IT’S OFTEN been said that it’s after the 50-game mark where AFL footballers really hit their stride.

If that truly is the blanket rule, then we’re in for a hell of a ride with Sam Walsh.

In a season where Walsh ticked off the first games milestone, he added to his 2019 NAB AFL Rising Star and 2020 AFLCA Best Young Player with recognition as a 2021 All Australian.

Then, on Thursday night, he was voted by his peers as the second-best player in the competition, behind the Western Bulldogs’ Marcus Bontempelli.

When asked what’s next in store for him, the answer Walsh provided was the understatement of the century — but gives an indication into how humble and hard-working the Carlton young gun is.

“Hopefully 100 games is in me,” Walsh told Carlton Media.

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“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.”

Ever since Walsh debuted in the season opener of the 2019 campaign, he has been acknowledged as one of the best young players in the competition.

However, his third season will be the one where he stepped up to truly belong along the game’s elite in the All-Australian team.

A self-confessed ‘footyhead’ growing up, Walsh previously spoke of the honour of being included in the team of teams: something he dreamt of as a kid, and an accomplishment he always ranked higher than most.

It’s quite an eye opener when Walsh mentions that there are still times that he doesn’t think he’ll “ever feel fully comfortable” playing AFL football, considering how natural he has taken to the elite level.

“There are still times when I pull on that jumper and I pinch myself that I’m playing AFL footy,” he said.

“I don’t think I’ll ever feel fully comfortable with it, because it was a dream of mine since I was a kid.

“I do love footy. When I look back to my childhood, it has shaped me into the person I am. I’ve been around footy clubs all my life, and I love coming into the Club and being with my mates and good people everyday that want to see you do well.”

While the individual accolades have come in rapid succession for the running machine, Walsh echoed the sentiments of fellow leader Jacob Weitering.

Holistically, it wasn’t the season he or the team wanted on the field, and that bears a significant weight.

“If we’re being honest, it’s not how we wanted the year to pan out,” her said.

“We always want to play finals, that’s the goal of our team. There were reasons we didn’t this year, and we’ve got to own that as a playing group.

“A massive thing for us is consistency, and that’s built through habits and the fundamentals in our game. We can grow a fair bit in that area and it’s something we can all control.

“It’s up to us to be more consistent for all 22 games next year. If we do that, we’ll make a lot more people happy.”

Right at home at the home of football

Walsh’s stats for the 2021 season were off the charts, particularly for a 21-year-old.

But it’s when you compartmentalise it even further and look solely at Walsh’s showings at the MCG that uncover how much he loves playing on the big stage.

He averaged over 31 disposals in his nine games at the MCG in season 2021. He polled coaches’ votes in eight of them, and was the Blues’ leading vote-getter in all bar one game he polled.

That game was a five-vote performance against Fremantle in Round 16, where he just so happened to kick the match-sealing goal.

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After a “whirlwind” first season and no capacity crowds in his second, the opportunity to play in front of a packed house - when the team was able to - was clearly one which Walsh relished.

“To be able to play in front of bigger crowds at the ‘G this year and feel that love was great,” he said.

“When you do get wins like that, it’s something you do remember. It was a bit of a shame to end the season without any crowds but hopefully going into next year, we have our great fans around us because they provide a fair bit of energy when we’re up and about.”

Backing in the youth

When it comes to Liam Stocker, Brodie Kemp and Corey Durdin, Walsh knows exactly what the trio have gone through.

Like Walsh, Kemp and Durdin were both Carlton’s respective opening draft picks in the last two seasons, while he of course walked through the door alongside Stocker after being first-round selections in the 2018 NAB AFL Draft.

Already an official member of the leadership group, Walsh loved what he saw from his three younger teammates: Kemp and Durdin in their end-of-season cameos, as well as Stocker in his breakthrough season.

“You see those guys grow from the day they come in, and they’re all competitive players,” he said.

“Coming in with ‘Stock’, I spent a fair amount of time with him and for him to go into a role down back and really execute well — he’s one of the toughest players you can play with.

“‘Kempy’ and Corey Durdin have had a few niggles with injuries and didn’t have the perfect VFL season with games being interrupted, but they just kept fronting up every day and you end up getting reward for effort.

“They’ll take great confidence - like all young guys do - playing games of footy and they know what they have to work on. That gives you confidence when you do execute.”

What about those goal celebrations?

They’ve taken on a life of their own in the past two seasons.

As Walsh continues to hit the scoreboard, like he has consistently in the last season and a half, expect to see more of the same.

Having kicked 20 goals from his last 33 games, he admits that they’ve become a “big talking point”, particularly after he channeled England’s Raheem Sterling following his matchwinner against the Dockers.

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It’s something he, his teammates and younger fans love, and he’s planning on more of the same.

“On a serious note first, when you want to impact games, it comes down to hitting the scoreboard. Where I did well this year was finishing my work better than previous years,” he said.

“The celebrations are a bit full on at times, but I am into a lot of my other sports. I get a bit of inspiration off that.

“The boys seem to love it. Hopefully I don’t look like too much of a toss!”