugby League (NRL). Jack Gilbert only played eight senior games for St George over two seasons, 1941 and 1946 having served for the Australian Army at World War II in the intervening years. Jack played in St George’s first NRL premiership in 1941 with his older brother Herb Junior who played 89 games for St George from 1938-1943. Herb Junior missed two seasons serving actively in the Australian Army during World War II, and then returned to Sydney after the war and played 45 games for the Balmain Tigers from 1946 to 1948. Jack and Herb Junior’s father, Herb Gilbert Senior (Sam’s great grandfather) had a long and distinguished career, representing Australia in both Rugby codes, he played three tests for the Wallabies (Rugby Union) in 1910 and seven tests for the Kangaroos (Rugby League) from 1911 to 1920 and was Australia’s captain in his last two tests for the Kangaroos. Herb Gilbert Senior played NRL for four Australian clubs between 1911-1912 and 1915-1921, he was captain-coach of St George during their inaugural season, 1921 and played Rugby League in England for Hull from 1912 to 1915. Herb Gilbert Senior represented New South Wales eight times and was named in the NRL/ARL official list of Australia’s Greatest 100 Rugby League players during the code’s first 100 years from 1908 to 2007.

Sam had natural sporting ability and was enrolled in the sports excellence program at Palm Beach- Currumbin High School. Several of the skills that Sam picked up from Rugby League such as his fierce tackling and his goosestep have been great assets during his career as an AFL footballer.

Although Gilbert was a talented junior Rugby League player several of his mates had a running joke with him that he was playing the wrong sport. Sam recalls, “Because I was tall and skinny I had a lot of mates who kept cracking jokes that I should be playing (Aussie rules).”1 Eventually Gilbert gave Australian Rules a go and made an instant impression even though he had some trouble adapting to some of the rules of his new sport and gave away a few free kicks for running too far without bouncing the ball in his first game. In his debut Australian Rules Football game Gilbert impressed with his running ability, evasiveness and his superb tackling to such an extent that he was selected to play in an under 16s representative team for Gold Coast. As his friends had joked to him it turned out that Gilbert was indeed better suited to playing Australian Rules Football than Rugby League, Gilbert also enjoyed playing his new sport more than Rugby League.

Despite being a late convert to Australian Rules Football Gilbert harboured ambitions to represent Queensland at under-age National Championships and ultimately play in the Australian Football League (AFL).  However, when he narrowly missed achieving his first ambition he thought his chances of making it in the AFL were also over. Gilbert comments “Once I got dropped from the under-18s, my footy probably improved because I was more relaxed. I still wanted to play at the highest level, but I was realistic and thought no one is going to draft a player who doesn’t make the Queensland state side, so I went back to Southport and enjoyed playing with my mates.”2

Although Gilbert didn’t have the opportunity to represent Queensland in the under 16 or under 18 National Championships his impressive form for Southport in the QAFL resulted in him being selected for a Queensland under 21 side that played against Western Australia. Gilbert was his state’s vice-captain for the game at Carrara Stadium attended by many AFL recruiters. In his profile in AFL Prospectus 2006 the comment about his game against Western Australia was that Gilbert “impressed in a key defensive role, finishing with 11 disposals and seven marks. His four contested grabs were a game-high and included three in the defensive 50, and his tally of five marks from opposition kicks indicates he reads the play well.”3  During 2005 Gilbert received positive feedback from several AFL clubs and there was discussion that he might get selected at the 2005 AFL National Draft. Queensland’s 2005 under 23 coach Jason Cotter commented on Gilbert in July 2009 “I reckon his rugby league background gave him confidence. He was always a good tackler, and when he’s playing, you still see it today. He loves to step off the left foot and that’s because, with league, the defence is coming front-on at you and you need to get around them and he’s still got that habit.”4

Gilbert won the QAFL Rising Star Award in 2005 playing as a defender for Southport and was impressive in the club’s Grand Final victory against Morningside to further enhance his draft prospects.

In the lead-up to the draft Gilbert was hoping to be selected by a Melbourne based club and this is what transpired with Gilbert being selected by the St Kilda with pick No. 33 at the 2005 National Draft, he was 194 centimetres tall and weighed 84 kilograms at the time of being drafted as a 19 year-old. St Kilda were surprised that a tall defender of Gilbert’s immense potential, even though he was a bit raw was still available at that stage of the draft. Gilbert was the first of four players selected by the Saints at the 2005 National Draft however the club didn’t have much success with the other three selections who between them went on to play 30 AFL games for St Kilda comprised of 29 by ruckman Michael Rix (selection 49) and one game for Justin Sweeney (selection 63) whilst Phillip Raymond (selection 71) didn’t play a game.

During 2004 and 2005 St Kilda had finished in the top four at the end of the home and away season and lost in a preliminary final in both seasons. In both seasons the team that defeated St Kilda in the preliminary final went on to win the Grand Final and in 2004 the Saints had lost on the penultimate weekend of the season by just six points to Port Adelaide in Adelaide. Across 2004 and 2005 the Saints won 30 of their 44 home and away games and won a final in each season. At the start of the 2006 season several of St Kilda’s players between 20 and 23 years of age had established themselves in the Saints best side including Nick Riewoldt then 23 years of age, Justin Koschitzke 23, Sam Fisher 23, Nick Dal Santo 22, Xavier Clarke 22, Matt Maguire 21, Luke Ball 21 and Brendon Goddard 20. Other talented young Saints yet to cement their place in St Kilda’s best side at the commencement of the 2006 season included Leigh Montagna 22 and Jason Gram 23. Players at St Kilda who were 25 years of age or older at the start of the 2006 season included two-time Brownlow Medallist Robert Harvey, Fraser Gehrig, Max Hudghton, Lenny Hayes, Steven Baker, Aaron Hamill, Stephen Milne and Andrew Thompson. Given that St Kilda had been one of the best performing clubs in the AFL during 2004 and 2005 and the depth of talent on the club’s list it was going to be difficult for Gilbert to get many senior opportunities during his first couple of seasons with the club.

Gilbert was named an emergency in Round 5 and Round 6 and made his AFL debut at 19 years of age in Round 8 against Carlton at the MCG in a 92 point victory for the Saints on 21 May 2006, having two kicks, two handballs and one mark from 59% game-time. Sam was dropped the following week and after being named an emergency for six consecutive games made his second AFL appearance for St Kilda in Round 18 against West Coast at Etihad Stadium. Gilbert was again dropped and spent the last three games of 2006 in the VFL. In 2006 Gilbert played two games averaging 64 minutes, 3.5 kicks, 3.0 handballs and 1.5 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 61.5%. From 15 games in the VFL during 2006 Gilbert was named in the best players five times, and although he improved throughout the season he was expected to spend most of 2007 in the VFL further developing his game. Sam Gilbert only played two AFL games during 2006, but was named as an emergency 12 times. Whilst Sam Gilbert only played two AFL games during 2006, he was frequently on the cusp of senior selection, being named as an emergency 12 times. Given that Gilbert had only commenced playing AFL at 16 years of age it was remarkable that he was able to make his AFL debut only three years later.

St Kilda finished sixth at the end of the 2006 home and away season and were defeated by Melbourne in an elimination final by 18 points. The St Kilda board who had expected more from the Saints reacted swiftly, sacking head coach Grant Thomas and replacing him with Ross Lyon who had served a lengthy apprenticeship as an assistant coach including the previous three seasons as midfield coach at Sydney.

Under Grant Thomas St Kilda played a free-flowing, attacking brand of football that resulted in the Saints posting high scores as indicated by the Saints being the highest scoring team during the 2005 home and away season and second highest in 2004, less than a goal behind the Brisbane Lions.

