Callum Wilkie could be forgiven for a self-serving approach to pre-season training.
Since missing out on the draft back in 2014, the reliable defender was never given the guarantee of finding his way onto an AFL list. He had to tread his own path, combining long days in the accounting office with hard-working nights on the North Adelaide training track.
Eventually picked by St Kilda in the 2018 rookie draft after years of rock-solid SANFL form, one might expect the 25-year-old to be used to fending for himself.
But Wilkie, who has played every possible game since he was drafted, is focused purely on how he can help the team improve. It’s why he was elevated into St Kilda’s leadership group in 2021 before reaching 50 games, and explains his fourth-place finish in last season’s club best and fairest despite a lack of external recognition.
Now, he is playing a pivotal role in the Saints’ pursuit of a team-first culture as the club aims to rebound from a disappointing campaign.
“How we can get this team better, what I can do to make someone else better,” Wilkie said, when quizzed on his pre-season focuses.
Wilkie added that although the leadership role was made tricky by St Kilda’s inconsistency throughout the season, he had enjoyed the challenge of trying to spark improvement in a team that had dropped suddenly from 2020’s top-six finish.
“It was tough at times when we weren’t performing and were inconsistent,” Wilkie conceded. “You go home after games not thinking too much about your performance, you’re thinking about the team, how we can get better and how we can improve, so it’s added a different element.”
The intercept defender attributes his swift rise up the ranks to his commanding voice and ball-reading ability, as well as the continuity he has struck through not missing a single match since his AFL career began.
“It was something I never really thought about in my first couple of years. I guess it’s sort of in the way I play, I see the game not too bad and I talk a lot, so it was put on me the year before I got into the leadership group in 2020 to be a bit of a leader in that backline. It was really nice to get recognised,” he said.
“My body has held up pretty well. I guess I was pretty lucky in my first year to have some injuries in the team and that gave me a chance. I didn’t really cement my spot during pre-season, it was just through luck with injuries and through some good footy. It’s nice to have that continuity week in, week out and building from there.”
Despite the pressure of leading a team that will be expected to push back into finals in 2022, Wilkie has not lost sight of his enjoyment for a game that he once viewed merely as an outlet from his accounting job.
He says the tough slog of state-league football helped put AFL life into perspective.
“[SANFL] was a good standard of footy and I was playing with my best mates who I’d played with since I was about 10, so I was enjoying life, just having fun and playing footy,” he reflected.
“It didn’t click in my mind that AFL could be on the cards until the year before I got drafted, at the end of 2017 when Josh Carr, our coach, put it on me that it could be a possibility if I dug in and put some hard yards in.
“State leagues are a grind. You work all day, train in the night, but you go play footy almost as a release from work to go and play with your mates. It gives you perspective when you come into the AFL system.
“To put all your eggs into footy, I’d never done before. It gives you perspective of just appreciating AFL for what it is. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do what you love.”
St Kilda’s backline has also been bolstered by the addition of new assistant coach Corey Enright, who was a triple-premiership player and six-time All-Australian defender at Geelong. Wilkie is confident the former Cat will improve the Saints’ back six in 2022.
“He’s had a huge impact so far, he was probably one of the game’s greatest defenders. He’s come from such a successful club in Geelong,” Wilkie said.
“You want to just pick his brain and grab a bit of his knowledge. When he talks, boys listen. He’s a very well-respected person already. I reckon he’s going to have a massive influence on us.”