Sam Walsh’s ascent to win the John Nicholls Medal in his third AFL season

Lofty expectations were placed on Sam Walsh when he was selected by Carlton with the first pick overall at the 2018 AFL National Draft, amazingly Walsh not only matched these expectations but exceeded them during his first three AFL seasons. In his debut 2019 AFL season Walsh was a convincing winner of the AFL’s Rising Star Award and finished fourth in Carlton’s best and fairest. Walsh finished runner-up in Carlton’s 2020 best and fairest and was rewarded for an exceptional 2021 season with selection on the wing in the All-Australian team, received the John Nicholls Medal as Carlton’s best and fairest and finished runner-up in the AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player Award.

As a junior footballer Walsh broke records with his ball-winning ability as a midfielder in the TAC Cup Under 18’s competition with the Geelong Falcons. At the 2018 Under 18 National Championships Walsh captained Vic Country, he averaged 29.5 disposals and 13.5 contested possessions per game to win the Larke Medal as the best player in Division 1 at the Championships, was selected in the midfield of the under 18 All-Australian team and was also named the team’s captain.

Since making his AFL debut in Round 1 2019 Walsh is one of only two players along with Ed Curnow to play all 61 games for Carlton. The quality of Walsh’s performance has also been very high right from the start of his AFL career which is highlighted by being one of Carlton’s three nominees for the AFL Players’ Association Most Valuable Player Award and finishing in the top four of Carlton’s best and fairest in each of his first three seasons from 2019 to 2021.

The 2021 John Nicholls Medal was held virtually on Thursday 14 October. JNM co-host Andy Maher asked Walsh “You look like a footballer who wants to be in the middle of it when the moment is at its biggest and hottest, have you grown to love that part of the game when the game is on the line?” Walsh replied “Yeah, I think any player would probably agree that they’re the moments you want to stand up in, when your team needs it. I think for me this year I have probably got a bit more opportunity, being around the ball and playing a different role to impact games, with my running I feel like I am going to try and run it out hard in the fourth quarter and this year I felt like that was the area that I was able to take my game to another level, finding ways to impact when the time is needed. From there it is very enjoyable playing in wins, so hopefully there is more of them around the corner because that is ultimately why you play footy and to be able to contribute to that is a great feeling.”

The junior football career of Sam Walsh as well as his first three phenomenal seasons in the AFL are covered in more detail below:

Early Life and junior career

Sam Walsh was born on 2 July, 2000, his parents are Wayne and Jacque and he has two younger brothers, Henry and Tommy. In his early childhood Sam’s family lived in Cobden, a Victorian dairy farming town located approximately 210 kilometres southwest of Melbourne and 30 minutes north of the Great Ocean Road.

Sam’s dad Wayne and uncles Chris and Leigh each played more than 100 games of Australian Rules Football for Cobden in the Hampden Football Netball League. Sam played Auskick at Cobden and his dad Wayne coached the Cobden senior team from 2007 to 2009. Two players from Cobden were selected in the top 10 of the 2009 AFL National Draft with Ben Cunnington selected by North Melbourne with pick five followed by Gary Rohan being chosen at pick six by Sydney. 

In a foxsports.com.au article published on 18 November 2018 titled ‘AFL Draft 2018: Sam Walsh talks Carlton. Cobden and family as he enters the draft as pick 1 favourite’ Ben Waterworth asked Sam “Tell me where your passion for the game started? When did you realise you wanted to do footy full-time?” Sam responded “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.”1

In 2010 Wayne commenced a job with AFL Northern Territory (AFLNT), which resulted in the Walsh family spending three years living in Darwin from 2010 to 2012. Wayne commented on Sam being able to experience playing football in the Northern Territory, saying “They had wet season footy and dry season footy, so it was footy all year round. Sam was 10 playing in the under-14s team. One day it was about 37 degrees and 90 per cent humidity at 9am and the kids were coming in at quarter time and putting ice in their socks to cool their feet down. Going up there was one of the best things we did as a family.”2

Sam represented the Northern Territory at two under 12’s national carnivals and whilst in the Northern Territory spent some time playing in the same team as two players that have gone on to play in the AFL – Zac Bailey with Brisbane and Brandon Parfitt with Geelong.

Despite having a significant influence on Sam’s development as a footballer Wayne was unable to get his oldest son to support the same AFL team as him – the Carlton Blues. In early July 2018 Sam commented to foxsports.com.au “My Dad’s two twin brothers are Fitzroy supporters, so when I was young they sort of brainwashed me. We were winning at the time. I used to live in Cobden (south west Victoria), so had Jonathan Brown and the like to look up to. So they’ve been awesome to follow.”3

When the Walsh family returned to Victoria from the Northern Territory they lived in Ocean Grove and Sam attended St Joseph’s College in Geelong. Ocean Grove is located on the Bellarine Peninsula approximately 100 kilometres south-west of Melbourne and is 23 kilometres from Geelong. At the Under 16 National Championships in 2016 Walsh played all three games for Victoria Country and was named in his team’s best players for all three games including one game as the best player.

In the “Tomorrows Heroes: Sam Walsh” video published on afl.com.au in the lead-up to the 2018 AFL National Draft Walsh commented “My strengths are decision making, composure, my endurance to get over and out-number a contest and ability to play inside and outside.”

During 2017 Walsh played 13 games in the TAC Cup Under 18’s for the Geelong Falcons, he had 29 disposals and five clearances in their thrilling two point Grand Final victory against the Eastern Ranges at Marvel Stadium. Despite being a bottom-age player Walsh played all four games for Victoria Country at the 2017 Under 18 National Championships and averaged 21.3 disposals per game.