During the 2007 season Gilbert again commenced in the VFL, he made his first appearance for the year in the AFL in Round 5 and proceeded to cement his spot in the St Kilda line-up, playing all 18 remaining games. St Kilda tall defenders, Matt Maguire, Max Hudghton and Sam Fisher all suffered injuries at various stages of the season which resulted in greater responsibility being given to Gilbert and he didn’t disappoint. Against Hawthorn in Round 8 Gilbert had 14 kicks, five handballs, 10 marks, five rebound 50s, three inside 50s, three tackles and seven contested possessions. Gilbert received a Rising Star nomination for his Round 16 game in the 17 point victory over Hawthorn in which he had 16 kicks, six handballs, 12 marks and a game-high six rebound 50s in the 14th game of his AFL career opposed to Ben Dixon who in 2018 has a part-time role at St Kilda as the goal kicking coach. In Gilbert’s first 13 games he only had more than 17 disposals once, 19 disposals against Hawthorn in Round 8, however in four consecutive games starting with Round 16 against Hawthorn he had between 19 disposals and 23 disposals in each game. Twice in 2007 Gilbert took more than nine marks in a game, both times against Hawthorn, taking 10 marks in Round 8 followed by 12 marks in Round 16.

In 2007 Gilbert played 18 games for the Saints, averaging 108 minutes, 9.4 kicks, 4.7 handballs and 5.4 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 78.4%. Gilbert ranked fifth at St Kilda for tackles and rebound 50s in 2007, eighth for bounces, 10th for inside 50s, and equal 10th for marks. Gilbert won St Kilda’s most promising new player award, playing mainly as a rebounding defender, but also displayed promise in a short period of time playing in the forward line. Gilbert, deceptively tall at 194 cm is agile enough to play on small forwards, yet is also strong enough to play on the key forwards. Adding to his versatility is his ability to be a very damaging loose man in defense.

Gilbert exceeded expectations in 2007 by retaining his spot in the St Kilda side after playing his first game for the season in Round 5, his mobility for a player of his height and his decision making were his strengths. The profile of Gilbert in the AFL Prospectus 2008 highlighted just how integral he became to the St Kilda backline in 2007, despite starting the season with just two games of AFL experience, saying “In the games he played he ranked second at the Saints in spoils, third in marks, fourth in tackles and fifth in rebound 50s indicating he has the foundation to become an elite running defender. He was given added responsibility in the final month of the season, playing on half-forwards Ryan O’Keefe, Chris Judd and Brett Deledio, and conceded a respectable 20 goals for the season.”5

St Kilda won four of their first seven matches and then lost four games in a row by more than four goals. At the half-way mark of the 2007 season St Kilda found themselves languishing in 14th position with four wins, seven losses and a percentage of 85.2%, the horror run with injuries had taken a significant toll and the side was still adapting to a far more defensive game style under Ross Lyon. The strategy implemented by Ross Lyon in 2007 and refined in later years was clearly focused more on defensive pressure all over the ground, following the systems in place and relied more on each player performing their role and less on individual brilliance than the St Kilda sides that were coached by Grant Thomas.

Whilst St Kilda’s run with injuries wasn’t great in the second half of the season it was still an improvement on the first half of the season and the Saints improved dramatically to win five out of six games from Round 12 onwards to be outside the eight on percentage after 17 rounds. St Kilda had two wins, a draw and two losses in the final five rounds of the home and away season to finish in ninth position with 11 wins, 10 losses and a draw, only two premiership points and percentage behind the eighth placed Adelaide Crows. Whilst the Saints had missed the finals for the first time since 2003 they had shown significant improvement in the second half of the season, finding a better balance between defense and attack. St Kilda averaged 96 points per game in the second half of the 2007 season, a 22 point improvement on the first half of the season.

Gilbert played in the 2008 pre-season premiership against the Adelaide Crows and went on to play 19 of a possible 25 games during the 2008 season, missing six games from Round 6 to Round 11 with a shoulder injury. Showing just how highly rated Gilbert was at St Kilda, he was brought straight back into the St Kilda side when he returned from his shoulder injury when normally a player after spending an extended period of time on the sidelines would return through the VFL, especially a player who had just 25 games AFL experience when he sustained the injury as was the case with Gilbert. Sam’s shoulder injury had an adverse effect on his game and in particular his tackling which dropped from 3.5 tackles per game in 2007 to 1.6 tackles per game in 2008. Gilbert’s confidence in his shoulder increased as the season progressed which led to improvement in his tackling and marking late in the season which also had a positive impact on the rest of his game. Gilbert had more than eight marks in a game four times in 2008, all after Round 19.

St Kilda won eight of their last 10 matches of 2008 to finish the home and away season in fourth position. The Saints after not being in the top four since Round 2 defeated Essendon by 108 points in the final round to sneak into fourth position with 13 wins and 109.74 per cent, less than 1 per cent ahead of the fifth placed Adelaide Crows.

Eventual runner-up Geelong defeated St Kilda by 58 points in the qualifying final. The following week St Kilda defeated Collingwood by 34 points in a semi final at the MCG. Playing in his first finals victory in the AFL Gilbert had his best game of the season, having 15 kicks, five handballs, 12 marks, 11 contested possessions which was an equal game-high with Lenny Hayes, and also took a game-high five contested marks, utilising his superb reading of the play and marking ability to full effect. The 2008 semi final against Collingwood was the Saints first finals victory since  defeating Adelaide in the 2005 qualifying final at Adelaide Oval a couple of months before Gilbert was drafted by St Kilda.

In 2008 Gilbert played 19 games averaging 111 minutes, 7.9 kicks, 4.9 handballs and 4.8 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 78.3%. Gilbert ranked ninth at St Kilda for rebound 50s, and equal sixth for contested marks. Gilbert’s size, speed and versatility allowed the Saints to use him in several different roles during 2008 depending on opposition match-ups, however the type of player he was opposed to the most was a mid-sized forward. Gilbert’s disposals per games dropped from 14.2 in 2007 to 12.8 in 2008, however this decrease was largely due to being used in roles which required him to focus more on the defensive side of his game and less on the attacking side of his game.

Gilbert spent some time playing as a third tall forward during the 2009 pre-season and St Kilda planned to continue with this tactic during the home and away season, however a calf injury to key defender Max Hudghton before Round 1 meant that St Kilda didn’t have as many quality tall defenders in the side as they would have liked. Due to St Kilda’s injury problems Gilbert played in his usual spot on the half back line during Round 1. Gilbert flourished during the 2009 season whilst continuing to play at half-back and his stint as a half-forward during the 2009 pre-season may have given him a greater insight into what was required to be effective half forward. This knowledge allowed him to make some minor improvements to his game once he was playing on half forwards during the 2009 home and away season.

Against Sydney in the 15 point Round 1 victory at Etihad Stadium Gilbert was superb, having 16 kicks, four handballs, nine marks, a game-high seven rebound 50s – three more than the second ranked player, an equal game-high two contested marks and one goal assist to receive one Brownlow Medal vote in his 40th AFL game, the first vote of his career.

In the first nine rounds of 2009 Gilbert had at least 18 disposals in every game including a then career-high 29 disposals in the 88 point win against Collingwood in Round 7 at Etihad Stadium, in this game Gilbert excelled with his hard-running as well as his ball-winning ability to have 17 kicks, 12 handballs, 10 marks, five rebound 50s, four inside 50s, an equal team-high four clearances, two contested marks and a then career-high 11 contested possessions. Gilbert had been in rich form leading up to Round 9 against Collingwood and in the four games from Round 6 to Round 9 Gilbert was named in St Kilda’s best five players in the official AFL records three times, with the only exception being Round 8 against Essendon.

