Notice something really unusual about the last 10 minutes of the SUNS’ win over North Melbourne in Darwin last  Saturday night? Sam Collins was sitting on the interchange bench.

It was a statement from coach Damien Hardwick that recognised the worth of the ever-combative fullback and vice-captain. Like he was saying “the game is won – we’ve got a short break - we’re not taking any unnecessary risks with you – have a spell big fella”.

It’s a rarity for Collins as Hardwick made certain the 29-year-old defender would be ready to play his 100th game for the SUNS against Geelong in Darwin on Thursday night.

It will be a milestone of great satisfaction for the bearded backman, who has become one of the most reliable last-line defenders in the competition after being unceremoniously sacked by Fremantle coach Ross Lyon.

Originally from Donvale, 20km east of Melbourne, Collins is the youngest of four children and graduated in 2012 from Whitefriars College, which counts among its alumni NBA basketballer Ben Simmons, Australian Solicitor-General Stephen Donaghue, Melbourne Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece, ex-Carlton 300-gamer Marc Murphy, Essendon Team of the Century member Paul Van der Haar and current AFL players Christian Petracca (Melbourne) and Pat Lipinski (Collingwood)

His father Kevin is something of a football legend at VFA and later VFL level, having played at Oakleigh before coaching multiple premierships at Donvale and Box Hill. And for a time it looked like his son’s career would end at the same second-tier level when he was overlooked in the AFL drafts of 2012-13-14.

But he was finally taken as a 21-year-old by Fremantle with pick #55 in the 2015 National Draft – one spot before Sydney took now Adelaide captain Jordan Dawson and after the SUNS had chosen Callum AhChee (#8), Brayden Fiorini (#20), Josh Schoenfeld (#34) and Mackenzie Willis (#52).

Collins played 14 AFL games with the Dockers under Lyon in 2016-17 while being a key figure in back-to-back premiership sides with Fremantle’s WAFL affiliate club Peel Thunder.

The 2016 AFL Guide described Collins as “a key defender with excellent closing speed and endurance for his size … reads the play well and is a good intercept mark.”

But it was a tough time for the Dockers, who were coming off a grand final loss in 2015. They finished 16th with a 4-18 record in Collins’ first season and 14th at 8-14 in his second season. They were 0-9 when Collins debuted in Round 10 2016 against St.Kilda at Marvel Stadium.

Things started well enough – a 23-point loss to the 13th-placed Saints after they’d led at three-quarter time was followed by a 79-point win over Essendon at Subiaco in Round 11 and an 83-point win over Brisbane at the Gabba in Round 12.

But a deeper investigation reveals it was football’s equivalent of ‘fool’s gold’. The two sides they beat won four of 24 games thereafter and finished 17th and 18th with percentages of 61.6 and 61.0.

The 2017 AFL Guide noted Collins “had a good first season at AFL level” yet he didn’t get a chance until Round 11, when Fremantle were thumped by 57 points at the Gabba by a Brisbane side which was 1-9 at the time and bottom of the ladder,

He was dropped the following week, and didn’t play again until what in hindsight looked like a farewell game against Essendon at Subiaco in Round 23, when they lost by 15 points.

In a post-season in which Lachie Weller was traded from Fremantle to the Gold Coast, Collins won the Peel Thunder best & fairest, was named in the WAFL Team of the Year, and was one of 12 players to depart the club.

Zac Dawson and Garrick Ibbotson retired, Harley Balic was traded to Melbourne, Hayden Crozier was traded to the Bulldogs, and Zac Clarke, Josh Deluca, Jonathan Griffin, Nick Suban, Queenslander Matthew Uebergang and Shane Yarran were delisted with Collins.

There were plenty of people in Perth, including some respected figures at the Dockers, who thought Collins was hard done by. But he took it on the chin, went back to Melbourne and set himself to win a second AFL chance . And he did just that.

