When St Kilda drafted James Gwilt with a late fourth-round pick in the 2004 National Draft, its recruiting guru John Beveridge described the selection as ”a calculated punt”.
After all, Gwilt had knocked back overtures to train with Sandringham Dragons in the U18 TAC Cup, and was running around with Noble Park in the Eastern Football League. He had played in the interleague team as well as a winning EFL grand final, but there was also the possibility he might be headed down the cricket pathway, given he was an all-rounder who had played in the Premier grade with South Melbourne the summer before he was drafted.
But within 12 months Gwilt had forced his way into the St Kilda seniors, and in just his third game the recently turned 19 year old was the youngest member of the Saints team that took on eventual premiers Sydney in the 2005 preliminary final.
Brendon Goddard, who was the the third-youngest member of that St Kilda team at age 20, said that Gwilt’s professional approach was evident from the outset but that it perhaps took a while for him to believe he belonged at the elite level. The Essendon skipper is delighted that Gwilt, now a Bombers teammate, will lead the team out against West Coast this week, tearing through a 150-game banner.
“It really took him a couple of years to find his feet, not only with his footy but more so him as a personality and where he fit inside the club … once he did he became a much-loved person at St Kilda within the playing group,” Goddard said.
“Jim quickly realised what it took to play AFL footy, so it’s a credit to himself that he’s been able to get in this position. More so through his preparation and the way he trains, the way he prepares himself and gets himself up for each game.”
Gwilt himself acknowledged that he has never been a particularly outspoken member of the playing group. telling The Age in 2011: “When I get asked, I’ll say something. But I’m not one to talk for the sake of talking.”
But his teammates say he is nevertheless a genuine leader.
“Jimmy is quite an introvert, but he leads by example in his actions,” Goddard said.
“He is obviously quietly spoken . . . but when he speaks everyone listens.”
– Dempsey on gwilt
“Playing 150 games now he’s got a pretty good understanding of the game, so when Jim does speak a lot of people do listen. He doesn’t speak too often (although) it’s not strange hearing his voice, but guys definitely pay attention when he does speak, more so in meetings and stuff like that.”
One of his fellow Essendon backmen, Courtenay Dempsey, agreed with his captain’s assessment of Gwilt.
“He is obviously quietly spoken around the traps in this joint, but when he speaks everyone listens,” Dempsey said. “So that’s the thing that everyone admires.
“He’s obviously one of the senior players with me in the backline, one of the elders, especially now with what happened earlier in the year (with several Essendon players suspended for 12 months).”
Dempsey said Gwilt had been instrumental in passing on tips about backline craft to younger defenders such as Michael Hartley and Patrick Ambrose. “He’s just a leader in the backline and directs and helps out everyone.”
Dempsey also said that Gwilt’s versatility in matching up against tall of small forwards brought a lot of flexibility to the Bombers’ back six and made life easier for his teammates.
He said that after 126 games at St Kilda, including both of the 2010 Grand Finals against Collingwood, Gwilt was determined to bounce back from being delisted at the end of 2014 and had shown a flawless work ethic since joining Essendon in 2015. Gwilt has since played 23 games for Essendon, and has averaged more than 20 disposals a game in his 12 matches this season.
“You’ve got to understand that he’s been there and done and he understands what is needed to get there,” Dempsey said. “After that knee (reconstruction in 2011) and that delisting from St Kilda he came over here and he really worked his arse off to get to where he is now, and obviously its showing with the consistency in his football.”
Goddard said it reflected Gwilt’s upbeat approach to challenges.
“Jimmy really saw it as an opportunity, coming to Essendon, but at the time, being delisted, it was something where footy actually got taken away from him and something that’s been a big part of his life and an important part of his life, and he didn’t want to let this second opportunity slip,” Goddrad said.
“He wanted to make the most of it, and it’s been a credit to him how he’s gone about it.
“I’m proud of him, so well done Jim, 150 games and hopefully we can get a win for you mate.”