Gilbert missed Round 11 with a back injury and returned to the St Kilda side in Round 12, playing his 50th AFL game at 22 years of age against Carlton. St Kilda won their first 13 games of the season, which is a rare feat for one club to achieve in a season, amazingly two clubs achieved this in 2009 with Geelong also winning all of their games in the first 13 rounds. In Round 14 these two sides, both in phenomenal form played each other at Etihad Stadium in one of the most anticipated home and away games of all-time. Amazingly the game not just reached, but surpassed the unbelievably high expectations with both sides playing attacking, skilful, high intensity football where the tackling and pressure applied to the ball carrier was absolutely immense. St Kilda won a high quality, entertaining game in thrilling fashion by six points after ruckman Michael Gardiner took a spectacular mark deep in St Kilda’s forward line and kicked the set-shot goal to break the deadlock with little more than a minute remaining. Sam played a critical role across half-back in the Saints victory against Geelong, having 17 kicks, 10 handballs, nine marks, six tackles, five rebound 50s, three bounces and 10 contested possessions.

In two of Sam’s next three games he also had more than 26 disposals, having 27 disposals against Adelaide in Round 16, followed by 30 disposals and a team-high 12 contested possessions against the Western Bulldogs in Round 17. In four games from his 52nd game onwards against Geelong in Round 14 Gilbert had at least 27 disposals three times, surpassing the two times he achieved 27 disposals or more in his first 51 games. Gilbert missed Rounds 18 and 19 with a back injury, but played the remaining six games of the season including three finals.

In winning their first 19 games of the 2009 home and away season St Kilda set a new club record for consecutive wins, surpassing their streak of winning their first 10 games of the 2004 season. The Saints 2009 winning streaking ended with a two point loss to Essendon in Round 20 and they lost another thriller the following week to North Melbourne by five points. St Kilda returned to the winners list in Round 22 with a 47 point victory against Melbourne at the MCG. St Kilda recorded 20 wins and two losses during the 2009 home and away season to win the minor premiership, two games ahead of second placed Geelong with the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood both having 15 wins to finish third and fourth respectively.

St Kilda recorded an impressive 28 point qualifying victory against Collingwood at the MCG with Gilbert being named in St Kilda’s best players, having 15 kicks, seven handballs, nine marks, three rebound 50’s, one goal assist and laid four tackles. With the victory St Kilda had a week off and progressed to the preliminary final where they won a thrilling game by seven points against the Western Bulldogs at the MCG which was played at an extreme intensity with few easy possessions.    Against the Western Bulldogs Gilbert had eight kicks, 12 handballs, four marks, three rebound 50’s and six one percenters – ranked equal second for St Kilda.

With the preliminary final win St Kilda progressed to the 2009 Grand Final to play Geelong who they had defeated by six points in their only home and away encounter. Geelong had finished the home and away season in second position and were playing in their third successive Grand Final having defeated Port Adelaide by 119 points in 2007 and unexpectedly lost to Hawthorn by 26 points in 2008. The two matches between Geelong and St Kilda in 2009 were arguably the best two games of the entire season. Both encounters involved high intensity football where the tackling and pressure applied to the ball carrier was absolutely immense, watching these matches supporters felt surely both sides can’t continue playing football at such a high standard and maintain unbelievable pressure, but amazingly this is exactly what St Kilda and Geelong did twice.

St Kilda delivered their trademark unrelenting brand of football on Grand Final day but ultimately they could not produce the desired results in one of the most crucial areas – accuracy around goal. The Saints missed several easy opportunities when kicking for goal which ultimately cost them the game. St Kilda lost the game by 12 points with the Saints kicking nine goals, 14 behinds to Geelong’s 12 goals, eight behinds. In the Grand Final loss Gilbert had 12 kicks, six handballs, five marks, six tackles, five rebound 50’s, and was one of five Saints to play 100% game-time.

During 2009 Gilbert played 22 games, averaging 115 minutes, 13.1 kicks, 8.3 handballs and 7.0 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 80.0%. Gilbert was frequently matched up on the opposition’s most effective medium or small forward. Gilbert’s disposal efficiency rate of 80% during the 2009 season was a career-high, he ranked second at St Kilda for rebound 50s, fourth for marks and contested marks, seventh for bounces, eighth for kicks and disposals, ninth for uncontested possessions and 10th for contested possessions. The profile for Gilbert in the AFL Record Season Guide 2010 said “Of all the improvers at St Kilda over the past 12 months, Gilbert is the pick of the bunch. Despite being 194 cm, the versatile backman is agile and strong enough to match up on forwards of any size.”6

Gilbert’s rapid improvement was rewarded with his selection in the initial All-Australian squad of 40 and he finished eighth in St Kilda’s 2009 best and fairest behind the five 2009 All Australians who held the top five places being in order Riewoldt, Goddard, Montagna, Dal Santo and Hayes. Tagger  Clinton Jones and fellow defender Sam Fisher finished sixth and seventh respectively. Gilbert’s profile in AFL Prospectus 2010 said “He often played on the opposition’s most dangerous small or medium-sized forward, with his list of opponents including Ryan O’Keefe, Brad Johnson and Mark LeCras. He always backed himself in the air, taking the most marks from opposition kicks at the club and, despite missing three games, he also won the ball off the opposition more times than any other Saint, generating 124 points from turnovers – ranked No. 1 at the club.”7

The development of St Kilda’s mid tier players was critical to St Kilda’s significant improvement during the 2009 season, to go from fourth in 2008 a long way behind the top three sides to runners-up in 2009, having lost the Grand Final to Geelong by 12 points. It was Sam Gilbert that led the charge in this regard, not only was he the most improved Saint in 2009, he was one of the most improved players in the competition. Sam averaged 21.4 disposals per game in 2009, a 50.7% increase on his previous best of 14.2 disposals per game in 2007. Sam averaged 96 Champion Data ranking points in 2009, a 40 point increase on 2008 equating to an astronomical 71%, of the Saints that played at least five games in 2009 only five players averaged more Champion Data ranking points than Gilbert for the season, and highlighting the quality of these players all five were selected in the 2009 All-Australian team, being Leigh Montagna (wing), Lenny Hayes (centre), Nick Dal Santo (interchange), Brendon Goddard (interchange) and Nick Riewoldt (centre half-forward) who was named captain. In his 39 AFL games from 2006 to 2008 Gilbert had more than 19 disposals three times, amazingly Gilbert averaged more than 20 disposals per game in 2009 (21.4) and had more than 19 disposals 15 times in 2009. Of the players in the AFL that played at least 10 games during 2009 Gilbert ranked equal 13th with Travis Cloke for marks per game, with 7.0, the three Saints ahead of him were Nick Riewoldt (9.6 marks per game), Sam Fisher (7.7) and Jason Blake (7.6).

Against Sydney in Round 1 2010 left-footer Gilbert played a critical role in the Saints eight point win at Stadium Australia. When the Swans cut the margin to three points midway through the third quarter Sam Gilbert was used very effectively as a loose man in defense for St Kilda to have seven third quarter possessions as the Saints kicked the last three goals of the term. Gilbert provided drive from St Kilda’s defense and used the ball well to have a disposal efficiency of 81%, and finish the game with 14 kicks, seven handballs, a game-high 10 marks, four tackles, four rebound 50s and an equal team-high two contested marks.