Late in 2017 Walsh spent some time training with AFL club Geelong as part of the NAB AFL Academy’s program which gave him a greater insight to what being on an AFL list would be like. On training alongside the likes of Patrick Dangerfield, Joel Selwood and Gary Ablett, Sam commented “They never fumble, they’re always hitting their kicks and their intensity is game-like all the time. I was pinching myself.”4

Throughout his junior career Walsh impressed with his leadership and professionalism, in 2018 he was a Geelong Falcons co-captain along with Oscar Brownless and he was also the captain of Vic Country for the Under 18 National Championships. On his leadership Walsh commented to afl.com.au “I don’t try overly hard to be a leader, I just want to be the best person I can be. If you’re a good character around people you earn their respect, and I think after that you can lead by example.”5

In Round 3 of the 2018 Under 18 National Championships Vic Country played Vic Metro at the MCG in a curtain raiser to the Round 14 AFL game between arch-rivals Collingwood and Carlton. Walsh starred for Vic Country, having a game-high 29 disposals, six inside 50’s, five clearances and a goal.

Walsh played all four games for Vic Country at the 2018 National Championships and was named in his side’s best three players in all four games including two games where he was Vic Country’s best player. At the 2018 Under 18 National Championships Walsh averaged 15.5 kicks, 14.0 handballs, 3.0 marks, 4.5 clearances and 7.0 tackles per game. At the Championships Walsh won the Larke Medal which is awarded to the best player in Division 1. Walsh won the Vic Country Most Valuable Player award, was named in the under 18 All-Australian team as a midfielder and was also selected as the team’s captain. Walsh was highly regarded by his peers, winning the Ben Mitchell medal as the player best displaying the qualities of the AFL Academy.

During the 2018 TAC Cup season Walsh played 12 games for the Geelong Falcons, averaging 19.1 kicks, 12.9 handballs, 3.8 clearances and 4.8 tackles per game. Walsh polled 14 votes in the 2018 Morrish Medal to finish equal third, Sandringham Dragons midfielder and future Carlton team-mate Liam Stocker won the award with 18 votes. Walsh was named rover in the TAC Cup 2018 team of the year, being one of two Geelong Falcons players selected in the team along with Connor Idun who was named at full-back.

During the Walsh Tomorrows Heroes video AFL Draft expert Callum Twomey commented “You couldn’t have asked for a better season from Sam Walsh, he captained every team he was in, he won nearly every accolade that he was eligible for, he averaged 32 touches at TAC Cup level, he is the midfielder your team wants, only a couple are going to have a look at him because he is right at the pointy end of the draft pool, there is a reason why many clubs see him as the number one pick of this year’s draft.”

In the draft combine at Marvel Stadium in early October 2018 Walsh performed well across the board and stood out in the endurance running tests, finishing equal second in the yo-yo test with a score of 22.1 and placed third in the two km time trial with a time of six minutes and seven seconds – three seconds behind the winner.

Walsh selected at number 1 by Carlton and wins the AFL’s 2019 Rising Star Award in his debut season

Walsh was widely viewed as a 250 game player and future captain at AFL level, however some experts said that he was a safe selection and didn’t have as much upside as some of his peers from the 2018 Draft Class such as Izak Rankine and Jack Lukosious. As expected Carlton selected Sam with the first selection at the 2018 National Draft, so whilst his dad Wayne may have been unsuccessful in getting Sam to support Carlton, he eventually got something significantly better with Sam becoming a Carlton player.

Walsh became the fourth National Draft number one pick on Carlton’s list for the 2019 season, joining Marc Murphy (2005 number one pick), Matthew Kruezer (2007) and Jacob Weitering (2015), whist another previous number one draft pick in Bryce Gibbs (2006) had been traded by Carlton to Adelaide in 2017.

Walsh’s profile in AFL Record Season 2019 said “Averaging 32 touches in the TAC Cup last season and 29 for Vic Country during the NAB AFL Under 18 Championships, Walsh is just as proficient winning the ball outside the contest as he is on the inside. Excellent decision-maker, shows great composure under pressure and is an exceptional endurance athlete.”6 In AFL Record Season 2019 Walsh was listed as being 184 centimetres tall and weighing 80 kilograms.

In November 2018 Walsh was given Carlton’s number 18 jumper. The club record for games played at Carlton in number 18 was 116 games by Arthur Sanger, and no player wearing number 18 had won a Carlton best and fairest.

At the first opportunity available Walsh made his AFL debut at 18 years of age, being selected at half-forward by Carlton for the 2019 Round 1 season opener against Richmond at the MCG on Thursday night 21 March. On AFL debut in front of 85,016 people Walsh had 16 kicks, eight handballs, six marks, an equal team-high five inside 50’s, four clearances and a goal assist.

Walsh received a Rising Star nomination for his Round 4 game against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium on 14 April, having 14 kicks, 14 handballs, six marks, seven clearances, 13 contested possessions, one goal assist, kicked a goal and polled five votes in the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year Award – ranked third for the game behind Cripps (10 votes) and Gold Coast midfielder Touk Miller (8).