Playing with Werribee in the VFL, he won the B&F, was named in the VFL Team of the Year, and finished third in the Liston Medal behind Anthony Miles, who was playing with Richmond at the time and in 2019-20 would play with the SUNS, and Williamstown’s Michael Gibbons, who had previously won the Liston Trophy in 2016 and would go on to play 47 games at Carlton.

Collins was signed by the SUNS as a mature age state-league concession pick prior to 2018 draft with Werribee teammate Josh Corbett  and West Adelaide’s Chris Burgess. After his first season ended with a Round 9 hip injury he’s missed just three games since as Corbett and Burgess moved on.

And, wearing the #25 jumper worn previously by Danny Stanley and Jarryd Lyons, he’s made rare and fleeting visits to the aforementioned interchange bench.

In a game full of weird and wonderful statistics one low-profile number underlines Collins’ value to the SUNS, where he’s finished 1st-4th-5th-3rd in the B&F in the last four years.

In 99 games the now bearded and almost scary looking #25 has played 100% game time no less than 40 times. It’s the most clear-cut SUNS record … by a long way.

That Tom Lynch is next best with 12, followed by Charlie Ballard (10), Rory Thompson (9) and Matthew Warnock (9) adds one (*) to the Collins durability, and that Collins has averaged 96.8% game time, and only four times has played less than 90%, adds another (*).

And together (**) means “resilience personified”. A true warrior.

This year Collins has gone 95%-98%-100%-100%-95%-100%-100%-100% and 88% against North.

With Charlie Ballard, whose round-by-round game time reads 95%-100%-100%-94%-85%-90%-97%-92%-91%, Collins forms one of the competition’s most reliable key defensive combinations.

That the SUNS, 10th on the ladder, rank 9th for points conceded, is in part an endorsement of their worth. Even more so is the fact that in nine games the leading opposition goal-kicker has been a small more forward more often than not.

From Richmond’s Shai Bolton’s three goals in opening round it’s been Adelaide’s Josh Rachelle (3), Bulldogs’ Cody Weightman (6), GWS’ Toby Greene (5), Hawthorn’s Finn Maginness (3), Sydney’s Joel Amartey (4), West Coast’s Jake Waterman (4), Brisbane’s Joe Daniher and Darcy Gardiner (2) and North’s Jaidyn Stephenson (2).

With Geelong having already declared veteran full forward Tom Hawkins will not make the trip to Darwin to play the SUNS this week, and with his sidekick Jeremy Cameron playing all over the field, the key defensive match-ups will be a major interest as the SUNS look to extend their winning streak at Marrara Stadium to six games.

Collins is all-in with the SUNS. A member of the leadership group since 2020 and vice-captain since 2021, he was club champion in 2020 and has finished 4th-5th-2nd in 2021-22-23.

Despite not arriving on the coast until the SUNS’ 9th season in 2019 Collins is already ranked third at the club all-time in 1%ers – the trademark defensive act of the key defender that includes primarily spoils, smothers and shepherds. He has 794 from 99 games to trail Steven May (900 from 123 games) and Rory Thompson (818 from 106 games), and head Charlie Ballard (626 from 119 games.

But Collins, with a game average of 8.02, heads Thompson (7.72), May (7.32) and Ballard (5.26).

Moreover, in the last five years, as Collins has graduated from AFL reject to become one of the game’s toughest and most respected key defenders, only 21 players have had more than 400 1%ers.

Brisbane’s Harris Andrews (976) leads the list from Collins (738), Carlton’s Jacob Weitering (707), Collingwood’s Darcy Moore (679), St.Kilda’s Dougal Howard (653), West Coast’s Tom Barrass (650) and Melbourne’s May (606). Ballard (492) is 16th.