In a Friday night Round 3 game against Collingwood at Docklands St Kilda courageously fought back to win by 28 points after trailing at half-time and losing captain Nick Riewoldt to a serious hamstring injury in the final minute of the first half. For the first and so far only time of his career Gilbert received the three Brownlow Medal votes, consistently causing Collingwood to break down across their half forward line by gaining intercept possessions and then setting up attacking forays for St Kilda. Gilbert had a game-high 21 kicks, 11 handballs, a game-high eight rebound 50s, took a career best 20 marks and was very clean with his ball use, operating at a disposal efficiency of 81%. Gilbert’s tally of 20 marks was (and still is) the second most marks taken by a St Kilda player in a game, trailing only Rex Hunt’s 21 marks against Collingwood in Round 16 1976 at Victoria Park. Gilbert has since fallen to third on St Kilda’s all-time list after Riewoldt took 21 marks against Brisbane in Round 23, 2016. Two of the best marks in the AFL over the past 30 years, Nick Riewoldt and Stewart Loewe feature prominently on the St Kilda leaderboard having taken at least 18 marks in a game four times and three times in a game respectively.

Against Port Adelaide in Round 5 Gilbert had an equal team-high 17 kicks, an equal game-high 10 marks, nine contested possessions, three tackles and nine rebound 50’s – three more than the second ranked player in the game. Gilbert showed great confidence and composure against Port Adelaide, in particular during the second half. A moment in the third quarter stood out when the ball was kicked near the boundary line just inside Port’s forward 50 to Gilbert and his direct opponent, two Port Adelaide players were just behind the marking contest. An open goal was in the offing for Port if the ball spilled to the back of the marking contest. Most defenders would have played the percentages and punched the ball to the boundary line. Even in a precarious position like this Gilbert continued to back himself and perform his role admirably, calmly taking yet another mark before clearing the ball from defense.

Gilbert started the 2010 season in blistering form and in the first five games of the season he recorded new career highs for disposals, kicks and marks in a game. After Round 5 of 2010, 23 year old Gilbert was equal fourth in the Age Footballer of the Year Award with 23 votes, level with Michael Barlow, Brent Harvey and St Kilda teammate Goddard. Luke Hodge led on 30 votes, with reigning Brownlow Medallist Gary Ablett and Marc Murphy equal second on 29 votes.

With Sam Fisher playing a shut-down role against Fremantle in Round 12 Sam Gilbert was given the opportunity to be a play maker from the Saints half- back line and didn’t disappoint with his run and creativity earning him two Brownlow Medal votes in the 18 point victory. Gilbert had 22 possessions, took nine marks and kicked a superb goal on the run from outside 50 during the third quarter of the 18 point win.

Sam had 27 disposals and nine contested possessions against Brisbane in Round 15, he also had a goal assist and took risks to create the play in his customary role as a rebounding defender across half back, he received one Brownlow Medal vote in the Saints 14 point win. Versus Collingwood in Round 16 Gilbert provided drive from defense, having 15 kicks, nine handballs, took 10 marks and won eight contested possessions in the 48 point loss.

With 15 wins, a draw and six losses St Kilda finished third on the ladder with 62 premiership points, behind Collingwood on 70 and Geelong on 68, the Western Bulldogs finished fourth on 56 premiership points. These four clubs had all finished in the top four in the previous season, 2009, making it the first time since the top eight was introduced in 1994 that the same four teams finished in the top four at the end of the home and away season in two consecutive years.

St Kilda won their first two finals of 2010 to progress to their second consecutive Grand Final, defeating Geelong won four points in a qualifying final and defeated the Western Bulldogs by 24 points in the preliminary final after trailing by six points at half time. Gilbert had 16 disposals, three marks and nine contested possessions against Geelong followed by 19 disposals, four marks and 10 contested possessions against the Western Bulldogs.

St Kilda trailed by 24 points at half-time in the Grand Final against Collingwood, kicking only four goals in the first half. Gilbert was shifted forward and made an impact, kicking a goal in the third quarter. With Lenny Hayes and Brendon Goddard leading the way St Kilda fought back to have a draw. Gilbert had nine kicks, seven handballs, four marks, one goal assist and kicked a goal to be named in St Kilda’s best players.

In the Grand Final Replay, St Kilda started poorly and at quarter time Gilbert was moved from defense to the forward line, after this move the Saints looked more threatening and were able to create significantly more scoring opportunities. St Kilda were on top during general play in the second quarter having 110 possessions to Collingwood’s 84. For the second week in a row after being shifted forward Gilbert immediately made the St Kilda forward line look more damaging and created match-up problems for the Collingwood defense. Gilbert read the play well to beat his opponent Nick Maxwell and created space, he had three shots at goal on the run during the second quarter but missed them all. Gilbert finished the match with 11 kicks, six handballs, six marks and one goal to be named in St Kilda’s best five players of the game in the AFL’s official records.

In 2010 Gilbert played all 26 games for St Kilda, averaging 115 minutes, 13.2 kicks, 9.0 handballs and 7.5 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 70.6%. Gilbert led St Kilda for marks, rebound 50s and bounces,  ranked third for contested marks,  fourth for kicks, uncontested possessions, and loose-ball gets, fifth for hard-ball gets and contested possessions, seventh for inside 50s and 10th for tackles. Gilbert was ranked fifth in the AFL for marks per game behind Western Bulldogs key defender Brian Lake (9.6 marks per game), his captain Nick Riewoldt (8.0), Brisbane Lions key forward Jonathan Brown (7.88) and fellow Saints defender Sam Fisher (7.83), he also ranked 24th in the AFL with 3.73 rebound 50s per game. Gilbert finished equal third in St Kilda’s best and fairest, polling 435 votes along with Brendon Goddard, 16 votes behind runner-up Leigh Montagna and 93 votes behind Lenny Hayes who won the second Trevor Barker Award of his career. Gilbert polled a career-high six Brownlow Medal votes, ranked fifth at St Kilda behind Hayes (19 votes), Montagna (16), Goddard (14), Riewoldt (8) and Dal Santo (7).

Gilbert’s disposals per game increased slightly from 21.4 per game in 2009 to 22.3 per game in 2010, his marks increased from 7.0 to 7.5 per game, however his disposal efficiency wasn’t as good, dropping from 80.0% in 2009 to 70.6% in 2010, this was mainly due to his kicking efficiency dropping from a then career-high 77.4% in 2009 to 64.5% in 2010. Gilbert had more than 19 disposals in a game a career best 18 times in 2010 including 14 of the first 15 games of the season, the exception being Round 4 versus Fremantle, however he didn’t achieve this mark once in his last five games of the season, having between 16 and 19 disposals per game in the four finals and Round 22 against Adelaide. When the 2010 All-Australian squad of 40 was announced Gilbert wasn’t included which surprised many people in the football world, he was possibly overlooked due to his form tapering off slightly in the final third of the season and the decline in his ball-use by foot compared to 2009 when he was selected in the squad of 40.

There was talk in the 2010/11 off-season that Gilbert would be predominantly used as a third tall forward during the 2011 season and whilst he spent a substantial part of the pre-season training as a forward and commenced the 2011 home and away season playing as a forward, early in the season he returned to his customary position across half-back.

In his first seven games of 2011 Gilbert had between 12 and 17 disposals in each game, increasing his sequence of games with less than 20 disposals to 12, starting in Round 22 2010. In 43 games from Round 1 2009 to Round 21 2010 Gilbert had more than 19 disposals in a game 33 times, equating to 76.7% of his games, and had a longest stretch of sub 20 disposal games of three from Round 8 to Round 10 2009. Over the first 8 Rounds of 2011 Gilbert spent some time playing in all three areas of the ground, defence, midfield and forward. Against Carlton in Round 7 Gilbert played in the midfield on two-time Brownlow Medallist Chris Judd and had a career-high 14 contested possessions, the most of any player on the ground and three more than his direct opponent. Carton won a tight contest by three points and honours were shared between Judd and Gilbert with the duo each being named in their club’s best players.

