Sam Switkowski: Box Hill’s Circuit Breaker

It’ll be forty years this October since a Victorian representative team travelled across the Nullarbor to face a similarly assembled West Australian squad in the first “State of Origin” clash.

The match was the brainchild of Subiaco Football Club’s marketing manager, Leon Larkin, who was frustrated that the nature – and rules –  of selection for interstate matches often left the likes of South Australia and Western Australia without their best players.

The game, played at Subiaco Oval on October 8, 1977, was the culmination of more than two years back and forth negotiation, and just three-and-a-half months removed from one of the contests Larkin and like-minded interstaters loathed.

In June of that year Victoria, stacked with a number of West Australians, were too good for WA to the tune of 63-points. In October, replete with the same stars who’d played against them, the Sandgropers took on and thumped the Big V by 94-points.

In the 22-years that followed State of Origin was at one point the pinnacle of competition and passion in the game.

Teddy Whitten’s duels with Neil Kerley and, later, Graham Cornes were legendary. The cries of “don’t let the Big V down,” and “kick a Vic,” galvanised a playing group and inflamed a sect of fans for a two-hour prizefight that would determine which state held the balance of power until the sides next met.

Trips to the furnace that was Football Park bristled with the sort of feverish contempt that only a visit by Whitten and his Vics could stir.

Likewise, Subiaco Oval and the WACA would be packed to the rafters for the chance to see Western Australia subdue and stifle the entitled Victorians.

EJ’s cries of “we stuck it right up ‘em,” after a memorable win at Subiaco would still resonate with a generation of Victorians who embraced the challenge of competition across state lines.

The VFL’s ongoing expansion into a national competition brought with it competing priorities, player preservation and, perhaps crucially, shattered the mystique of the other state leagues, issues from which the concept never recovered; issues which created a diluted product from which the punters began to stay away.

Young Hawk Sam Switkowski was just three when Victoria humbled South Australia in front of just 26,000 fans on a rain soaked, miserably grey day at the MCG in May of 1999. The concept wouldn’t return the year after, nor in any of the subsequent seventeen seasons – bar a one-off hall of fame match in 2008.

With many of his Club teammates enjoying a well-deserved week off, Switkowski has been named in the 27-man VFL representative squad that’ll face the WAFL on Saturday afternoon, the only arena in which these contests are still staged and fought.

Despite the heady days of state vs. state having preceded his birth, and the opportunity to don the famous blue guernsey denied to those in the AFL system, the honour isn’t lost on the live wire small forward.

“To wear the Big V would be an honour,” Switkowski begins.

“Despite being born in South Australia, I’m proud to be a Victorian and would love the opportunity to be a part of its strong, successful history of football.

“To be recognised and selected among the numerous talented footballers across Victoria makes it even more valuable.”

As for the history of state football, Switkowski doesn’t claim to be an expert, though his respect for the contests that peaked in the mid-to-late 80s show they still cast a spell.

“Despite my knowledge of State of Origin history not being great, to know that guys like Gary Ablett Snr, Ted Whitten and Paul Roos wore the same jumper I might wear this Saturday is a special feeling.

“Victoria was a powerhouse of State of Origin throughout the 20th Century and my goal will be to uphold that legacy if I’m given the chance.”

It’s a chance he’ll deserve should it fall his way. Even though he’s missed two of the Hawks’ six matches due to a quad injury, his form since returning shows he hasn’t missed a beat. The pace, effort and intensity is all there.

“Newy (coach Chris Newman) and I have been on the same page from the beginning of preseason in terms of what he expects from me.

“My role is similar to last year, predominantly playing as a small forward and utilising my strengths of pressure and speed

“I know that bringing energy and work rate into the game doesn’t require skill or talent, so I know that with the right mindset I can bring it every game.”

In an era where player performance is defined by SuperCoach points and swelling possession counts, Sam is a player that challenges the notion more is better. He’s an impact player, one that only needs a touch or two to turn the tide in his side’s favour.

Last weekend, at Collingwood’s Holden Centre and with the match delicately poised, two such moments to leave a mark arose. They were taken without a second’s thought.

The first, a clean take on the half volley, the ability to turn and keep his feet under immediate pressure and then unselfishly find teammate Chris Jones at the top of the goal square gave Box Hill breathing room early in the final term.

The second, another stellar gather under immense pressure, a shimmy to work his way through a desperate tackle and an instinctive left footed snap iced the contest.

The week before, against Richmond, it was an outstanding chase and tackle on the wing. There’s always another effort, another tackle, another pressure act in “Switta’s” locker.

Three moments of match-winning quality from a man that works just as hard at the final siren as he does the first; three moments that inform and endorse his selection in the VFL squad.

Outside of footy Switkowski’s dance card is rather full, with the 21-year-old occupied by a varied and fulfilling list of extracurriculars. After all, with so much energy he has to keep himself busy somehow.

“I study environmental engineering. I also work in the Sport’s Department at Eltham College and do some social work as a therapy aide and support worker.”

Switkowski draws on a special, personal inspiration when reflecting on this week’s opportunity, this season’s unfolding promise and what drives him to get the best out of both.

“The biggest influence on my career comes from an old mate.

“Patrick Cronin captained us (Research Junior Football Club) to a premiership in 2012 and was the pinnacle of a great leader, friend and teammate.

“His tragic passing last year put football into perspective for me and highlighted what it means to be part of a team.

“Knowing that he’ll never be able to step onto a footy field ever again makes me grateful for my opportunity and I’m taking him along this ride with me because he pushes me to be the best footballer I can be.”

Lucky for Box Hill and Victoria, that footballer is a very talented one.

Photo: Jenny Owens

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