The following week on 19 April Walsh signed a contract extension with Carlton for two seasons until the end of 2022. Walsh told Carlton Media “The Club has welcomed me with open arms from the moment I got drafted. The coaches, staff and entire club provide us with everything we need to get the very best out of ourselves, which I have loved. It just motivates you to get better every day. What struck me straight away was the elite standards our Club has in place, driven by ‘Crippa’ and ‘Doc’. That has us focused as a young group to fast-track our development and achieve success together.”7

In the dying moments of the Round 5 game against the Western Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium Carlton led 95 to 57 when Walsh kicked one of the most memorable goals of the season from a Carlton fan’s perspective. With seconds remaining in the game there was a boundary throw-in five metres in from the behind post in Carlton’s forward pocket. Matthew Kreuzer grabbed the ball out of the ruck and handballed to Paddy Dow who in turn handballed to Walsh, with some space but deep in the forward pocket on the non-preferred side for a right footer Walsh remained composed and kicked a right foot banana goal to enable Carlton’s score to reach triple figures for the first time in 1,051 days. The previous time Carlton reached triple figures was in a 102 to 64 victory against the Brisbane Lions in Round 11, 2016 at Marvel Stadium. Just after the ball went through the goals the final siren sounded and Walsh was mobbed by his jubilant Carlton team-mates. Appearing on Fox Footy program On the Mark Wash spoke about this goal saying “Yeah, being as I love my AFL footy I sort of did know that it had been a while for the Blues to crack the hundred. At that point in time I was just thinking about singing the song with the boys and the ball’s thrown up and it lands in my lap and I just have a shot and hear the siren go, so gave it a little bit in the celebration because I was pretty pumped to get my first win, that was amazing with all the boys.” When Carlton started singing their theme song in the rooms after the game Walsh was one of four Carlton players in the inner-circle celebrating their first win at the club along with Mitch McGovern, Nic Newman and Michael Gibbons.

In a five point loss to Hawthorn at York Park Tasmania in Round 6 Walsh had 27 disposals comprised of 12 kicks and 15 handballs, in the process becoming the first player from VFL/AFL debut to have at least 24 disposals in each of their first six games, breaking the record of four games that had been set by Geelong mature age recruit Mark Bairstow in 1987. Walsh’s sequence of games with at least 24 disposals ended in Round 7 with 22 disposals against North Melbourne.

On the 15 May, 2019 episode of the Fox Footy program On the Mark Walsh commented on Carlton co-captain Cripps “Yeah, Crippa is amazing, I got to live with him for three weeks at the start of my time at the club and he was great for me, I was trying to pick his brains as much as I could, because not only is he a very smart footballer and wants to help everyone else which is something that everyone loves about him and he is having a great year so far and he really leads from the front.”

In Round 12 at Marvel Stadium Carlton trailed Brisbane by 37 points at the seven minute mark of the second quarter. Carlton fought back brilliantly to dominate from that point on, kicking 11 of the last 14 goals of the game to record an upset 15 point victory with Cripps and Walsh being the two best players afield. Brisbane had been fifth on the ladder after Round 11 with a record of seven wins and four losses whilst Carlton entered the game with only one win and on the bottom of the ladder, two games behind Sydney, Melbourne and Gold Coast. Against Brisbane Walsh played the best game of his AFL career to that stage to earn Brownlow Medal votes for the first time, polling two votes for a brilliant performance in which he set game-highs for kicks and marks with 23 and 12 respectively, he also had nine handballs, five inside 50’s, six clearances,19 uncontested possessions and 14 contested possessions – ranked second for the game behind Cripps with 16 and laid four tackles. Cripps received the three Brownlow Medal votes after having 38 disposals comprised of 18 kicks and 20 handballs and also kicked a game-high four goals.

From Round 15 to Round 20 Walsh had at least 25 disposals in all six game and became just the second player in their debut season along with Toby Greene to earn votes in the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year Award in six consecutive games. Twice during this sequence Walsh polled in the Brownlow Medal, receiving one vote for his performance in a seven point win against Sydney at the SCG in Round 17, having 19 kicks, nine handballs, three marks, an equal team-high six inside 50’s, a game-high eight bounces and kicked a goal. The win against Sydney was the first of three consecutive victories for Carlton with the club defeating Gold Coast by 24 points and Adelaide by 27 points in their following two games.

Against the West Coast Eagles at Marvel Stadium in Round 20 on Sunday 4 August, Sam had 31 disposals comprised of 13 kicks and a game-high 18 handballs to register his sixth consecutive game with at least 25 disposals. Sam had a team-high 21 uncontested possessions, 10 contested possessions, four clearances and polled two Brownlow Medal votes to be the only Carlton player in the votes.

In Round 23 against Geelong at GMHBA Stadium Walsh had 12 kicks, 12 handballs, seven marks, four rebound 50’s four inside 50’s, a game-high 18 uncontested possessions, kicked a goal and polled one Brownlow Medal vote, with Geelong players Dangerfield and Ablett polling the three and two votes respectively.

From Round 12 to Round 23 Carlton won six of their 11 games to finish the season in 16th position with seven wins, two wins ahead of Melbourne in 17th place and four wins ahead of the Gold Coast Suns in last place. During 2019 Carlton lost four games by less than a goal.

In 2019 Walsh was one of three players to play all 22 games for Carlton along with Ed Curnow and Sam Petrevski-Seton, he averaged 13.5 kicks, 11.7 handballs, 5.1 marks, 3.1 tackles, 9.6 contested possessions, 3.0 inside 50’s, 2.0 rebound 50’s, 65.0% disposal efficiency and 84.0% game-time per match. Carlton list manager Michael Agresta commented on Sam’s debut season in the AFL “No way you could expect to get the output we got from Sam. I was really fortunate at the Swans when we had Isaac Heeney and Callum Mills who were both unbelievably prepared first-year players, but I’ve never seen anything like Sam. From the day he started training everything was 100 miles an hour. He kept getting himself up and never missed. I kept waiting for him to fatigue and that never happened. He just kept adapting.”8

