When Cooper Sharman was flying for pack marks against Fremantle on Sunday, St Kilda coach Brett Ratten must have been mightily pleased.
But with a neat pairing of four contested marks and four goals, the Saints’ new key forward might have left a former AFL coach even prouder.
Two years ago, Sharman was suiting up for the Balwyn Tigers in Melbourne’s Eastern Football League under the tutelage of Rodney ‘Rocket’ Eade, who coached Sydney, the Bulldogs and the Suns over a 21-year period.
‘Rocket’ taught Sharman how to fly.
“He gave me the confidence to really play my own game, especially just flying for my marks and backing myself in to go for them,” Sharman told aflplayers.com.au.
“I was probably a bit timid in my first few games there. With the more senior players we had at Balwyn, I didn’t want to get in their road, but Rocket was massive in instilling that confidence in me to back myself in and play my own game.
“It was very intimidating going out to training for the first time to meet him, but he was such a welcoming bloke.”
Sharman arrived at Balwyn from a Riverina town called Leeton, which claims a population of almost 12,000 people and is known for its rice growing.
Given its southern New South Wales location, the town is evenly split between football codes — rugby league and Australian rules — but for Sharman, picking up the Sherrin over the Steeden was an easy decision.
“My Dad played footy his whole life, so he was pretty quick to put me into Auskick as soon I was old enough. I’ve always had a footy in my hands, ever since I can remember,” he reflected.
Football’s lure would later draw Sharman to Melbourne, and in order to be close to the AFL action, he chose to study a Bachelor of Commerce in the Victorian city over the options in New South Wales.
“A lot of my mates moved to Sydney, Wollongong, Newcastle, all of those cities in New South Wales. But I chose Melbourne so that I could watch the footy and go and see AFL every weekend. I loved doing that as a kid, coming down to Melbourne,” Sharman explained.
Sharman swiftly cemented his spot in Balwyn’s senior side. But Eade wasn’t the only one keeping an eye on his talent; soon, the Oakleigh Chargers came knocking.
“It was never in the picture for me, I didn’t know it was possible to play [NAB League] as a 19-year-old,” Sharman said.
“We won the flag with a pretty stacked side — Matthew Rowell, Noah Anderson, Jamarra Ugle-Hagan — it was a very decent side.
“To be able to play with them was a huge experience. I really tried to keep up with those guys.”
The elation of the premiership triumph, however, was later followed by the gloom of missing out on draft night.
Sharman soon signed with Coburg, but COVID-19 had other plans. The VFL season was cancelled, and it was back to the drawing board.
But after recapturing his love for football through a condensed season back home in Leeton, the 193-centimetre key forward was ready to once again chase his AFL dream.
This time, in the SANFL, with reigning premiers Woodville-West Torrens.
“I probably chose the SANFL because Melbourne was still in lockdown at the time, and the VFL, that competition structure was still up in the air, so I thought the safe bet was to go over, play in the SANFL and see what happens from there.
“He gave me the confidence to really play my own game, especially just flying for my marks and backing myself in to go for them.” – Cooper sharman on rodney eade
“I moved over with my girlfriend, so that made it a lot easier. Two other Leeton blokes came over to play in the SANFL as well, so I had familiar faces around me.”
A rolled ankle in the pre-season restricted Sharman to reserves-level football for most of the opening rounds, and simply breaking into the senior team became the chief priority.
“[But] as it turned out, the Saints had been watching all my reserves games and thought they’d take a punt on me,” Sharman said.
Then, on the eve of the mid-season draft, St Kilda list manager James Gallagher came calling.
“He rang me and said, ‘We’ve only got one pick at the moment, but if we get one more you’ll come into our calculations’,” Sharman said.
“Later that night, it got announced that the Saints had opened up two or three more list spots.
“The day after, James rang me again and he said, ‘We’re going to take you tonight if you’re prepared to pack up, leave your life in Adelaide and move over’.
“I jumped on that opportunity. That was a huge shock, but I was super stoked.”
Joining the club in the midst of a national crisis, though, wasn’t exactly a smooth process.
“The Saints squad was in Sydney and was preparing to go play in Cairns the week after, so the initial plan was for me to stay in the SANFL and play two or three more games, then move over to Melbourne after the bye.
“But for the Adelaide game in Cairns the squad was getting a bit thin through injury, so I got flown in in case they needed another number to fill the emergency spots. I played one game of SANFL after I got drafted, and then a couple of days later was flown to Sydney to join the squad.”
Mason Wood – another player whose AFL fate hung in the balance until St Kilda took a punt on him in the pre-season supplementary selection period — quickly took Sharman under his wing.
“He was the first one to offer up a bedroom in his house. He’s been huge for me, showing me the ropes of how to live like an AFL footballer. We play a similar position on the field as well, so he’s been huge in helping me in that space.”
Not only is Sharman now living like an AFL footballer, but he’s found the confidence to play like a brilliant one.
In Max King’s absence on Sunday, he stepped up.
“On the weekend without Maxy, it was a bit of a question of, ‘Who’s going to be that target up forward and who’s going to kick the goals?’ It was nice to fill that void.”
But as the curtains close on St Kilda’s 2021 campaign, Saints fans can look forward to the prospect of a Sharman-King partnership for a generation to come.
“When I first got drafted, the initial excitement was that I was hopefully going to be playing some footy with Max King,” Sharman said.
“Hopefully we can play full games together next year, and that us two and Timmy Membrey can form a solid partnership up forward.”