But while Collins’ football persona is all about physicality and aggression, his off-field persona is anything but. Clean-shaven when he arrived at the club, and barely recognisable as the same man today, he’s nothing like the Ned Kelly-type that his bushy beard now suggests.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 30: Sam Collins of the Suns handballs during the round 14 AFL match between the Gold Coast Suns and the North Melbourne Kangaroos at Metricon Stadium on August 30, 2020 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images via AFL Photos)

Away from football he’s quite the mild-mannered academic type with a soft heart and a passion for learning as big as his want to spoil a high ball coming into the SUNS’ backline.

A 2015 commerce graduate from the University of Melbourne, with majors in finance and marketing, he’s now doing a Master’s Degree in Business Administration.

In his Linkedin profile he talks of meaningful relationships with several SUNS partners, and identifies as most important his connection with the club’s major charity partner RizeUp, a national organisation that works with domestic violence agencies to enhance their service options.

He has a strong focus on “keenly learning, applying and developing” his leadership, and in the last paragraph of his Linkedin profile he writes: “I am keen to interact with like-minded individuals to understand what opportunities may be rewarding, stimulating and challenging after my football career.”

But right now the sole focus of the multi-faceted strongman will be on his 100th SUNS game as the club looks improve on an aggregate 3-12 win/loss record against the Cats as the teams meet for the first time at a venue other than People First Stadium (3-3) and Kardinia Park (0-7).

Collins will be the 22nd player to reach triple figures for the SUNS. And, set to turn 30 on 15 June, he will be the third oldest behind Gary Ablett (32 years 336 days) and Michael Rischitelli (30 years 183 days).

Having missed only 16 games during his time at the club – 13 due to his hip in 2019 – he will sit fourth on the club ‘ironman’ list behind Touk Miller (10), Jack Lukosius (11) and Ballard (12) and ahead of Jarrod Harbrow (17) and Witts (23).

As Collins plays his 100th SUNS game in jumper #25 on Thursday night, becoming the 19th player to triple figures in the same number, Brayden Fiorini will do likewise in jumper #8 after he wore #29 in his first two games in 2016.

There is one other statistic in which Collins is a runaway leader – most games without a goal.

Adding his 14 games at Fremantle, his career total of 113 games ranks 22nd among 13,142 players all-time. By the end of the home-and-away season he could be as high as 16th at 126 games.

But even then he’d still be a long way behind the all-time leader – Collingwood fullback Ted Potter, who played 182 games from 1963-72 without a goal and for a long time was famously and wrongly remembered as the player whose wayward handball set up St.Kilda’s Barry Breen for the winning point in the 1966 Grand Final. In fact, the ball spilled free and was never handballed.

Among current players Collins is a clear leader in this category from GWS’ Connor Idun (77), Adelaide’s Jordan Butts (66), Carlton’s Caleb Marchbank (61) and Port Adelaide’s Brandon Zerk-Thatcher (60).

Second behind Collins on the SUNS’ goalless games list is Matthew Warnock (32).

If Collins was to kick a goal against Geelong in what will be his 114th career game on Thursday night he would sit equal eighth on the AFL’s all-time list for ‘most games to first goal’, headed by ex-Fitzroy and Sydney fullback Rod Carter. He was 214 games to his first goal and finished with one goal from 293 games.

Geelong’s Jake Kolodjashnij, brother of ex-SUN Kade, is sixth on this list. He was 127 games to his first goal and now has three goals in 182 games.

And now that the SUNS 100-game list has reached 22, how would an All-Star 100 team look?

Using top 10 placings in the best & fairest as the determining factor, it would look something like:-

B: Jarrod Harbrow, Sam Collins, Charlie Ballard
HB: Sean Lemmens, Steven May, Trent McKenzie
C: Brayden Fiorini, David Swallow, Aaron Hall
HF: Alex Sexton, Jack Lukosius, Michael Rischitelli
F: Brandon Matera, Tom Lynch, Ben Ainsworth
R: Jarrod Witts, Touk Miller, Gary Ablett
INT: Rory Thompson, Nick Holman