As St Kilda’s key backs stroll into the defensive-50 in preparation for another block of match sim, the normally unflappable Callum Wilkie can’t help but let slip a sly grin as he makes his way towards his opponent.

Partner-in-crime Dougal Howard lumbers over to the ever-dangerous Max King as the reassigned Josh Battle shoulders up against co-vice-captain Tim Membrey, but Wilkie has eyes on four-gamer, Cooper Sharman.

Wilkie’s chuckle isn’t because he thinks he’s got the rangy forward covered, however. Instead, his delight comes from the fact that he’s going to make the young rookie work for every single moment over the next hour-and-a-half.

It’s a challenge Sharman has relished during his first pre-season at RSEA Park.

“Wilkie has a laugh every time we play match sim together, he goes straight to me,” Sharman told with a grin.

“He’s a bloody good defender, so it’s hard to play on him and he throws down a different challenge every time. Playing on him, Tom Highmore, Josh Battle and those guys, they’re elite defenders and they lock you down pretty hard.

“I suppose I got a bit lucky towards the back end of the year. No one knew who I was and how I wanted to play, so I had a bit of a free pass you could say.

“If I’m able to play more games this year, defenders from other teams will be looking at my game a lot harder, so to play on guys like Wilks who are trying to stop my strengths, it’s just preparing me for the season ahead.” 

Now, Sharman’s “free pass” has expired. Opposition defences – at the very least – have taken note of the unassuming youngster, who booted 10 goals in four games after being picked up late in the mid-season rookie draft.

And with the Saints’ squad close to full fitness this pre-season, a place in the side come Round 1 isn’t locked away; a point reinforced by Brett Ratten at last year’s exit meeting.

Cooper Sharman lines up for goal against Geelong. Photo: Corey Scicluna.

“They made sure I wasn’t getting complacent and that once games come around next year, you’re not guaranteed a spot in Round 1, so make sure to knuckle down to work on your fitness, strength and a few other areas of my game,” Sharman said.

“It’s been pretty challenging after being dropped into the side mid-season last year. I haven’t been exposed to this much of a large block of a running at this intensity, so that’s taken some getting used to.

“In my first pre-season I do get looked after a bit, but all in all in it’s been pretty tough.”

Despite being at the club for eight months, Sharman is only now nearing the end of his first pre-season after joining the list as a mid-season rookie last July.

From his four senior appearances in 2021 however, it looked like he’d been around far longer.

A clean strike at the footy – oftentimes with pinpoint accuracy – and a knack for finding space on the lead immediately caught the eye of Saints supporters, who found reason for optimism after falling short of the expectations set the season prior.

Those games are still “pretty surreal” for the young Sharman, who only a year-and-a-half ago had been running around in the local leagues in rural New South Wales.

“I definitely have to pinch myself a bit thinking about last year. It seems so long ago I suppose, just this month-long period where I was on this high playing footy for the first time,” Sharman said.

“Lining up for goal it sort of just hits you… ‘how on earth am I in this situation?’. Throughout the rest of the game it’s just fast-motion and you don’t have time to think, but those 30 seconds where you have time to compose yourself going for goal is where you think ‘holy moly, this is real’.

“The adrenaline definitely gets you through. Towards the tail-end of the last quarters I was definitely spent and almost crawling to the finish line.

“After the game you’re mentally and physically drained. I know some blokes have issues getting to sleep after the game, but as soon as I hit the pillow I’m out like a light.”

Extensive work alongside key forwards King, Membrey and former housemate Mason Wood to finesse the group’s leading patterns has been a major focus for Sharman this pre-season.

The potential of the 21-year-old pairing with a fully fit King in 2022 is on the cards, with the latter nursing a back complaint in the final stages of the year.

But just like Wilkie has helped instil this pre-season, Sharman has to earn his place. Injury may have afforded him his shot at the big time, but with almost 40 Saints players currently at full fitness, it’s going to be a tough task to convert last season’s scene-stealing cameo into that of a lead role.

“The main goal is just to build on what I started last year and try in be a regular in the side,” Sharman said.

“I know we were injury-riddled towards the end of the year and that’s how I got my chance, but hopefully we are all fit which will give me the challenge to hold down my spot.”