Walsh was selected on the wing in the 22 under 22 team at the AFL Players Association Awards night on Thursday 29 August, being joined in the team by two Carlton team-mates – Jacob Weitering at centre half-back and Harry McKay in a forward pocket. Walsh, Weitering and Cripps were Carlton’s three nominees for the Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award. Walsh won the Players’ Association’s best First Year Player Award comprehensively, polling 400 votes to finish ahead of Connor Rozee (112 votes) and Sydney Stack (62). After presenting Sam Walsh with the award Nick Dal Santo commented “There are very few players that win this particular award and are also nominated as one of the three (club) candidates for the MVP, how have you found the year?” Sam replied “Yeah, it is obviously a huge honour to win this award, the year itself it has been massive, I’ve loved every minute, it has been my dream to play AFL football so for that to become a reality this year and I have just been trying to give it my all week in and week out and a lot of my teammates here tonight so they always give me great support and I have loved the year.” Dal Santo commented “You had an incredible year, you had the most disposals of a first year player, was there something about going into the AFL that did surprise you or shock you?” Walsh responded “Yeah, it was definitely just how full-on the weeks can be, obviously it is talked about a lot but you can’t really prepare yourself for it until you go through it and I’ve loved the journey, you grow each week and learn a lot from every game so I was very fortunate to be in that position this year.”

The following afternoon on Friday August 30, 2019, Walsh was the overwhelming favourite for the AFL’s Rising Star Award, he won convincingly and fell just short of gaining a unanimous victory, receiving the maximum five votes from 10 of the 11 judges with Luke Darcy being the exception, awarding the maximum five votes to Port Adelaide’s Connor Rozee and giving four votes to Walsh. Walsh won the Rising Star Award with 54 votes ahead of Rozee in second place on 42 votes, Richmond utility Sydney stack was third on 28 votes and Western Bulldogs forward/midfielder Bailey Smith finished in fourth place with 21 votes. Amongst Rising Star eligible players in the 2019 home and away season Walsh ranked first for total disposals, kicks, handballs, uncontested possessions, contested possessions, clearances, effective disposals, metres gained and inside 50’s and third for marks and tackles.

The Rising Star Award commenced in 1993 and Walsh became the first Carlton player to win the AFL award, he was the fourth Carlton player to record a top four finish in the previous five years, following current Carlton captain Patrick Cripps – second in 2015 with 41 votes, Jacob Weitering – third in 2016 with 26 votes and Charlie Curnow – fourth in 2017 with 27 votes. With Walsh’s victory Carlton completed the Rising Star double in 2019, following midfielder Madison Prespakis’ victory in the AFLW Rising Star Award, Prespakis like Walsh fell one vote shy of polling the maximum tally, receiving 49 of a possible 50 votes.

After receiving the Rising Star Award Walsh commented on his previous 12 months “It definitely has been massive, the draft itself was amazing and to land at a club like Carlton I was extremely fortunate to represent the Blues, the history of the club is quite amazing so from day one I felt welcomed at the club, my teammates and everyone else have been a great support, they’re definitely the reason why I am standing up here today.” When asked what does this (winning the Rising Star Award) mean to you?” Walsh replied “As I said before it is definitely a huge honour, there’s so many great players in the AFL and obviously I look up to these guys, coming into the AFL season my goal was to earn the respect of my teammates and that has landed me here thanks to the support of a lot of people.”

At the 2019 Brownlow Medal Sam polled six votes, ranked equal second at Carlton along with Marc Murphy, behind Patrick Cripps who polled 26 votes and finished third overall, seven votes behind the 2019 winner, Fremantle captain Nat Fyfe. Cripps was the only Carlton player that made the All-Australian team, being selected as the centreman.

At Carlton’s best and fairest on Friday, October 4, 2019 Wash won the Virgin Australia Best First Year Player Award. In the John Nicholls Medal for Carlton best and fairest Walsh was in second place on 67 votes after Round 12, 28 votes behind Patrick Cripps and just ahead of Ed Curnow on 65 votes, Jacob Weitering (61) and Lachie Plowman (60). In the second half of the season Curnow predominantly played in the midfield after spending a considerable amount of time in the forward line during the first half of the season. Cripps won the 2019 John Nicholls Medal as Carlton’s best and fairest on 143 votes, five votes ahead of the fast finishing Ed Curnow with defender Lachie Plowman third on 134 votes. Walsh finished fourth with 125 votes followed by Levi Casboult in fifth place on 116 votes and Jacob Weitering in sixth position on 110 votes.

The profile for Walsh in AFL Prospectus 2020 said “Walsh won 148 more disposals than any other debutant last season, rating above average for disposals for a wingman. His consistency for a first-year player was a standout, recording the 21st best consistency rating for disposals per game of the 124 players to play at least 11 games and average at least 20 disposals. He is a running machine, covering the fourth-most kilometres per game of anyone to play at least three games.”9

Walsh records first podium finish in the John Nicholls Medal in 2020

On 17 February 2020 Carlton announced their seven player leadership group as voted by the players. Patrick Cripps and Sam Docherty were Carlton’s co-captains for the second consecutive season, having succeeded Marc Murphy who was Carlton’s sole captain from 2013 to 2018. Veterans Murphy and Ed Curnow continued as leadership group members in 2020. Walsh was one of three new inclusions in the Blues leadership group along with defenders Jacob Weitering and Liam Jones with the trio all having been a part of Carlton’s Emerging Leaders program in 2019. At 19 years of age Walsh was the youngest member of Carlton’s leadership group, being approximately two and a half years younger than Weitering.

On being elevated to Carlton’s leadership group for 2020 Walsh told Carlton Media “It’s a huge honour to lead the club. Leadership has definitely been a passion of mine for a long time and I think we [as a club] have done a great job at promoting that. Being one of the younger boys, I’ve been able to spend a lot of time with the first and second year guys, so being able to bring them up [will be my goal]. I think that’s the beauty of our club at the moment: no matter what your age or how many years you’ve played or how many games, your opinion is valued and that’s a really good culture we’ve got going at the moment.”10

In the week before the 2020 AFL home and away season commenced the AFL announced that due to  uncertainty regarding coronavirus that the structure of the season and length of games would be condensed. During the 2020 home and away season each club played 17 games comprised of one game against each of the other AFL clubs, a reduction from each team playing 22 games across 23 rounds. The length of quarters was reduced from 20 minutes plus time-on to 16 minutes plus time-on to enable a shorter break between games if required.

