Sam Murray’s story is one of perseverance.
Overlooked by the Murray Bushrangers as a teenager, then ignored in two AFL Drafts, there were times when he wondered if he would ever make it to the highest level.
Yet now, thanks to a great pre-season on the track and a dominant performance across half-back in Collingwood’s JLT Series win over the Western Bulldogs in Moe, the laconic 20-year-old defender finds himself on the cusp of a long-awaited AFL debut.
“Being at the biggest club in Australia, it’s probably not something I thought would happen a couple of years ago, but I’ve stuck to my guns,” Murray said after racking up 24 disposals and taking nine marks against the Dogs.
Murray’s long and winding football journey began in southern New South Wales.
He spent his early years in Ganmain, before moving with his family to a farm near Henty.
Renowned as a tough and talented junior player, Murray made his senior footy debut with the Swampies in his mid-teens. In 2014, having just turned 17, he was part of the Henty team that won the senior premiership in the Hume Football League.
Having missed out on a chance to play in the TAC Cup, he moved to the Wodonga Raiders, who play in the strong Ovens and Murray league.
Under the guidance of former Swans star Daryn Cresswell, Murray played in the midfield and across half-forward and was a revelation, finishing second in the Raiders’ 2015 best and fairest and slotting some miraculous goals.
A number of AFL clubs subsequently expressed an interest in the speedy left-footer, but none were prepared to take him in the national draft.
The Swans then came to the party by snaring him towards the end of the rookie draft as a NSW priority zone selection.
Murray moved to Sydney and spent the 2016 season adding bulk and plying his trade as a small forward in the Swans’ NEAFL team.
However, his big break came when the Swans’ NEAFL coach, former Collingwood player Rhyce Shaw, shifted him to the backline last year.
“Rhyce put me back because my defensive pressure wasn’t good enough as a forward,” Murray recalled. “I went from there. I found good form and I started to play consistent footy.”
Murray quickly became one of the leading rebounding defenders in the NEAFL, and at the end of the season was rewarded with a place in that competition’s team of the year.
Suddenly he found himself in the midst of a tug of war over his services. Sydney was keen to elevate him to its senior list, but Murray was enticed by an offer from Collingwood.
“We had a positional need, because Ben Sinclair was having some struggles, so we really needed to have a look at how we could get some more defensive depth,” Collingwood’s national recruiting manager Derek Hine, said.
Confident there would be more opportunities to play in the AFL if he headed to Collingwood, Murray asked to be traded to the Magpies.
It took until the last day of the trade period, but he eventually received his wish after the Swans swapped him and a pair of draft picks for a second-round selection in the 2018 national draft.
Given Murray was a relative unknown, the response from Collingwood fans on social media was largely one of bewilderment. But Hine knew he had snared a player with the potential to make a big impact in the AFL.
“What I really like about him is that he does lift his vision and he can punch the ball really deep. So that was really important for us,” Hine said.
“The lock-down side of his defensive game is still a work in progress. But we like that run and overlap come naturally to him, because of his speed.
“And what Collingwood people probably haven’t seen yet is he’s really strong overhead.”
Murray put his head down and worked hard through the early months of the pre-season, managing a few injury niggles along the way.
He spent a lot of time with fellow rebounding players Jack Crisp and Taylor Adams and developed a close relationship with new assistant coach Matthew Boyd.
“I’ve gelled well with Matty, who played in a similar position to me,” Murray said. “But I’ve also enjoyed working with the head backs coach, Justin Longmuir.
“He’s super. He’s really technical and he’s very good at giving everyone the best preparation for games.”
A classic country lad, with a laid-back personality and a no-fuss attitude, Murray has quickly become a popular member of the playing group.
“He’s a great kid, from a great family, and he just loves footy,” Hine said.
Murray missed the Pies’ first JLT Series game (he played in a VFL practice game instead) but was delighted to be selected in the side to tackle the Dogs in Moe.
As he roamed across the Ted Summerton Reserve, showing off his trademark pace and skill, the thought that he was auditioning for a spot in the AFL team to play Hawthorn in round one did cross his mind on a few occasions.
“I knew that if I did what I had to do, then I would be a chance,” he said.
Murray’s 24-touch effort, which was worth 93 AFL Fantasy points, meant he was one of the key talking points to come out of Collingwood’s impressive come-from-behind win.
Hine was rapt with what he saw.
“It was just really pleasing to see what he did on the weekend, because that’s exactly what we saw him do in the NEAFL,” Hine said. “He’ll keep learning, he’ll keep developing, he’ll get more confidence.
“I’m really confident about what he’s going to be able to do on a big ground like the MCG.”
By all reports, AFL Fantasy players are now loading up on Murray, who shapes as a bargain at $170,000. But the man himself knows a spot against the Hawks is still far from guaranteed.
“I’ll be hoping I get a game against Hawthorn, but it’s certainly not set in stone yet,” he said. “We’ll wait and see, and I’ll just try and do everything right to get myself ready.”
Whether he makes his debut against the Hawks or has to wait until later in the season, Murray is ready to mix it with the best.
“Collingwood came to me with an opportunity,” he said. “Now it’s about taking the chance when it comes.”
Sam Murray’s story is one of perseverance.