After Round 8 St Kilda had one win, one draw and five losses, however from Round 9 onwards the form of both Gilbert and the team as a whole started to dramatically improve. In St Kilda’s 20 point victory versus Melbourne in Round 9 at the Etihad Stadium Gilbert had 15 kicks, 10 handballs, five marks, four tackles, five rebound 50s, three inside 50s, 10 contested possessions, a goal assist and received one Brownlow Medal vote. The following week in a 46 point win against Fremantle at Subiaco Oval Gilbert impressed with 11 kicks, 10 handballs, eight marks and seven hit-outs spending some time playing in the ruck.

In Round 15 2011 at 24 years of age Gilbert played the 100th AFL game of his career against North Melbourne at Etihad Stadium. For the second year in a row Gilbert played every game for St Kilda, in three of the last four home and away games he had more than 19 disposals, finishing the home and away season against Carlton in Round 24 with 14 kicks, eight handballs, seven marks, eight tackles, eight rebound 50s, three clearances, eight contested possessions, a goal and received one Brownlow Medal vote.

The Saints rebounded from their slow start to the 2011 season to finish the home and away season in sixth position with 12 wins, nine losses and a draw, percentage ahead of Sydney, and hosted a final against the Swans at Etihad Satadium. Sydney outclassed St Kilda, recording a comfortable 25 point win. The week after the loss St Kilda head coach Ross Lyon quit the club and joined rival AFL club, the Fremantle Dockers.

In 2011 Gilbert played 23 games for the Saints, averaging 115 minutes, 9.3 kicks, 7.7 handballs and 4.8 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 74.3%. Gilbert had more than 19 disposals eight times in 2011 with a season high of 25 disposals against Melbourne in Round 9. Sam’s disposals per game dropped from 22.3 per game in 2010 down to 17.1 in 2011 whilst his ball-use improved with his disposal efficiency increasing from 70.6% to 74.3% in 2011. Gilbert ranked fifth at St Kilda for marks, fourth for contested marks, fifth for hard-ball gets, sixth for rebound 50s, eighth for disposals, handballs, bounces and contested possessions, 10th for kicks and equal 10th for tackles. For the first time since 2008 Gilbert didn’t finish in the top 10 at St Kilda’s best and fairest. The profile for Gilbert in AFL Prospectus 2012 said “Despite a drop in his disposals, he remained an above-average ball-winner for his position, but his kicking needs to improve, recording a below-average kick rating for a general defender. Defensively he was an above-average pressure player and tackler in the defensive half – ranking 10th at the club for pressure acts across all zones – with his turnover rate the best of the top 10.”8

There were several reasons for Gilbert’s performances in 2011 falling away from the high levels achieved in 2009 and 2010, including not being able to settle in one position, the team not performing as well and opposition teams planning more to reduce his influence as a rebounding defender. Another factor were some off-field matters during the 2010/11 pre-season including photos taken by Gilbert of a few of his St Kilda team-mates being taken from his lap-top without his consent and subsequently posted on-line. In July 2011 Gilbert admitted that the off-field matters affected his early-season form during 2011, saying “I felt like I wanted to repay a lot of the people for the support that I got. I just think I went about it personally the wrong way. I tried too hard.” Sam went on to say “”I don’t want my career to be defined by my off-field mistakes, I want to be defined by what I can do on the field.”9

Against Port Adelaide in Round 1 2012 Gilbert played well, having 12 kicks, six handballs and 10 marks, it was the first time that Gilbert took more than nine marks in a game since taking 11 marks in Round 20 2010 against North Melbourne. For only the third time of his career Gilbert kicked two goals against Fremantle in Round 4, he also had 12 kicks, seven handballs, six marks, five tackle and four bounces. In Round 20 against Richmond Gilbert provided plenty of run, having 10 kicks, 15 handballs, four marks, three rebound 50s, four inside 50s and 10 contested possessions.

Gilbert played the first 21 games of 2012 before missing the last game of the season, Round 23 due to a shoulder injury, ending a sequence of 76 consecutive games that commenced in Round 20 2009. Gilbert had more than 19 disposals twice in 2012, his lowest tally since achieving this feat only once in 2008.

During 2012 Gilbert played 21 games for the Saints, averaging 107 minutes, 8.5 kicks, 6.8 handballs and 4.0 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 74.8%. Gilbert ranked seventh for tackles and contested possessions at St Kilda, ninth for marks and handballs, 10th for disposals, rebound 50s, uncontested possessions and inside 50s, and equal 10th for clearances. At the end of the 2012 season 26 year-old Gilbert had played 131 AFL games, given the great durability he had displayed from 2007 to 2012 he appeared on track to play his 150th AFL game either late in 2013, or early in 2014.

Gilbert played the first six rounds of the 2013 season in the AFL and kicked a goal in four of his six games, however in the third quarter of the Round 6 game against Collingwood at Etihad Stadium he had a hyper extension of his left knee during the third quarter, an injury which forced him to miss most of the season. Early in 2013 Gilbert played further up the ground and spent more time in the midfield, due to this, in the first six rounds Gilbert had a total of only six rebound 50s at one per game, whilst he had 18 inside 50s, equating to three per game. Over the course of his 199 game career Gilbert has a ratio of 1.15 rebound 50s for each inside 50. During the 72 point victory in Round 3 versus the GWS Giants Gilbert had eight kicks, 15 handballs, five marks, eight contested possessions, three inside 50s, no rebound 50s, a goal assist and kicked a goal. It was only the third time in his career that he more than 19 disposals in a game and didn’t record a rebound 50.

After spending Round 7 to Round 19 on the sidelines due to his knee injury Gilbert returned through the VFL in Round 20 and was recalled to the St Kilda team the following week, he played the last three games of the season in the AFL and finished the season strongly having more than 20 disposals and nine marks in both Round 22 and Round 23. In St Kilda’s 46 point victory in Round 22 against Gold Coast Gilbert had 15 kicks, 10 handballs, 10 marks and took four bounces, followed by 15 kicks, six handballs, 11 marks, three contested marks and three bounces in the Saints 71 point victory against Fremantle at the Docklands in Round 23.

In 2013 Gilbert played nine games for St Kilda, averaging 102 minutes, 8.0 kicks, 8.9 handballs and 4.9 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 83.6%. Throughout his career Gilbert has received significant criticism for his ball use by foot so many AFL followers would be surprised by the following comment that appeared in Gilbert’s profile for the AFL Prospectus 2014. “In the games he played he improved his ball use, recording career highs for both kicking and disposal efficiencies, recording the highest kick rating of any player in the competition to record at least 40 kicks.”10 Gilbert recorded a kicking efficiency of 80.6% for his 72 kicks in 2013, in his three previous seasons from 2010 to 2012 his kicking efficiency was between 64.5% and 68.4%. From his second season in the AFL, 2007, until 2012 Gilbert had been very durable, playing a total of 129 AFL games in six seasons, and at least 18 games in every season. Gilbert’s nine AFL games in 2013 was his lowest tally since playing two games in his debut AFL season in 2005.