Against Port Adelaide in Round 7 at the Gabba Walsh had 11 kicks, five handballs, six marks, polled two Brownlow Medal votes and kicked multiple goals in an AFL game for the first time. Sam kicked two goals, one in the first quarter and one in the last term however he will be remembered more for another piece of play in this game. With scores level at 40 points apiece half-way through the third quarter Walsh ran back with the flight of the ball into a pack of four players including Port Adelaide key forward Charlie Dixon and took a courageous chest mark 30 metres out from Port Adelaide’s goal.

On Brownlow Medal night Walsh’s inspirational mark was recognised as the AFL’s 2020 Mark of the Year ahead of other finalists Charlie Cameron and Bobby Hill. After being announced as the winner of the Mark of the Year Hamish McLaughlin asked Walsh “Such a brave performance, did you have any idea that a Dixon freight-train was coming your way?” Walsh responded “A few people have asked me that but I actually didn’t have any idea and I think if I did it probably would have been a bit more daunting but I just saw a high ball coming in. There are times on the footy field where you just have to go for it and that was one of those moments, so luckily took the grab and I think Jonesy looked after me a bit so I didn’t have to run into Dixon at full speed.” On winning the 2020 Mark of the Year Award Walsh said “Coming into it I didn’t really have any expectations, there has obviously been some great marks this year and (I’m) not usually the biggest mark taker so it is a bit of a surprise.” McLaughlin asked “Liam Ryan told us last year that his Mark of the Year wasn’t the best mark he had taken in his career, is your mark the best, have you taken some bigger marks in junior footy?” Walsh replied “No, that is probably my best, took a few good marks in junior footy but nothing like that. Actually funnily enough looking back on it I have done a fair bit of work on my marking over the off-season with Dale Amos and Kade Simpson so to see that kind of hard work show out in a game was pretty cool and even speaking to those guys after the game they were pretty pumped with it so just goes to show if you work on something it can come to fruition in a game, so pretty fortunate.” 

Despite the quarters being 20% shorter in 2020 than in previous seasons Walsh had at least 20 disposals in each of his last eight games of the season. During this period Walsh also had a greater impact on the scoreboard. Up until Carlton’s bye in Round 10 2020 Walsh had kicked at least one goal in eight of his first 31 AFL games. Walsh kicked a goal in five of his last eight games of 2020.

Against Sydney In Round 16 Walsh polled the three Brownlow Medal votes for the first time in his  career following a performance in which he set game-highs for kicks (20), uncontested possessions (19) and inside 50’s (6) whilst also having five handballs, nine marks and a kicked a goal in Carlton’s five point victory at Metricon Stadium to also earn the perfect 10 Coaches votes in the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year Award.

In Round 18 against Brisbane at the Gabba Walsh set game-highs and his personal season-high for disposals (31) and Contested possessions (21), he also had an equal team-high five inside 50’s an equal game-high six clearances, one goal assist and polled one Brownlow Medal vote. 

Throughout the first three quarters of the 2020 season Walsh predominantly played on the wing but he spent the final month of the season playing as an inside midfielder. During 2020 Walsh averaged 11.4 kicks, 9.2 handballs, 4.3 marks, 2.8 tackles, 3.9 inside 50’s and 0.47 goals per game. Walsh led Carlton for disposals, uncontested possessions and inside 50’s, ranked second for handballs, third for score involvements, fourth for kicks and clearances and fifth for tackles.

Walsh polled 126 votes in the 2020 John Nicholls medal to be the runner-up, 11 votes behind key defender Jacob Weitering and 23 votes ahead of Ed Curnow. At the 2020 Brownlow Medal Walsh finished with a flurry to poll a total of six votes in Carlton’s last four games. Walsh polled a total of eight votes, ranked second for Carlton behind Cripps with 10 votes.

Walsh was one of Carlton’s three nominees for the 2020 AFL Players’ Association MVP Award along with Weitering and Jack Martin. Walsh was named the AFL Coaches Association Best Young Player of the Year for 2020. The Award is given to the young player who polls the most votes in the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of The Year over a two-season period. Polling a total of 64 votes over 2019-2020 Walsh finished ahead of Connor Rozee and Bailey Smith on 33 and 27 votes respectively. 

Walsh wins the John Nicholls Medal and earns All-Australian selection in 2021

In Round 1 on 18 March 2021 against Richmond in front of 49,218 people at the MCG Walsh had a team-high 31 disposals comprised of 12 kicks and 19 handballs, he also had six marks, six clearances and one goal assist to poll two Brownlow Medal votes.

“Carlton’s best and fairest is decided by the senior coach and three assistants giving as many players as they choose between 0-4 votes per game. The most votes any player can poll in a single match is 16.”11 The player that polls the most votes for the season receives the John Nicholls Medal, named in honour of ruckman John Nicholls who won Carlton’s best and fairest a club record five times (1959, 1963, 1964, 1966 and 1967). Nicholls is a legend in the Australian Football Hall of Fame and was named in the back pocket of the AFL Team of the Century.

Walsh’s performance in Round 1 against Richmond earned him a game-high 13 votes in Carlton’s best and fairest, he polled 10 or more votes in a game 10 times in 2021.  

During his first 39 AFL games across the 2019 and 2020 seasons Walsh polled Brownlow Medal votes in eight games, received a total of 14 votes and was adjudged best afield once. In the first 10 Rounds of 2021 Walsh polled votes in seven games for a total of 16 votes including four best afield performances to surpass his career votes tally heading into the 2021 season.

