Cooper Sharman playing as a defender is an experiment just three senior games in, but it’s an idea that’s been tucked away in Brett Ratten’s mind since day one.
From the very first phone call immediately after he was taken at last year’s Mid-Season Rookie Draft, Ratten had already floated the possibility of the Saints’ then-newest recruit taking up a role down back going off highlights vision alone.
Exclusively a forward by trade and with a sizeable boost to those credentials at the tail-end of last year, Sharman as a defender seemed a far-fetched notion only a short while ago, but it’s an idea that’s gathered steam over the past month.
Only six months ago, Sharman was going toe-to-toe with Callum Wilkie during match simulation. Now, they’re lining up alongside each other in the defensive half at senior level.
“It’s been an interesting transition, it’s come about really quickly but been in the pipeline for a little bit,” Sharman told saints.com.au.
“The first phone call I had with Ratts after I got drafted, it was all congratulations, and then he said, ‘I’ve seen your highlights and you look like a pretty handy forward, but I reckon you can play down back as well’.
“Ratts had dropped that he could see me as a defender a few times over the last year and a bit, but never really put it into action.”
This time last year, it was near-impossible to think the rangy forward plucked from Woodville-West Torrens would be playing anywhere else but forward.
Sharman appeared destined for a permanent role inside-50 after his head-turning 10 goals from four games to close out Season 2021, before Dougal Howard’s knee injury last month turned Ratten’s brainchild into a reality.
That weekend’s VFL game against the Western Bulldogs proved to be the perfect opportunity to test the theory. With Sandringham in need of some key defensive stocks with Jarrod Lienert and Oscar Adams the only defenders breaking the six-foot mark, Sharman was thrown down back for the first time in his career at any level.
AFL Development Coach/VFL Senior Coach Jake Batchelor said he looked like he’d been in that position “for about three years” in the aftermath. He had 16 touches, 10 spoils and six marks in a mostly assured display, keeping particularly busy as the Bulldogs ran out nine-goal victors in a strong second half.
There was no unofficial crash course on how to play the role, with Ratten and Batchelor encouraging him just to trust his natural instincts, not to overthink it and simply play how he thought a defender would.
The next week he was in the senior side at centre-half back.
“I was a bit nervous, but pretty excited just for something a bit different towards the back end of the year,” Sharman said.
“Being a backman probably wasn’t in the picture at the start of the year, but then when the opportunity came up I was more than happy to play a role like that in the AFL team when I did get the gig.
Sharman has always played as a forward beginning from his junior days, however adding another element to his game has been a major focus this season.
The 22-year-old was previously experimented on the wing earlier in the year at VFL level and also pinch-hit in the ruck against Sydney before being flipped to defence to promising effect.
He’s since joined defensive line meetings, grown his relationship with backline coach Corey Enright and broadened his knowledge of that position and how defenders operate. Beyond that, everything else has, in Sharman’s words, been “on the fly”.
All seemed to come together last weekend, with a game-high 13 spoils coupled with his impact aerially not only pivotal in the eventual win, but affirming that there’s merit to play Sharman down back.
By no means has a line through Sharman as a key forward been drawn. Playing down back has had its own influence in upping the youngster’s offensive nous, giving him a leg-up for when he does go back to roaming the forward-50.
And while there’s likely many more big hauls to come from the deadeye Saint with a textbook set-shot action, there’s now just as much potential for him to be thwarting ones off the boot of the opposition.
“Last week, the disposals weren’t anything special, but I think I did my role as good as any other game that I have played,” Sharman said.
“I’ve been going out there with a forward mindset. As a forward, I know how I don’t like being defended and what defenders can do to make it challenging for me, so I think that’s how I’ve learned a lot.
“I’ve been beaten a few times as a defender, so when I do swing up forward, I reckon that’ll help me: knowing how to beat other defenders and how I can get on top of them.
“Hopefully a bit of versatility in my game can get me a few more games at AFL level. When that key player at either end goes down, I can be the one fill into that spot.”