He’s the quietly-spoken 24-year-old Giant from the outskirts of Perth with an anonymous name who’s played just 86 AFL games after being drafted with a mid second-round pick.
And he’s arguably the AFL’s most valuable – possibly the best – player.
Because what Sam Taylor is producing on the footy field this year – in an era where the intercept backman is the most important asset for AFL coaches – is defensive utopia.
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“What he (Taylor) is doing is quite frightening,” dual premiership Kangaroo David King told Fox Footy’s AFL 360 on Wednesday night.
“The vision is basic, but it doesn’t matter where he is – he’s physical, he’s angry, he plays big, he’s happy to stand at the front of the pack, he’s happy to fly from the back of the pack, he’s happy to diffuse with a spoil if he has to.
“He’s the game’s greatest interrupter right now.”
There are star intercept players like Jake Lever and Aliir Aliir – and then there’s Taylor.
While Lever and Aliir often play on the third tall forward – subsequently helping them play off their man and win the ball back – Taylor plays on, and stops, the opposition’s best key forward. And wins the ball back.
Taylor is a rare key defender who can change the course of a game. He disarms the league’s top goalkickers, either by intercepting cleanly or spoiling to neutralise the contest.
Two years ago the Giants re-signed Taylor until the end of the 2025 season, after extending his contract by an extra three years. That move, in hindsight, might be one of the shrewdest contract calls the Giants have ever made – for if Taylor was available on the open market this year, he’d surely command well over $1 million.
Imagine if he was on Port Adelaide’s list right now? The Power’s premiership chances are already strong, but Taylor arguably would push them close to favouritism.
Or how about if Taylor was part of the Western Bulldogs’ backline? You could argue they’d be in the top-four mix.
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Asked if he knew Taylor was this good before taking on the Giants’ senior coaching role, Adam Kingsley told SEN’s Sportsday: “Well he was All-Australian last year, but when you’re not watching him week-in, week-out you don’t tend to realise his quality.
“It’s one thing as a defender to stop your opponent from getting the ball and to keep your opponent quiet. But the amount of balls he’s able to win and then allow us to attack from, I’ve just been surprised at how good he is in that phase of the game.
“Maybe I should’ve been watching him closer in the past. But I’m really glad he’s playing for us.”
The hype around Taylor over recent weeks has been on a gradual crescendo – and it’s no coincidence his form has conincided with the Giants’ shock surge into finals contention.
Kingsley’s side has won its past six straight games, which started with a scratchy win over North Melbourne in Round 13. Taylor returned from injury in Round 14 – and in those five matches, the Giants have conceded an average of just 54.6 points, which is ranked No. 1 in the competition.
What makes that number even more remarkable is the Giants have conceded the fifth-most marks inside 50 in the competition since Round 14. Yet Taylor, alongside fellow bargain draft pick Jack Buckley, is holding the fort on a level we haven’t seen at AFL level before.
Champion Data statistics shown on AFL 360 on Wednesday night showed Taylor this year has become just the second player to be ranked number one for both winning and losing defensive one-on-one contests in the same season, with only Eagles star Jeremy McGovern achieving the same feat in 2016.
And Taylor’s 2023 output is on another level to McGovern’s 2016 efforts. The Giant’s one-on-one win rate sits at 61 per cent – well above McGovern (47%) – while his loss rate is a stunningly low 7 per cent – again better than McGovern’s (15%) – all while matching up on stars such as Oscar Allen, Harry McKay, Joe Daniher, Mitch Lewis, Taylor Walker and Ben King.
Taylor’s ridiculous win rate is due to his ability to read the play. He’s ranked first in the league for average intercept possessions (10.5), sixth for average intercept marks (3.8) and eighth for average spoils (7.8).
Taylor has taken six intercept marks from his past two games against fellow finals contenders Adelaide and Gold Coast. They were dominant performances that saw him become the first player in Giants history to poll a perfect 10 AFL coaches votes in back-to-back games.
Collingwood skipper Darcy Moore, clearly, is in the same stratosphere as Taylor, with Moore ranked third for intercept possessions (8.7), fifth for intercept marks (3.9) and 12th for spoils (7.3). But what separates Taylor from Moore in this discussion is that the latter isn’t dealing with as many inside 50 entries and one-on-ones as Taylor. Collingwood is the third-best team for inside 50s conceded this season — the Giants are the fifth-worst — and Moore is only in 2.9 one-on-one contests per game, compared to Taylor’s 4.0.
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Put simply, Taylor is in rare air.
“The way he holds himself and carries himself, you wouldn’t know he’s a superstar,” Giants teammate Harry Himmelberg said of Taylor when speaking to the Giants’ website.
“He’s a really good person and I think that sort of helps him perform the way he does.
“It’s hard to put into words because to be honest because he’s such an unassuming guy, and an absolute legend around the club and we love him, but what he produces on game day is really, really special.”
As the numbers suggest, Taylor possesses a fierce competitiveness and determination to not be beaten — traits that stemmed from his childhood growing up on a farm from Bullsbrook, which is around 20km out of Perth. He was one of seven siblings — and two of them were older and bigger brothers who motivated him to beat the best and be the best.
Taylor came into this season off the back of a club best and fairest triumph, as well as maiden All-Australian selection. And despite missing seven games earlier this year due to a serious hamstring strain, he’s right in the All-Australian mix again.
Three players have been picked in an All-Australian side despite missing seven games: Andrew McLeod in 1998, Nigel Lappin in 2002 and Gary Ablett in 2014. Yet Taylor’s 2023 campaign has been so good that King believes the Giants star “has to be an automatic” All-Australian selection.
Moore and Harris Andrews are the two key backs in the conversation. But when you consider Andrews has been playing higher up the field this season, you could name Andrews at centre half-back and put Moore and Andrews in the back pocket and/or fullback.
It’s been a dramatic rise for Taylor, who wasn’t even the Giants’ first pick back in the 2017 draft after taking Aiden Bonar (Pick 11) and Brent Daniels (Pick 27) before him.
Taylor formed a strong key defensive partnership with Aaron Naughton for WA at the Under 18 national championships. Naughton was always in the top 10 conversation, while Taylor was a strong interceptor yet wasn’t as highly regarded as his one-on-one ability wasn’t at the same level.
Yet Taylor is now turning into one of the great bargains of that year’s draft.
Marcus Bontempelli, Christian Petracca, Nick Daicos, Zak Butters and even Giants teammate Toby Greene are all in the mix for the title of best AFL player in 2023. But Taylor deserves to be in the conversation.
For without the key defender’s presence in recent weeks, the Giants wouldn’t be back in the finals mix.
King has aptly dubbed him “The Great Wall of Taylor”. Good luck getting past him.
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