Walsh received 3 Brownlow Medal votes for the first time of 2021 for a 24 disposal performance in an 11 point Round 4 victory against Gold Coast at Metricon Stadium. For back-to-back 33 disposal, one goal games against Brisbane in Round 6 and Essendon in Round 7 Walsh polled the maximum three Brownlow Medal votes in each game. In the 16 point victory against Essendon at the MCG Walsh also had a team-high 13 contested possessions, a game-high seven clearances, two goal assists and polled 12 votes in the John Nicholls Medal. After Round 7 Walsh was the overall leader of the Brownlow Medal with 12 votes, ahead of Ollie Wines on 11 votes.

Against Hawthorn in Round 10 Walsh received the 3 Brownlow Medal votes for the fourth time of 2021, having 13 kicks, 17 handballs, four marks, six tackles, five inside 50’s, an equal game-high two goal assists, a game-high 17 contested possessions and polled a game-high 11 votes in the John Nicholls Medal for his superb performance in Carlton’s 23 point victory.

At 20 years of age in Round 11, 2021 Walsh played his 50th AFL game against the Sydney Swans at the SCG, achieving the feat without missing an AFL game in his first two and a half seasons for Carlton. Reflecting on his achievement Walsh told Carlton Media “It was nice to be able to achieve a little milestone this year and play my 50th game. I’ve wanted to be known as a consistent player, and I’ve been able to be on the park for my team every week which is something I take great pride in. At the end of the day, you can’t read too much into what has happened. The industry moves pretty quick and my mindset is to always try and get better. There’s still plenty to work on, which is exciting for me and the team.”12

After Round 6 Walsh had polled 51 votes in the John Nicholls Medal to lead 2020 JNM winner Weitering by a solitary vote. In the second six game block Walsh extended his lead slightly, increasing his tally to 97 votes, four votes ahead of Weitering with key forward Harry McKay in third place on 71 votes.

The AFL field umpires and Carlton coaches concurred that Walsh’s strongest four week block of the 2021 season was from Round 15 to Round 18, over this four game period Walsh was exceptional to poll 11 Brownlow Medal votes from a maximum of 12 votes and 54 votes in the John Nicholls Medal from a maximum of 64 votes. In Walsh’s first 52 AFL games up until Round 14, 2021 he had more than 33 disposals in a game once, in the four-game sequence from Round 15 to Round 18 he had more than 35 disposals in a game three times and averaged a goal a game. At Marvel Stadium against Adelaide in Round 15 Walsh set a new career-high with 38 disposals comprised of 19 kicks and 19 handballs, he also had a game-high nine inside 50’s, laid four tackles, one goal assist and received three Brownlow Medal votes in the 10 point victory.

Against Fremantle at the MCG in Round 16 Walsh had 15 kicks, 10 handballs, eight marks, laid a game-high eight tackles, kicked a goal and polled two Brownlow Medal votes. With just under three minutes remaining in the last quarter Walsh, deep in Carlton’s forward pocket and with little room to move got boot to ball to keep the ball in play. Housemate Matt Kennedy handballed to Walsh who was on the boundary line when he grabbed the ball, with composure Walsh took two steps to open up the angle slightly and kicked a snap right foot goal to extend Carlton’s lead to 14 points and celebrated the match-sealing goal. Fremantle ruckman Sean Darcy had 20 disposals and 40 hit-outs to poll the three Brownlow Medal votes.

In Round 17 at the MCG against Geelong Walsh had 14 kicks, a team-high 22 handballs, four clearances, kicked an equal game-high two goals and polled three Brownlow Medal votes.

Against Collingwood in Round 18 Walsh delivered his best performance of the season according to Carlton’s coaches, polling 15 votes out of a maximum 16 votes in the John Nicholls Medal after setting a new career-high for disposals (39) and equalling his career high for kicks (23) in the 29 point victory at the MCG. Walsh also had a game-high 15 contested possessions, took nine marks and polled three Brownlow Medal votes. With Carlton leading by seven points at the 11 minute mark of the last quarter Walsh gathered the ball in congestion after a marking contest 25 metres out from Carlton’s goal, ran away from goal towards the boundary, stopped, then turned back inward, took two steps and with composure kicked a skilful snap goal on his right foot to extend Carlton’s lead to 13 points.

After Round 18 Walsh had polled 151 votes in the John Nicholls Medal to lead from Weitering (138 votes) and McKay (104). With 11 Brownlow Medal votes from Round 15 to Round 18 Walsh moved up the leader-board to be on 27 votes in equal second place with Wines, three votes behind Marcus Bontempelli.  

Walsh was adjudged best afield for the eighth time of 2021 in Round 20 against St Kilda at Marvel Stadium, having 13 kicks, 13 handballs, 11 contested possessions, one goal assist and kicked a personal best three goals in the 31 point victory.

Carlton finished 13th on the ladder in 2021 with eight wins and 14 losses, three games behind eighth placed Essendon. At the start of his fourth AFL season in 2022 Walsh will have his third Carlton head coach with Michael Voss having been appointed to the role on a three year-contract in late September. Walsh’s Carlton head coach for the first half of 2019 was Brendon Bolton whilst David Teague held the role for the next two and a half years. Having grown up as a Brisbane supporter Walsh is very familiar with Voss’s playing achievements which include being a joint winner of the 1996 Brownlow Medal along with James Hird and captaining Brisbane to three consecutive AFL premierships from 2001 to 2003. Voss was the Brisbane Lions head coach for five seasons from 2009 to 2013 and was an assistant coach at Port Adelaide from 2015 to 2021.