At the end of 2013 was within striking distance of the record for most games played at St Kilda in number 19, held by Allan Davis with 173 games from 1966 to 1975. Davis was a skilful small forward and the youngest member of St Kilda’s 1966 premiership side, playing in the Grand Final win against Collingwood days before his 18th birthday, he finished his career with 308 goals, ranked equal seventh on St Kilda’s all-time list with Barry Breen. Allan’s son Chad played 31 games for St Kilda between 2000 and 2002 including 16 games wearing number 19. In June 2013 Gilbert admitted breaking Allan Davis’ record for most games at St Kilda in number 19 was a goal, saying “So far I have played 140 games and Allan Davis holds the record but it’d be an honour if I could have the record down the track.”11

In February 2014 Gilbert suffered another injury setback and had surgery due to a stress fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his left foot. Although the injury prevented him from playing any AFL practice games or games in the VFL during the pre-season Gilbert was a surprise inclusion in St Kilda’s Round 1 team to play Melbourne. Gilbert re-injured his left foot early in Round 3 against West Coast at Subiaco Oval, was substituted out of the game in the first quarter and played only 4% of the game. Gilbert had been playing a more defensive role early in 2014. In the press conference after the 25 point loss to West Coast, St Kilda head coach Alan Richardson commented “Gilbert has been really good for us, he’s played on Jeremy Howe in round one and (Jeremy) Cameron, an All Australian last week and he’s had one goal kicked on him, so he’s been in really good form and he provides really strong leadership for our young guys. You are always going to miss those players.”

The foot injury limited Gilbert to just three more AFL games for the 2014 season. Gilbert missed Round 4 to Round 19 with the left foot fracture, resuming in the VFL in Round 19 and was recalled to the St Kilda side a week later. After returning to the St Kilda side in Round 20 he re-injured his foot during his third game back Round 22 against Richmond, forcing him to miss the last game of the season. Gilbert had revision surgery on his left foot after his season concluded.

During 2014 Gilbert played six games for St Kilda, averaging 84 minutes, 7.7 kicks, 5.0 handballs and 4.2 marks a game with a disposal efficiency of 63.2%. Although Gilbert was restricted to just half a dozen games in 2014 he remained a positive influence at the St Kilda Football Club which was recognised at the St Kilda best and fairest when he received the best clubman award. St Kilda senior coach Alan Richardson said Gilbert is “an incredibly worthy winner of the Robert Harvey Best Clubman Award.” Richardson went on to say “Instead of feeling sorry for himself and giving very little to the group, completely the opposite was the case. He would go out of his way to help others, have a significant input into line meetings and team meetings and he’s second to none in doing whatever’s asked of him outside of the footy department. If he needs to go and visit a sick child in hospital or go to a primary school, he’s the first one there.”12 As well as his work with the St Kilda Football Club Gilbert was involved in many community projects during 2014 including taking part in the Annual Pride March in St Kilda in February which recognises, supports and celebrates Victoria’s gay, lesbian, bisexual, intersex and transgender community. Gilbert also backed the campaign for marriage equality, and shaved his head on 1 March for the Leukaemia Foundation’s Australia’s greatest shave. A week before the shave Gilbert’s goal was to raise $10,000, team-mate David Armitage agreed to also shave his head if this goal was reached. Gilbert reached his goal, raising over $12,000 so Armitage had his head shaved at St Kilda training a couple of days before Australia’s greatest shave.

Of the 45 players on St Kilda’s 2015 primary list and rookie list only three had been on the Saints list longer than 28 year-old Gilbert, he also ranked fourth for most games played for the club behind, Nick Riewoldt (293 games, joined St Kilda in 2000), Leigh Montagna (243 games, joined St Kilda in 2001) and Sam Fisher (210 games, joined St Kilda in 2003). Gilbert has worn number 19 throughout his 10 season career at St Kilda and in 2013 commented “I had the chance to change numbers at one stage. I got offered a single digit number that became free but I played my first game in 19, I got drafted as a 19-year-old and my birthday is on the 19th. It was a good fit for me so I wanted to keep it. Every now and then I see a kid wearing a Saints jumper with the number – maybe they’re old Luke Penny jumpers. But I always go and give them a high five. I’ve got to keep them on board.”13

After being restricted to 15 of a possible 44 AFL games in 2013 and 2014 Gilbert was hoping to have an injury free-run in 2015, however this did not eventuate as further set-backs with his injured left foot forced him to miss the start of the 2015 season, he returned through the VFL in Round 6, however he injured his quad which forced him to miss two games. Gilbert played Rounds 9 and 10 in the VFL building his match conditioning and form during these two games, after an impressive 20 disposal performance in the VFL in Round 10 he returned to the St Kilda side in Round 11 against Melbourne on 14 June 2015, for just his fourth AFL game since injuring his left foot against West Coast just over 14 months earlier on 5 April 2014. At a press conference at the Linen House Centre on 12 June 2015 on the eve of making his return to AFL football, after being asked “The foot, is there any problems with it at all?” Gilbert responded “Not at all, absolutely 100% confident with the foot, totally rapt with everything, just really looking forward to getting back out there.” When asked “Mentally how difficult was it get over that foot injury after doing it a couple of times” Gilbert said “I think mentally it was all right, I had a lot of support around me especially with the coaches and the players so mentally it was OK, it was just one of those things where you hope for the best and when everything does start to feel right you get confidence from that as well.”

At a press conference a day earlier on 11 June 2015 also at Linen House Centre St Kilda head coach Alan Richardson commented on Gilbert “He’s a very versatile player because if the opposition mix it up, we don’t have to change as much – he’s one of those guys. We want a back six that we don’t have to shuffle. His ability to be able to read and intercept is strong. He’s a good athlete and he’s able to play on smalls and talls. At his best, Gilbo takes us to another level. If he were to play this week our expectation wouldn’t be what it would be if he had played half a dozen games.”

In Gilbert’s fourth game back against GWS in Round 15 2015 he played the 150th game of his AFL career at 28 years of age, four years after playing his 100th AFL game in Round 15 2011. Gilbert is appreciative of the support he has received throughout his entire AFL career, but in particular during this difficult four year period between game number 100 and game number 150. After playing his 150th game Sam made the following post on Instagram “So proud to play my 150th game for St Kilda. The last 50 games have been the most difficult but I can’t wait to get back to my best. Greatest thanks to everyone at St Kilda FC (in particular the medical staff that have patched me up) and the fantastic saints supporters.”14

In his fifth game back, Round 16 against Richmond, Gilbert was one of the Saints best players, having 11 kicks, 12 handballs, five marks, five tackles, a goal assist and 10 contested possessions. It was the first time he had over 22 disposals in a game since having 25 disposals against Gold Coast in Round 22, 2013.

The following week in a 37 point win against Melbourne at the MCG Gilbert playing predominantly on a wing was again in St Kilda’’s best players, having 11 kicks, nine handballs, three marks, six tackles, six inside 50’s, one goal assist, a team-high 10 contested possessions and operated at a superb 85% disposal efficiency. In the rooms after the win against Melbourne speaking to saints.com.au Gilbert said “For me it’s been a couple of years to get that consistency of games together so just getting to that five and six (consecutive) games, starting to feel really comfortable.”In terms of performing a variety of roles throughout this season for the Saints Gilbert commented “You just adapt, I enjoy playing those multiple roles, so that’s kind of how I like to play my football, I like to be thrown on the wing, I like to be thrown forward, I like to be thrown back, for me that’s when I enjoy my footy the most.”

Gilbert spent much of the final quarter of the Round 17 game against Melbourne on the interchange bench after feeling a bit of tightness in the groin and was not selected for the Round 18 game against Port Adelaide due to groin soreness. Gilbert returned to the St Kilda side for Round 19, playing the last five games of the season. Gilbert had five games in a row from Round 16 to Round 21 with at least 20 disposals.

Gilbert polled one Brownlow Medal vote in the Round 21 draw against Geelong at Etihad Stadium, having nine kicks, 12 handballs, a game-high nine tackles, four clearances, a career-high 16 contested possessions and kicked two goals. Gilbert’s 16 contested possessions were a game-high, two ahead of Geelong’s Steven Motlop whilst Gilbert’s two goals were ranked equal third at St Kilda for the game behind Josh Bruce and Darren Minchington who each kicked three goals.

