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The Age

Gwilt-edged investment

Date: 25/02/2005
Words: 969
Source: AGE
          Publication: The Age
Section: Sport
Page: 14
With parents from Kent and PNG, new Saint James Gwilt has a rare heritage.

WHILE most aspiring draftees were either glued to radios or the television on AFL national draft day last November, James Gwilt was in his whites playing district cricket for South Melbourne.

Indeed, he was only alerted to the fact St Kilda had called his name and number at pick No. 63 by a text message from a mate, who was taking considerably greater interest in the process than Gwilt himself.

In his defence, the quietly spoken 18-year-old left-footer had been left with the impression only days earlier by Carlton and St Kilda that there would be strong interest in selecting him in the rookie draft weeks later. Neither club had said anything about his chances in the national draft, so he felt it was better to just get on with his cricket until the big day came around.

Carlton, whose recruiting manager Wayne Hughes was on the board of Gwilt's suburban club Noble Park and who had convinced Gwilt to nominate for the draft, believed it was firmly in the box seat ahead of St Kilda in the rookie draft and wrongly assumed it was the only club to have seen enough of the youngster to make a true assessment of his talent.

But then, with Gwilt's family background and football pedigree being about as different as you could possibly get, it should have come as no surprise he would be doing something other than the usual on draft day.

Gwilt was born in 1986 to Jason and Nasain. His father was born in Kent, England, to Welsh parents who arrived in Ararat as "10 pound Poms" with their young son; his mother was born and raised in the countryside near Rabaul in Papua New Guinea before meeting Jason in the '70s when he was based there while working for a bank.

They are not the traditional bloodlines of a budding AFL champion, but no one who watched Gwilt's senior debut against Hawthorn last week in the Wizard Cup, impressing many with his 15 kicks, would be in any doubt he has what it takes to make a success of his AFL career.

While he shares his mother's appearance, his father, not to be left out, likes to take some credit for his son's silky foot skills and ability to kick well on both feet. A veteran himself of some 300 games of country football, his son's skills were less the result of specialist coaching, Gwilt snr says, as they were simply "hundreds of hours of kick to kick in the local park with his dad".

The AFL's player records, while showing only players born in PNG but not those of PNG descent, still seem to indicate Gwilt may well be in very select company. Only two players in the game's history were born in PNG - the Brisbane Lions' three-times premiership player Mal Michael and former Footscray and Carlton player Ben Sexton - yet those around the AFL this week could not think of any other player who had one or more parent from PNG.

According to the AFL's talent manager, Kevin Sheehan, Gwilt is the only player selected in last year's draft from a local football club who did not come through the AFL's recognised junior elite development programs and competitions such as the TAC Cup or to have been exposed to senior football in senior football in state competitions such as the SANFL.

"To be honest, the first time I heard his name was the moment he was read out," Sheehan said. "I knew nothing about him at all, which is unusual, because normally they'd be on the radar somewhere.

"I think it adds tremendous interest to the draft because there's probably only one that bobs up like that maybe every two years completely from left field. And I reckon it's great. It gives every one of the 1700 (players who have nominated) the belief that I might be the one from left field."

Gwilt had his chance to take the more usual route to the AFL when the Sandringham Dragons made overtures to him a number of years ago, but he chose instead to continue playing with Noble Park in the Eastern District Football League in order to play cricket during the summer when TAC Cup players would have been in the midst of a gruelling pre-season.

But rather than being content with playing under 18s, and perhaps aware of the need to do something extra to push his football along without the benefit of AFL programs, Gwilt approached the senior coaching staff and asked if he could train with the seniors.

"That would have been his first year in the under 18s and after that he trained with us every Tuesday night and I thought this kid can play," said new Noble Park coach Shane Burgmann, who last year was playing assistant coach to Dennis Knight. "And then last year, rather than play another year of under 18s, he asked if he could come up and play seniors instead."

And after a solid season, it was his final game of the year, the grand final, that sealed his fate. A best-on-ground performance on the half-back flank caught the eye of a St Kilda talent scout, sent down to watch Noble Park by Saints' recruiting manager John Beveridge, who had some inside information on Gwilt, having coached Dennis Knight as an under 11.

According to Sheehan, Gwilt's draft selection "just goes to show". "Sometimes you need to play well at the right time and put your talents to the fore under pressure in a big final that maybe only hundreds of people are watching," he said. "There just happened to be a set of professional eyes watching to say he was worth putting on an AFL club's list of possibilities."

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