RYAN Gamble hails from Millicent, roughly halfway between Melbourne and Adelaide, and played the past five seasons at provincial Geelong. All of which means there is more than a transition of clubs to be made for the South Australian, who began his second incarnation as an AFL player when he arrived at St Kilda yesterday.
Aside from learning a new club culture, Gamble has to find his way in the big city. ''I was at Geelong for five years and I've only been up the highway probably 15 times in those five years,'' he said yesterday. ''I am a country boy. It's going to take a while to get used to the city, but I think the rewards here are worthwhile.''
Gamble, 23, was one of the interesting tales of last week's national draft, a gifted forward who could not break into a talent-laden Geelong front half on a regular basis in one of that club's most glorious eras. He had just 24 senior games in those five years, and only two this year, when the Cats sent him into defence in their VFL team.
He won the best and fairest but, before season's end, knew that it was time to move on. ''The coaches came to me and wanted to put me down the back line. I thought realistically the only place I could get into the Geelong team was in the forward line, but they said it was the back line for me. I just went away, did my work and I was pretty much in the back line all year.''
The realisation came, and Gamble asked for a trade. ''In the first 15 rounds or so I probably played two [games] and that's when I really started to think 'for my career is it going to be Geelong or somewhere else'. I did ask for a trade, but when I got delisted I was lucky to be picked up by the Saints.''
St Kilda and Geelong talked over a trade, but Saints' coach Ross Lyon took the punt that Gamble would be delisted. Having copped flak over Luke Ball's departure at the end of 2009, Lyon got this one right, and St Kilda nabbed him with pick 90. ''He was in an elite system trying to get in and at 23, we think he's done a great apprenticeship,'' said Lyon. ''We think he can offer us something in our front half with his hardness, and he's outstanding overhead.''
Dean Polo's story is similar. Delisted by Richmond after five seasons and 56 senior games, he is just 24 and has stared the footballers' oblivion in the face. ''Yeah, definitely, you always have that in the back of your mind and it's not a very nice feeling,'' he said. ''I still felt 'I've got so much to offer in AFL football, and hopefully I'm given that opportunity'. Now that I have, there's no looking back.''
Lyon said Polo was originally a top-20 draft pick, and ''we just don't think [it] disappears''. Polo can play in midfield or down back, now that he is clear about his future. ''It's been a long time since round 22 to draft day and it's just been burning inside ever since. So I'm grateful to St Kilda Football Club for giving me that opportunity and I'm not going to let them down.''
The Saints have four teenaged draftees, headed by West Australian Jamie Cripps (pick 24), who pronounced the whole thing ''awesome''. Arryn Sippos (pick 75, from Dandenong) comes from a St Kilda-supporting family. ''You dream as a little kid to play and wear that St Kilda jumper when you get older, but you never really expect it,'' he said. Sippos wore Jason Cripps's No. 18 on his back as a young boy, and remembers watching games at Waverley Park with Nicky Winmar, Stewart Loewe and Austinn Jones starring.
Tom Ledger (pick 59) is sticking tight with Cripps, both being from Perth. The former Claremont player is a third-cousin of Heath Ledger, the late Australian actor. ''I met him once but I didn't really know him,'' he said. ''A lot of people ask me the same question but I don't have any acting ability, unfortunately.''
Sam Crocker (pick 43) comes from Kew and was one of seven Oakleigh Chargers drafted this season, needing only to pilot down Warragul Road to his employment. ''I've got it pretty easy, I guess,'' he said. ''[I'm] very humble to be here.''
St Kilda has also elevated a rookie, Tom Simpkin (pick 111), who was runner-up best and fairest at Sandringham last year. The new players have at least one thing in common. They can all run. ''I don't normally say it, but I think a few of them can make some impact next year,'' said Lyon. ''Clearly a couple of them need to build some bodies. They're light young men, but you can bang weight on but you can't bang talent into them. They've got some skill level and some speed which, I think we all acknowledge we're trying to get into the group.''