In 2015 Gilbert played 11 games for St Kilda, averaging 100 minutes, 8.8 kicks, 8.9 handballs and 4.5 marks per game with a retention rate of 67.7%. Gilbert averaged 9.0 contested possessions a game ranked third at St Kilda behind David Armitage (12.4) and Leigh Montagna (9.2). After making his return from injury in Round 11 Gilbert played 11 of St Kilda’s last 12 games of the 2015 season, missing Round 18 with a groin injury. The profile for Gilbert in AFL Prospectus 2016 said “Injury delayed the start of Gilbert’s season and when he broke into the side he was trialled further up the ground – recording career high averages for contested possessions (ranked third at the club), clearances and tackles (ranked fifth at the club). The defensive aspects of his game still proved valuable, rating elite for pressure points per game and tackle efficiency.”15

As well as taking a long-term view of their playing list the St Kilda Football Club also took a long-term view in terms of ways the club can become more inclusive and discourage people being discriminated against due to race or sexuality. It was reported in the Sunday Age this morning that St Kilda will ask the AFL for a gay pride game as part of their 2016 fixture submission. St Kilda Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Matt Finnis commented “Our motive is to ensure that our supporters – all of them – can feel a great sense of belonging through our club. Many of our supporters by virtue of their sexuality will face times in their lives where they feel marginalised and a footy club should be a place they can feel a sense of pride and acceptance.”16 Gilbert believes that everyone should have the right to marry the person they love, saying “that’s why I am so proud of the stance the club is taking. Gay or straight everyone deserves to be treated equally.”17 After making some off-field mistakes earlier in his career Gilbert could have attempted to keep a low-profile, however in recent seasons he has been very active in involving himself in community engagement initiatives and been a strong advocate for equality.

In the 2015/16 off season Sam married his long-term girlfriend Georgina Walters. In Round 1, 2016 against Port Adelaide at Adelaide Oval Gilbert had 10 kicks and an equal game-high 17 handballs to amass his most disposals in a game since having 27 disposals in back to back games in Round 14 and Round 15, 2010. Gilbert also had laid five tackles, had four inside 50’s, 12 contested possessions, one goal assist and kicked a goal.

Gilbert started Round 3 against Collingwood at the MCG in defense however due to a couple of injuries he got moved to the forward line. Saints key forwards Nick Riewoldt and Paddy McCartin were both concussed in separate instances in the second quarter and didn’t play at all in the second half and defender Dylan Roberton’s day also ended early after injuring his knee in the third quarter. On the day that St Kilda celebrated the 50th anniversary of their 1966 premiership the modern day Saints gave a courageous performance to defeat Collingwood by 29 points despite only having one fit player on the bench for much of the second half. Gilbert was one of St Kilda’s best players in the victory, having 12 kicks, seven handballs, seven marks, four inside 50’s and kicked two goals.

Due to St Kilda’s inexperienced and under-sized backline 2016 Gilbert spent considerable time throughout 2016 playing as a key defender with his opponents including Buddy Franklin, Ben Brown, Andrew Walker and Jeremy Cameron. Predominantly playing on Ben Brown in Round 7 Gilbert has 15 kicks, nine handballs, seven marks, five tackles, six rebound 5o’s, seven inside 50’s and two contested marks whilst restricting Brown to 11 disposals and two goals.

In Round 18, 2016 Gilbert played his 174th AFL game, breaking Alan Davis’ club record for most games played in number 19. In Round 21 at St Kilda played Sydney in the first ever AFL pride match at Etihad Stadium on Saturday night, 13 August. In the lead-up to the pride game Gilbert spoke to afl.com.au about wanting to make people feel comfortable and making sure they didn’t get discriminated against commenting “There are different ways of speaking up. It’s not always about pointing the finger. Sometimes it’s about education. It might be something little, like ‘That’s not on here’, or not engaging in what’s being said. That’s what we’re about. We want to make a big stand overall. We want to be able to be strong enough to stand up when it matters.”18  When asked if the AFL was ready for its first openly gay player Gilbert commented “We’re definitely ready if that did happen, but in saying that, there’s no pressure for that to happen. The steps we’re taking now are about making more people comfortable to continue playing sport. That’s the main goal.”19

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In 2016 Gilbert played all 22 games averaging 103 minutes, 7.4 kicks, 7.6 handballs and 3.5 marks per game with a retention rate of 74.2%. During 2016 Gilbert ranked sixth at St Kilda for total tackles, equal fourth for intercept possessions, equal seventh for contested possessions, eighth for rebound 50’s, equal eighth for contested marks, ninth for handballs and third for one percenters.  Gilbert was one of eight Saints to play every game in 2016 along with Leigh Montagna, David Armitage, Jack Steven, Mav Weller, Josh Bruce, Seb Ross and Jack Newnes.

The profile for Gilbert in AFL Prospectus 2017 said “Gilbert played every game for the first time since 2011 and was tried in the midfield and forward-line before settling back into defence for the second half of the season. Last season he had an average kick rating and gained 30 metres per kick – ranked third at the club.”20

During the 75 point Round 6, 2017 victory against Hawthorn at York Park Gilbert Gilbert was used as a back-up ruckman. From Round 8 to Round 10 Gilbert had three consecutive games with at least 20 disposals, commencing with 23 disposals against Carlton in Round 8 comprised of 13 kicks and 10 handballs, he also took nine marks. With the Saints leading by just five points at three quarter time Gilbert was outstanding in the final quarter to play a key role in the Saints 19 point victory. The following week against Sydney Gilbert had eight kicks, 14 handballs, three hit-outs, four clearances, six one percenters and an equal game-high 14 contested possessions.

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Gilbert played St Kilda’s first 16 games of 2017 but only played two of the club’s last six games, missing three games from Round 18 to Round 20 with a hand injury and Round 23 with an abs injury. In 2017 Gilbert ranked fourth at St Kilda for intercept possessions.

Gilbert’s profile in the AFL Record Season Guide 2018 said “With a raft of veterans having left the club, Gilbert will be the only player in his 30’s at the start of the season. The left-footer has lost none of his speed, while his size means he is versatile enough to play on a variety of opponents. Expanded his skill-set last season when he went into the ruck to offer Billy Longer relief.”21

In 2017 Gilbert played 18 games averaging 191 minutes, 7.7 kicks, 7.6 handballs and 3.3 marks per game with a retention rate of 71.9%. During 2017 Gilbert ranked equal fourth at St Kilda for total intercept possessions, one percenters and hit-outs, eighth for rebound 50’s and ninth for tackles.

Gilbert’s profile in AFL Prospectus 2018 said “Gilbert is a unique key defender, playing more as a linkman than a stopper. He moved into the back-up ruck role for the first time in his career, attending 86 ruck contests, despite attending just 35 in his first 11 seasons.”22

At 31 years of Gilbert is the oldest player on St Kilda’s 2018 list, three Saints are 29 years old – the captain Jarryn Geary, David Armitage and Nathan Brown. Gilbert is also the current player that has spent the most time on the St Kilda list, having been recruited with pick 33 at the 2005 National Draft, Armitage and Geary joined the club a year later at the National Draft and Rookie Draft respectively.

Gilbert wasn’t selected in the St Kilda team for Round 1 of the 2018 season and made his first appearance of the season for the Saints in Round 4 against Geelong and had 15 disposals in his first two games of the season comprised of 10 kicks and five handballs in the loss against Geelong and six kicks and nine handballs in the draw against GWS at Etihad Stadium. It was the sixth time that Gilbert has played in a draw at AFL for the Saints and at one stage he played in three draws in 12 games – Round 17, 2010 against Hawthorn at Etihad Stadium followed by two games at the MCG, the 2010 Grand Final against Collingwood and Round 2, 2011 against Richmond. With St Kilda trailing by seven points during time-on of the last quarter in the Round 5 game against GWS Gilbert played a pivotal role in St Kilda’s last goal of the game, taking a mark 65 metres out from goal and then passing inboard to Paddy McCartin who marked 40 metres out from goal. McCartin kicked the set-shot goal from just inside 50 to reduce the margin to one point.