During 2021 Walsh was one of four players to play all 22 games for Carlton along with Ed Curnow,  Weitering and Adam Saad. Walsh averaged 13.6 kicks, 16.3 handballs, 5.8 marks, 4.6 tackles, 11.5 contested possessions, 3.9 inside 50’s and 4.7 clearances per game. In 2021 Walsh led Carlton for disposals, handballs, tackles and contested possessions, ranked second for clearances, inside 50’s and marks, fourth for kicks and fifth for goals. After adjusting 2020 stats to a per minute basis Walsh set new career highs in 2021 for disposals, marks, tackles, clearances, contested possessions, uncontested possessions and goal assists per game. 

For the third consecutive season Walsh was one of Carlton’s three nominees in the AFL Players’ Association MVP Award, joining Weitering and McKay as the club’s 2021 nominees. Walsh polled 426 votes in the AFLPA’s Most Valuable Player (MVP) Award to be the runner-up behind Western Bulldogs captain Marcus Bontempelli (1,176) with the top five completed by fellow midfielders Touk Miller (411), Christian Petracca (338) and Jack Steele (261).

Walsh finished sixth in the AFL Coaches Association Champion Player of the Year Award with 92 votes, 22 votes behind the Award winner Clayton Oliver and nine votes behind joint runner-ups Ollie Wines and Bontempelli. Walsh was selected in the 22 under 22 team for the third consecutive year in 2021 and was given the additional honour of being named the team’s captain.  

On Thursday night 26 August 21 year-old Walsh was selected on the wing in the 2021 All-Australian team, being joined in the team by Carlton team-mate and fellow first-time selection 23 year-old Harry McKay who was selected at full-forward and won the Coleman Medal as the AFL’s leading goalkicker with 58 goals. For the second consecutive season Weitering was named in the 40 player All-Australian squad but wasn’t selected in the 22 player team.  Below is a link to the article published on Milestones and Misses celebrating McKay winning the 2021 Coleman Medal and being named in the All-Australian team.

On being named in the 2021 All-Australian team Walsh told Carlton Media in a video published on carltonfc.com.au “Yeah, it’s definitely a huge honour, growing up watching footy that was always the one when it come to the end of the year you would have a fair bit of admiration for guys that made that team and for me to be able to do that I am sure there’s are a lot of people that are pretty proud of me back home and I have got a lot of support and a lot of help to get to this point, especially from my team-mates. It’s not about the individual awards I guess, which is a bit cliché, but to be able to do that I am very proud and it is a bit of a dream come true to be named amongst some of the big names in the competition that you probably look up to and like to compete against each week is as I mentioned before a great honour. For me personally, I just try to improve myself each week and each season and I feel like if I am able to do that it holds me in good stead.”

During 2021 Walsh polled Brownlow Medal votes in 12 games to amass a total of 30 votes, comprised of eight best afield performances, two 2’s and two 1’s. Walsh’s 30 votes equalled the record for most Brownlow Medal votes in a season for a Carlton player set by Greg Williams and Chris Judd when they won the Brownlow Medal in 1994 and 2010 respectively. Walsh polled votes in all of Carlton’s eight wins including six games where he polled the three votes, to amass a total of 21 votes from these eight victories at an average of 2.6 votes per game. Walsh polled 30 votes at the 2021 Brownlow Medal to finish fourth behind fellow midfielders Ollie Wines (36), Marcus Bontempelli (33) and Clayton Oliver (31). It was the first time that four players had each polled at least 30 votes each in a season. During the 2021 home and away season Walsh ranked 10th in the AFL for disposals and SuperCoach points per game and sixth for handballs.

In the past 20 seasons from 2002 to 2021 a player polled at least 30 Brownlow Medal votes in a season 16 times, in 12 of these 16 instances, equating to 75% of the time, said player was in their eighth, ninth or 10th AFL season. The only four occasions in the past 20 seasons that a player has polled 30 votes in a season earlier in their career than their eighth season was Chris Judd in his third season for West Coast in 2004, Nat Fyfe in his sixth season in 2015, and Clayton Oliver and Walsh in 2021 during their sixth and third AFL seasons respectively. In the past 20 seasons only three players – Judd (2004 3rd season and 2010 9th season), Fyfe (2015 – 6th season and 2019 – 10th season) and Patrick Dangerfield (2016 – 9th season and 2017 – 10th season) have polled more than 29 votes in a season twice. The 10 players to poll more than 29 Brownlow Medal votes in a season once from 2002 to 2021 are Gary Ablett (2009 – 8th season), Dane Swan (2011 – 9th season), Sam Mitchell (2011 – 10th season), Jobe Watson (2012 – 10th season), Dustin Martin (2017 – 8th season), Lachie Neale (2020 – 9th season), Ollie Wines (2021 – 9th season) Marcus Bontempelli (2021 – 8th season), Clayton Oliver (2021 – 6th season) and Walsh (2021 – 3rd season).

In the last five rounds of the 2021 season Weitering polled 34 votes to Walsh’s 32 to slightly reduce the lead. Walsh won the 2021 John Nicholls Medal with 183 votes, 11 votes ahead of Weitering, followed by McKay in third position on 118 votes. The top five was completed with Patrick Cripps in fourth position on 112 votes and Ed Curnow in fifth place on 100 votes. At Carlton’s 2021 best and fairest Walsh also won the Carltonians William A. Cook trophy and received the Bill Lanyon Inner Blue Ruthless Award. 

Walsh and Weitering have finished in the top two of the John Nicholls Medal in both 2020 and 2021 with each player recording one win and one runner-up finish in each season. Increasing the symmetry, the margin was 11 votes in both seasons with Walsh winning in 2021 and Weitering being victorious 137 votes to 126 in 2020 when only 17 home and away games were played due to COVID-19.

