From other guy to Son Son of a gun
It’s Sunday night in the Virgin lounge at Melbourne airport.
Fremantle has just thrashed North Melbourne to qualify for the finals and most of the victorious players are hanging together in groups.
One player, however, has wandered off on his own to the other end of the lounge, where he is engaged in a conversation with an Adelaide Crows supporter. Seeing a racehorse screensaver on his fellow traveller’s laptop, the player asks whether his new acquaintance is involved in the racing industry and, when the answer comes back “yes”, is eager to ask about life in and around the sport of kings.
The pair chat for several minutes, before the player strolls back to rejoin his teamates. The Crows fan is left thinking “what a nice young fella” but also “who was that guy?”
The answer is Michael Walters, a silky-skilled small forward who has just kicked four goals against the Kangaroos to take his tally to 16 goals from his past seven games. The question, however, is fair enough.
While some Brisbane fans may remember him for a brilliant banana kick that snared a win for the Dockers at the Gabba in the opening round of 2011, Walters’ previous biggest claim to fame nationally has been as “the other guy”.
As in, “the other guy” – apart from West Coast’s Nic Naitanui and Carlton’s Chris Yarran – who made it to the AFL after growing up in Bushby Street in the Perth suburb of Midvale.
Still, being “the other guy” would have been more palatable than the position Walters found himself in during January, when, deemed unfit for AFL duty by new coach Ross Lyon, he was banished back to WAFL level.
Prevented from taking part in the rest of the pre-season with his Dockers teammates, the 21-year-old known as “Son Son” (the legacy of a lullaby sung by his father) was forced to find ways to add to a lighter Swan Districts training load.
“He was in reasonable shape for a WAFL player. But from memory the Dockers wanted his skinfolds at around the 55-mark and they were 70 or so when he got here,” Swan Districts coach and former Eagle and Docker Greg Harding reflected this week.
“Outside of our regular training I know he did quite a lot of work on his own with Des Headland and also a fair bit of stuff with Fremantle’s boxing coach.
“Sonny’s a good kid. He’s really enthusiastic but he’s always been so talented and successful – winning a WAFL premiership as a teenager, being head and shoulders above other players skills-wise in the colts – that he probably had a bit of tendency to coast.
“It’s a real testament to Sonny that he worked so hard, got back (to Freo) and is playing as well as he is because he had a couple of things in his personal life that could easily have distracted him.
“His grandfather, who he was very close to, passed away and his own first child (daughter Layla) was born.”
While Harding says he is “spewing” to no longer be able to call on Walters’ services, the reality is that he was probably lucky to have him at Swans as long as he did.
Walters was allowed to return to Fremantle in April (minus 10 kilograms) but wasn’t called up for an AFL game until the away win over Melbourne in mid-July.
He kicked three goals that afternoon and another three on the road against Adelaide on August 11, before his career-best effort against the Kangaroos.
Just as importantly, the left-footed Walters’ intelligent use of the ball has made him a natural fit for Lyon’s “strangle-then-counterattack” game plan. His kicking efficiency is 71.7 per cent, well above the league average for a forward of 63.9 per cent.
“He’s an elite decision maker and an elite kick of the ball,” Harding said.
“Funnily enough, Sonny’s actually a guy who is much more suited to using the Sherrin [AFL] ball than the Burley (WAFL) ball.
“He struggled a bit with set shots with the Burley and finished with 27.31 for us. He’s been much more accurate back at AFL level.”
Careers aren’t made on seven games, especially not seven games for an in-form team against the likes of Melbourne, GWS, Port Adelaide and Richmond.
But of all the Lyon-related restoration projects this year – notably Michael Johnson and Clancee Pearce – Walters may yet prove to be the most compelling.
His average of 2.3 goals per game so far in 2012 is only marginally behind St Kilda’s Stephen Milne and ahead of Carlton’s Eddie Betts. His record of a goal every 3.3 kicks is best among all small forwards in the competition.
Last September, after an injury-plagued season in which he managed only three AFL games, Walters was an interview target only so reporters could ask him about the prospect of a semi-final clash between his Midvale Junior Football Club teammates and childhood friends Naitanui and Yarran.
This year, scribes may well want “the other guy” in his own right.
If Walters is on his way to making a name for himself, he’s also – in a roundabout way – making good on what has turned to be an eerily relevant scouting report issued by his former AIS-AFL Academy coach Alan McConnell in the lead-up to 2008 draft.
Walters, who shared the Kevin Sheehan Medal with Tom Scully at the 2007 under 16 national titles, was eventually taken by Fremantle with pick No. 53.
“I’d be surprised if he doesn’t thrive in an AFL environment, provided he keeps his head down and works hard,” McConnell said.