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At a press conference on 26 April 2018 in the lead-up to his 200th AFL game Gilbert was asked “What has the message been form Richo, obviously you missed out on selection for the first few weeks, what was the message there?’ Gilbert responded “It was pretty straight-forward, he just wanted to see me play my best football and to do that I was required to play in the VFL which is totally fine, I was lucky enough to take my opportunities there and get back into the Saints side.”

In ‘A message for Gilbo’ posted on Saints.com.au earlier this afternoon St Kilda head coach Alan Richardson commented “Congratulations on the big 200 hundred Gilbo, you have been an absolute pleasure to coach. It has been a real honour of mine to coach people like you that are so selfless that always put the club first. If I ask you to play forward, ruck, wing, inside-mid, across half-back or last line of defense you just do it. You never question it, you are as team as I have seen in my time.”

At a press conference on 26 April 2018 Gilbert was asked “What has the message been from Richo, obviously you missed out on selection for the first few weeks, what was the message there?’ Gilbert responded “It was pretty straight-forward, he just wanted to see me play my best football and to do that I was required to play in the VFL which is totally fine, I was lucky enough to take my opportunities there and get back into the Saints side.”   After being asked have you get some family and friends coming down to Tassie for the game Gilbert replied “Yeah absolutely, all my family and a couple of my friends from the Gold Coast and Melbourne are coming over, excited I can share it with friends and family as well.”

Playing mainly across half-back Gilbert played two of St Kilda’s first five games of the 2018 season, averaging 103 minutes, 8.0 kicks, 7.0 handballs and 2.0 marks per game with a disposal efficiency of 63.3%. Sam ranks sixth at the Saints for one percenters and tackles per game and eighth for contested possessions. After Round 5, 2018 St Kilda have had one win, one draw and three losses

During his 13 season career Gilbert has played 11 finals for St Kilda with the last of these being an elimination final against Sydney at Etihad Stadium, the other players on St Kilda’s 2018 list have played five finals for the club combined being David Armitage – three, and Jarryn Geary and Jack Steven with one each. After making the finals seven times in eight seasons from 2004 to 2011 St Kilda have not made it back to the finals. Three times in the past seven seasons St Kilda have won at least half of their games in a season, having 12 wins to finish ninth in 2012 and 2016, whilst in 2011 they finished 11th with 11 wins. From 2013 to 2015 St Kilda finished in order 16th, 18th and 14th. In 2016 and 2017 the Saints won 23 of their 44 games for a positive win-loss record but were unable to make the finals.

fallen down the ladder, finishing ninth in 2012, 16th in 2013 and last out of 18 clubs in 2014. Since their last finals appearance in 2011 St Kilda have made some difficult list management decisions allowing the Saints to  commence a rebuild of their list that the Saints hope will see the club challenging for a premiership from 2018. St Kilda have exceeded both internal and external expectations during 2015 to be 13th on the ladder after 17 Rounds with six wins and 10 losses. On 12 June 2015 at the press conference on the eve of his comeback game Gilbert commented on his time on the sidelines and the Saints upside, “The improvement from all our young players makes it exciting, and I’ve just really enjoyed watching them play.” He went on to say “The actual personalities of our young players is so good, they’re so willing to learn, the effort that they put in and the extra practises, it’s a great vibe to be around.”

Although Gilbert never got to represent Queensland at the under 16 and under 18 national championships, he has an award named after him due to his performances for the Queensland under 21 team and his subsequent progression to becoming an AFL player for St Kilda. The best player in the Queensland under 21 side each year receives the Sam Gilbert medal, recognition from AFLQ officials of Gilbert’s achievement in the AFL, and also a reinforcement to the under 21 players that it is still possible to be drafted by an AFL club even if you get overlooked after your final season in the under 18’s.

In the first 199 AFL games of his career Sam Gilbert has averaged 9.5 kicks, 7.3 handballs, 5.0 marks, 2.3 rebound 50s and 2.0 inside 50s per game. In Gilbert’s best seasons, 2009 and 2010 he averaged 21.4 and 22.3 disposals per game respectively. Several factors have contributed to his disposals per game dropping after these two seasons, the performance of the St Kilda team as a whole has dropped, Gilbert has spent more time playing as a lock down defender, particularly against opposition key forwards and when the Saints have tried to utilise Gilbert in an attacking role across half-back opposition clubs have implemented stronger tactics to reduce his influence, sometimes playing a defensive forward on him.

Throughout his AFL career Gilbert’s strengths have been his hard-running, marking ability, reading of the play which has allowed him to gain intercept possessions, and evasiveness enabling him to break the lines and provide drive for the Saints from half-back.  Another major strength of Gilbert’s is his ability to match-up on a wide range of different opponents due to his size and agility, providing the St Kilda coaching staff with flexibility and minimising disruptions to the Saints back six by being able to utilise Gilbert against any sized forward, small, medium or tall. Gilbert’s versatility and wide ranging skill-set have enabled the Saints to utilise him in many other roles as well whether it be the forward-line, wing, inside mid, or even as a back-up ruckman. When St Kilda was challenging strongly for the AFL premiership in 2009 and 2010 Gilbert was one of the Saints best performers being one of only six players to finish in the top eight of the club’s best and fairest in each season

It is a magnificent achievement by Sam Gilbert to play 200 games for the St Kilda Football Club, especially after only beginning to play Australian Rules Football in his mid-teens and is a testament to his hard work, skill, versatility and team first attitude

By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

1 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/sam-gilbert-the-code-breaker/story-e6frf7jo-1225748427460

2         http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/sam-gilbert-the-code-breaker/story-e6frf7jo-1225748427460

3         Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2006, 1st edition, page 232

4 http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/sam-gilbert-the-code-breaker/story-e6frf7jo-1225748427460

5. Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2008, 3rd edition, page 268

6 AFL, AFL Record Season Guide 2010, page 264

7. Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2010, 5th edition, page 227

8 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2012, 7th edition, page 278

9 http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/sport/afl/st-kildas-sam-gilbert-reveals-how-he-has-coped-since-the-moment-that-changed-his-life/story-e6freck3-1226086300376

10 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2014, 9th edition, page 312

11 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2013-10-03/know-your-number-sam-gilbert.workstation

12 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2014-09-05/robert-harvey-best-clubman-sam-gilbert

13 http://www.saints.com.au/news/2013-10-03/know-your-number-sam-gilbert.workstation

14 https://instagram.com/p/5Ew4d-G4He/

15 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2016, 11th edition, page 316

16 http://www.theage.com.au/afl/st-kilda-lobby-afl-for-gay-pride-game-20150731-gip0kx.html?stb=twt

17 http://www.theage.com.au/afl/st-kilda-lobby-afl-for-gay-pride-game-20150731-gip0kx.html?stb=twt

18 http://www.afl.com.au/news/2016-08-13/saint-sam-gilbert-becomes-gay-icon-ahead-of-afls-inaugural-pride-game

19 http://www.afl.com.au/news/2016-08-13/saint-sam-gilbert-becomes-gay-icon-ahead-of-afls-inaugural-pride-game

20 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2017, 12th edition, page 317

21 AFL, AFL Record Season 2018, page 300

22 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number cruncher for season 2018, 13th edition, page 316

 

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