After being announced as the winner of the 2021 John Nicholls Medal Walsh said “It is obviously a huge honour, John Nicholls as was mentioned before is a legend of this club so thanks to him and all the people who have helped me get here today and yeah it is a massive privilege.”

In his acceptance speech Walsh said “First of all I want to thank all my teammates, ever since I walked into the club I have felt backed in by you guys. I just wanted to as I said earn your respect. Hopefully us as a group can keep on working towards embracing each others strengths and really getting the best out of each other. The reason why I play footy is for the team success and I know we can create some great memories along the way if we keep that up. There’s a lot of individual players that have helped me within that, thank-you to all my teammates. To the coaches, it was obviously well documented that it was probably a bit of a tough year but to Teaguey, JB (John Barker), Lukey Power, Stants (Brent Stanton), you guys have probably worked with me the most and every time you walk in to the club you were looking to get myself and my teammates better and you guys worked hard to the very end, you guys are great people and I thank you for all your support over my couple of years that I have worked with you guys. Also to the high performance team headed up by Russ (Andrew Russell) and Ro (Rohan Hattotuwa), obviously to play my best footy need to be out on the park so there was probably a few times this year where the body was a bit banged up and you guys helped me get through. Also just to my friends, they have had a big impact with me along the way, helped definitely keep me grounded but also enjoying my time away from footy and also to my housemates Dowy and Matt Kennedy, obviously spend a lot of time together throughout the year so you guys make it good fun so thank-you to everyone involved from that aspect. Lastly, to my family, I wouldn’t be where I am today without them, they have obviously always been there to support me and my two brothers. They just want to see me have a crack at whatever I am passionate in, obviously mum’s probably a bit more of the emotional support there for me and dad is probably a bit more into the footy. You two have been amazing for me and my little brothers love seeing you come to the footy and enjoy it as well. I hope I haven’t left anyone out but it obviously is a huge honour and I already can’t wait to get stuck into next year so thanks to everyone that has helped.”      

Epilogue

Detailed AFL Statistics have been recorded from 1965 onwards and during this 55 season plus period Walsh ranks first at Carlton with 25.6 disposals per game, ahead of teammate Cripps (25.0), Greg Williams (24.7) and Chris Judd (24.6). Walsh also ranks second for uncontested possessions with 15.9 per game, behind Heath Scotland (16.4) with current teammate Sam Docherty (15.7) third. Walsh also ranks second for Brownlow Medal votes with 0.72 votes per game, behind Judd (0.86) and ahead of Williams (0.68) and Cripps (0.65).

From Walsh’s debut in Round 1 2019 he has polled 434 votes in the John Nicholls Medal to be ranked first at Carlton during this three-season period with 15 more votes than the 419 votes polled by Weitering. From 2019 to 2021 Walsh has played all 61 games for Carlton whilst Weitering has missed two games, both due to injury in 2019. On a John Nicholls Medal votes per game played basis Walsh has an extremely narrow advantage –  with 7.11 votes per game to Weitering’s 7.10, if Weitering had polled just one more vote in the past three seasons he would have the narrow advantage with 7.12 votes per game. Walsh and Weitering look set to feature prominently in John Nicholls Medal counts for many years to come and will play pivotal roles at Carlton, both as players and leaders.

At the 2021 John Nicholls Medal co-host Andy Maher asked Walsh “Second year in a leadership group at a senior footy club, has that helped you drive yourself even a bit harder?” Walsh responded “Yeah, it has definitely fast-tracked a bit of my learning and understanding of how footy clubs work and how the playing dynamic all works, probably been pretty young and pretty raw in that area but I have had a lot of people that have helped me along the way. Since I arrived at the club I have tried to work as hard as I can and earn the respect of my teammates and that’s probably led to me being in the leadership position, from there I have just tried to be the best person and train as hard as I can and try and get the best out of my teammates.”

From his arrival at the Carlton Football Club Sam Walsh impressed with his skill-set of ball-winning ability, hard running, professionalism, durability and determination to be one of Carlton’s best players in 2019 and 2020. In 2021 Walsh was given greater opportunities in the midfield and continued his ascent to win Carlton’s John Nicholls Medal, earn selection in the All-Australian team and finish in the top five of the Brownlow Medal and the AFL Players’ Association MVP Award.

Article and Photographs By Dean Andrews

Twitter – @DeanAndrews7777

References

1 https://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/afl-draft-2018-sam-walsh-talks-carlton-cobden-and-family-as-he-enters-draft-as-pick-1-favourite/news-story/bc88331a8f0eb816ef406bf1636074f4

2 https://www.afl.com.au/news/2018-04-05/boot-banger-becomes-a-no1-draft-prospect

3 https://www.foxsports.com.au/afl/afl-draft-2018-vic-country-midfielder-sam-walsh-says-he-would-love-to-be-the-no-1-pick/news-story/fb5f601d705ccabd9fc5a0852e7563c8

4 https://www.afl.com.au/news/2018-04-05/boot-banger-becomes-a-no1-draft-prospect

5 https://www.afl.com.au/news/2018-04-05/boot-banger-becomes-a-no1-draft-prospect

6 AFL, AFL Record Season 2019, page 76

7 https://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/140703/walsh-signs-on-to-be-bound-by-blue

8 https://www.afl.com.au/news/2019-09-08/the-day-cool-calm-walsh-suffered-a-sweaty-palms-moment

9 Champion Data, AFL Prospectus – The essential number-cruncher for season 2020, 15th Edition, page 84

10 https://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/564589/leading-by-example-walsh-keen-to-step-up

11 https://www.afl.com.au/news/684522/blues-jet-pips-defending-champion-to-win-first-john-nicholls-medal

12 https://www.carltonfc.com.au/news/1012740/in-his-own-words-what-s-next-for-sam-walsh

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