A 15-year-old boy playing senior footy against Riverina men will either sink or swim. Harry Cunningham swam like a fish.
A few seasons playing for Turvey Park’s firsts as a schoolboy not only proved to Cunningham he could mix it among the men, it clearly made an impression among AFL recruiters.
More than a decade and 174 games after being picked up in the rookie draft by the Swans straight out of school in Wagga, he has earned some rare coaches’ votes to feature for the first time this year in the Carey-Bunton medal for the best NSW player in the AFL.
His five votes for his shutdown job on Brisbane’s Charlie Cameron last week puts him on the scoreboard while Adelaide’s North Broken Hill boy Taylor Walker retains the lead on 30 votes after 14 rounds.
Cunningham also has a strong North Broken Hill connection. His father Mark played for North with Walker’s dad Wayne before moving in his early 20s to Wagga where he played for Turvey Park and where he and wife Sandra raised their three boys. The Turvey Park footy club was a big part of that upbringing.
Cunningham played with the Bulldogs from the age of four and made his senior debut for the club in the Riverina Football League at only 15.
“It can be a bit intimidating as a 15-year-old kid with these bigger bodies running at you, but I was just enjoying my footy and didn’t really think too much of it,” Cunningham said.
“And you know you can play footy, then you get that belief that you belong at that level.
“And I was lucky to have great role models, particularly my old man and brothers. Dad’s a very selfless and caring man and a hard worker, same as mum, they put others first.
“I’ve always been a lover of footy, I enjoy working hard and enjoy getting out there and playing and that was the case then as well when I was a kid.”
And he was like so many other kids in sports-mad Wagga, playing rugby league on Saturdays and Aussie Rules on Sundays. Until a time came when rep footy got serious and after making the NSW Under 16s team, he had to make a decision.
“So I stuck with AFL because I was better at it and more suited to it,” Cunningham said.
“As a kid in Wagga you just want to play whatever sport possible and there’s a lot of skills you pick up from different sports.”
Days after his final HSC exam at Mater Dei College in Wagga, he was invited to train with the Swans who quickly put him on their rookie list.
A few months later, he made his AFL debut at the age of 18 in round one 2012, straight into what became a legendary Swans premiership team.
But, after coming on a sub against GWS and picking up just four disposals, he was dropped, not to be seen again until round 17 the following season.
But he had a pretty good excuse.
“It was a pretty handy team then. I was young and naive but really enjoyed my footy and it was great being around the guns of the game, McVeigh, Goodes, Jude Bolton. It was pretty surreal. It took a while but over the next year or so it began to sink in that I can be around here for a while.”
And so he has. Into his 12th season for the Swans, Cunningham has been a reliable, no frills team man capable of doing a job anywhere on the ground.
But he still knows where he came from and he’s regularly back in Wagga to watch his brothers play for Turvey and catch up with family and he relishes the fact he’s one of many New South Welshmen at the Swans who still play for their ‘local’ club.
“As players you know it, everyone’s aware of who’s from NSW and I’m lucky to be one of the many. Everyone knows we’re representing more than just yourself, you’re representing where you come from and it’s great to represent a NSW club,” he said.
CAREY BUNTON MEDAL Coaches Votes – Round 14
30 Taylor Walker (Adelaide/ North Broken Hill)
22 Jarrod Witts (Gold Coast Suns/ Sydney University)
20 Jeremy Finalyson (Port Adelaide / Culcairn) 5
19 Errol Gulden (Sydney Swans / UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)
18 Tom Hawkins (Geelong/ Finley)
17 Nick Blakey (Sydney Swans/ UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)
11 Callum Mills (Sydney Swans / Mosman)
10 Jacob Hopper (Richmond / Leeton-Whitton)
9 Kieren Briggs (GWS Giants / Pennant Hills)
9 Lachlan Shultz (Fremantle/ Moama)
8 Dane Rampe (Sydney Swans / UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)
7 Todd Marshall (Port Adelaide/ Deniliquin) 4
6 Harry Perryman (GWS Giants / Collingullie-Glenfield Park)
6 Jack Buckley (GWS Giants / UNSW-Eastern Suburbs)
6 Isaac Heeney (Sydney Swans/ Cardiff)
5 Harry Cunningham (Sydney Swans/ Turvey Park) 5
5 Will Setterfield (Essendon / Albury)
3 Isaac Smith (Geelong / Cootamundra)
3 Luke Breust (Hawthorn / Temora)
BILL MOHR MEDAL Leading Goalkickers – Round 14
38 Taylor Walker (Adelaide/ North Broken Hill)
34 Tom Hawkins (Geelong/ Finley) 2
28 Jeremy Finalyson (Port Adelaide / Culcairn) 4
24 Luke Breust (Hawthorn / Temora)
21 Todd Marshall (Port Adelaide/ Deniliquin) 3
17 Lachlan Schultz (Fremantle/ Moama)
10 Harry Himmelberg (GWS Giants/ Mangoplah- Cookardina Eastlakes)
10 Isaac Heeney (Sydney Swans/ Cardiff)
10 Charlie Spargo (Melbourne/ Albury)
9 Errol Gulden (Sydney Swans/ UNSW-Eastern Suburbs) 2
9 Isaac Smith (Geelong / Cootamundra) 1
5 Braeden Campbell (Sydney Swans / Pennant Hills) 1
4 Callum Mills (Sydney Swans / Mosman)
4 Jacob Hopper (Richmond / Leeton-Whitton)
4 Daniel Lloyd (GWS Giants / Killarney Vale) 1
4 Sam Wicks (Sydney Swans/ Manly-Warringah) 1
3 Kieren Briggs (GWS Giants/ Pennant Hills)
3 Nick Blakey (Sydney Swans/ UNSW-Eastern Suburbs) 1
3 Harry Perryman (GWS Giants / Collingullie-Glenfield Park)
3 Jarrod Witts (Gold Coast Suns/ Sydney University)
3 Matthew Kennedy (Carlton/ Collingullie-Glenfield Park) 1
2 Will Setterfield (Essendon/ Albury)
2 Harry Cunningham (Sydney Swans / Turvey Park)
1 Matthew Flynn (GWS Giants/ Narrandera)
1 Elliot Himmelberg (Adelaide/ Mangoplah- Cookardina Eastlakes)
1 Jacob Koschitzke (Hawthorn/ Albury)
1 Daniel Howe (North Melbourne/ Rennie)
1 Harry Rowston (GWS Giants / Griffith)