SANFL star Jack Hayes has finally earned an opportunity at AFL level after St Kilda added him to its list ahead of the pre-season supplemental selection period deadline next Wednesday.
The 25-year-old started training at the club in December and has been part of the full program for most of the pre-season, playing in the intraclub and practice match against Carlton last month.
AFL.com.au can reveal the Saints finally put pen to paper this week with list manager James Gallagher confirming the decision with the players at a meeting inside RSEA Park on Wednesday.
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Collingwood showed interest in Hayes last year and Gold Coast had spoken to him in the past, but the Saints have tracked the South Australian across the past four years and even considered taking him in last November’s rookie draft.
It is understood West Coast inquired about Hayes during his time training with the Saints after star forward Jack Darling failed to meet the deadline to be vaccinated.
Hayes was widely regarded as the best player in the SANFL following a season where he captained South Australia against Western Australia, finished third in the Magarey Medal and won the Jack Oatey Medal for best on ground in the Grand Final – polling 27 of 27 votes – after leading Woodville-West Torrens to back-to-back flags in October.
At 193cm and 91kg, it remains unclear exactly where Hayes could play at AFL level, given his height as a ruckman and a forward has deterred recruiters from pulling the trigger on him in recent years. But the Saints like what that he adds depth in attack and in the ruck, especially given the Achilles issues that limited veteran ruckman Paddy Ryder to only 12 games in 2021.
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St Kilda coach Brett Ratten has used Hayes in both roles in the past fortnight, exposing him in the ruck against Marc Pittonet and Alex Mirkov at Ikon Park last Thursday after he faced off against Tom Campbell in the intraclub at Moorabbin.
Hayes joins a growing list of mature-age recruits St Kilda has recruited from the SANFL since Gallagher arrived in 2018, following a 38-game career for the Crows and 228 appearances for Norwood.
"Jack has put in a mountain of work since being invited to train with the club this pre-season and his desire to make the most of this opportunity has been evident in his competitiveness and professionalism both on and off the field," Gallagher said.
"Jack is a genuine competitor, a good mark and at 193cm he offers a lot of versatility for the coaches in how we can potentially use him and others, particularly in the forward half of the ground as the season progresses."
Callum Wilkie has gone from playing for North Adelaide on the weekend and sitting behind a desk as an accountant during the week to holding down a permanent spot in St Kilda’s best 22, as well as being included in St Kilda's five-man leadership group for this season.
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Tom Highmore played 13 games last year after being recruited from South Adelaide as a 22-year-old with pick No.45 in the 2020 NAB AFL Draft, while Cooper Sharman was selected with pick No.21 in the 2021 mid-season rookie draft and kicked 10 goals from five appearances at the tail end of the season, including four in the final game of the season.
Wilkie – who housed Hayes for a few weeks earlier this year – and Highmore quickly endorsed Hayes to St Kilda recruiters after his first training session at Brighton Grammar in December, recalling some previous encounters in South Australia where Hayes dominated against them. Dougal Howard also recalled a similar memory he had tried to forget.
Hayes’ older brother Nick spent two years on Brisbane’s rookie list before returning to play in the 2020 premiership with Woodville-West Torrens, ahead of a move to Werribee in 2021.
St Kilda still has one remaining spot on its list and is considering former Port Adelaide defender Jarrod Lienert and ex-Tiger Patrick Naish.
The Saints can add both if they choose to place Nick Coffield on the inactive list, after the young defender tore his anterior cruciate ligament in Ballarat last month. But it is more likely they opt for one or neither, keeping at least one spot open for the mid-season rookie draft in June.
Hayes will now put his landscaping career on hold to pursue his AFL dream, just like Wilkie who has transitioned from a full-time accountant to a full-time footballer.