Jack Steele’s rise from the suburban Gungahlin Jets to leading St Kilda in the AFL

Winning always brings about a good feeling.

But doing it where you grew up, and captaining your team against your old side, is something else again.

Last Friday night Jack Steele did just that at Manuka Oval, leading his undermanned St Kilda side to a win over the Giants with an imposing individual performance.

A few short years ago Steele was fighting for midfield minutes amongst a deep GWS group. With more talented players than spots in the team, the Giants traded the 26-year-old for a future second-round pick.

But since giving the St Kilda jersey, Steele has evolved into one of the league’s finest two-way midfielders and leaders.

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With the Saints’ win in Canberra last Friday against the Giants, Steele’s team have stamped themselves as serious final contenders.

And the Canberran’s journey to the top echelons of the game from the very bottom sees no signs of stopping.

From the grassroots of Gungahlin

While often thought of as a rugby league or union heartland due to the Raiders and Brumbies, Canberrans generally have an affinity for all varieties of football.

AFL names like Alex Jesaulenko, James Hird, Phil Davis and Nathan Buckley spent time mastering their craft as juniors in Canberra’s icy cold winter conditions.

Just like among the traditional VFL teams, there’s a pecking order of clubs in Canberra.

There’s the traditional blue bloods of Ainslie Tricolours, Eastlake Demons, Queanbeyan Tigers and Belconnen Magpies, and the newer suburban population hubs of Gungahlin and Tuggeranong. Almost all of the AFL-era talent to leave Canberra has done so via the four former clubs.

Jack Steele was no different, drafted as an Academy selection to GWS from Belconnen. Lesser known is the fact that he started his footy days at the Jets in Gungahlin.

Steele was awarded the club co-captaincy alongside Jarryn Geary in 2021, before his captaincy in 2022.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Dylan Burns)

Steve May is a stalwart at the Jets. For a quarter of a century, he has played and coached at the club.

“Jack won the Under 12s Players’ Player award at the Jets,” May said.

“My son’s name is also on the trophy — Jack won it in 2007 and Joven May won it in 2016.”

Across the country there are clubs that struggle to win each season, let alone each week, and few have battled harder in recent years than the Jets.

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It’s been nearly three years since Gungahlin last won a senior game on either the men’s or women’s side. They’ve never made a top-level men’s grand final in those 40 years, but had success in some lower men’s grades.

The Jets are celebrating their 40th anniversary this year, outdating the northern Canberra outreach of Gungahlin itself. Since their inception, the Jets have had few bursts of success in the top grades. Their women’s side has produced a decent amount of AFLW talent, not least AFLW premiership-winning coach Bec Goddard. They won a women’s flag from fourth on the ladder in 2016, a moment of joy for the club.

May said opportunities for development and friendships, likely pushed Steele to the bigger Belconnen club.

Jack Steele kicks the football.
Steele started playing footy with the Gungahlin Jets before moving to Belconnen.(Getty Images: Mark Kolbe)

“Our biggest problem at senior level has been recruiting players. Compared to the big four clubs, we have always struggled to pay our players as much. We are working hard to close the gap but still have a long way to go.”

There’s some hope for Gungahlin going forward.

Their junior programs are growing in strength, and their under 18s are starting to hold their own against bigger clubs. With Steele as the poster boy for what can be done from the Jets, maybe more talented kids will come and turn around the fortunes of the club — just like Steele has been able to do with the Saints this year.

So what’s he like as a player?

There are some similarities and commonalities between football players, but no two are alike.

Steele’s game is somewhat a hybrid of the classic hard-at-it inside midfielder and the classy outside ball user. As a whole, he is maybe the best two-way midfielder in the competition, equally dangerous with and without the ball.

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As a junior he vacillated between a higher half-forward role and grinding it out in the middle. At AFL level, it took time to blend the two skills together without being pigeon-holed in either.

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Steele can win the ball on the inside and effectively move it to the outside to create scoring chains for the Saints. His above-average size means he can drive through tackles, and his subtle agility means he can sneak through pressing opponents. At stoppages, he’s able to bump off his direct opponents, usually into the path of the ball.

It means that Steele often gets first use of the ball, or can help his teammates to do so. St Kilda’s performance at the contest has improved dramatically this year, a product of both a deeper midfield grouping and more defined team structures.

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For all his attacking prowess, it’s the defensive side that shows Steele’s resolve. Steele has ranked in the top 10 for tackles every year since he moved to St Kilda. This year, he sits near the top for intercepts for midfielders. He reads opposition players like a book, laying tackles as easy as he breaks them.

While many of the league’s best midfielders work more on the attacking side of the ball, Steele’s work occurs truly all over the ground. He gets about 60 per cent of his disposals in the back half, more than his fellow midfield heavyweights. He also sits in the top 30 for both kicks inside 50, and points from those kicks.

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Jack Steele’s kick and handball locations in 2022.(ABC Sports: Sean Lawson)

During general play, Steele presents as an extra realistic competitive tall-ish marking target, able to at least provide a contest in the air. Against the Giants, down a ruck and a half, Steele even contested in the ruck against the 20cm taller Braydon Preuss. It means that Steele can help neutralize contests, or at least draw his opponents away.

In past years, Steele was often relied upon to be the best Saint on the field every week. With an aggressive recruiting push in the past couple of years, combined with some stellar drafted talent, that need has lessened. It means the Saints can open up blocking opportunities and attacking pathways for several of his teammates, profiting from more favorable match-ups.

St Kilda coach Brett Ratten elaborated on this after the win over the Giants.

“It’s not for Jack Steele to be our best player each week. If that happens, we’ll be OK, but it’s about how many we can join with him to become a team that is, I suppose, more unpredictable,” he said .

“The reliance is not on one, but on many, and we can spread that load.”

That doesn’t mean Steele doesn’t have to set the standard on the field.

Jack Steele tries to handball goal is smothered by three Tigers players.
Steele has become a star midfielder of the competition.(Getty Images: AFL Photos/Dylan Burns)

Steele’s impressive leadership

A lot of modern footy can be explained by subjective or objective analysis — the numbers or the vision. You can count how many touches a player gets, or see how close they are running on defence.

In a world increasingly obsessed with measurement and explanation, one key area of ​​footy is harder to gauge — leadership.

Leadership isn’t merely one quality, nor does it just come in one flavor. Some lead by speaking out, others by doing.

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“He’s been a fantastic leader and his game and leadership has developed in my time here,” Ratten said.

Steele clearly leads by example. He’s not afraid to do the dirty work, and huck in for his teammate. This sense of sacrifice has served the team well this year.

That balance has led to a new outlook on the Saints.

On the field, the Saints communicate with ease and work as well together as any other team in the competition. That sense of knowing what each player should be doing on the field and where they should be often separates final teams from the pack.

St Kilda enters round seven with just one loss. Across the ground, the Saints clearly work for each other. The leadership of Steele, predicted on setting an on-field standard, has at least some role in the Saints’ rise.

Still, stiffer opposition is to come shortly. The next three weeks see the Saints play Port Adelaide, Melbourne and Geelong. If they can win two of those three matches, many of their preseason critics will be reassessing their finals chances.

And Steele might be well on the way to adding a Brownlow Medal to his pool room, a long way from the frosty fields of Amaroo in North Canberra.