By the age of 23 Tom Hawkins was a two-time AFL premiership player.
Hawkins came up clutch across two Grand Final wins, kicking a pivotal fourth-quarter goal against St. Kilda in 2009 before completely dismantling Collingwood in the second half of the 2011 decider.
Despite those moments under the brightest of lights, Hawkins' role on Saturday will be multi-faceted. As hyperbolic as it may sound, the now 32-year-old has morphed into one the game's most versatile players, the Swiss army knife of the Cats forward line, if you will.
"Key forward has probably evolved the most as a position on the ground, but maybe that's just me and the way I'm put together and how I've had to evolve," Hawkins told ESPN back in June.
In a career-best campaign, Hawkins claimed his first Coleman Medal and also leads the league in score involvements (144) and goal assists (19 - tied with Patrick Dangerfield), while nobody is in the same stratosphere for marks inside 50, with Hawkins reeling in 72 grabs within the arc, an astonishing 28 ahead of West Coast's Josh Kennedy in second.
His aerial work stacks up with the best, but Hawkins is also in rare company once the ball hits the ground, sitting second in the AFL for forward 50 ground ball gets (37). The other four members of the top five are Christian Petracca (38), Jarryd Lyons (34), Dustin Martin (34) and Hugh McCluggage (34). Hawkins' numbers are absurd for a man standing 198cm and 100-plus kilograms.
Speaking of Hawkins' size and strength, the Tigers will be on red alert when the big man is contesting ruck battles inside the Cats' forward 50, because, you guessed it - he's also elite in this area.
According to Champion Data, Hawkins (14) ranks third in the AFL behind only Brodie Grundy and Jarrod Witts for forward 50 hit-outs to advantage this season, providing a constant threat for scoring opportunities directly from stoppage.
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BODY POSITIONING AND RUCK CRAFT
Against the Lions last weekend, Hawkins' skill as a genuine ruck threat was on full display, as he routinely put the ball on a platter for the Geelong forwards.
Hawkins racked up 11 hit-outs against the Lions, his highest single game total since Round 5, 2011.
1) Tom Hawkins put on an absolute clinic in forward 50 ruck work against Brisbane. Oscar McInerney consistently let Hawkins take front position resulting in scoring opportunities for the Cats.— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) October 21, 2020
Hawkins only trails Grundy and Witts for I50 hit outs to advantage.#AFLGF #AFL pic.twitter.com/1fyROuMhWb
The critical error Oscar McInerney continuously made was positioning himself behind Hawkins at the stoppages, allowing the Geelong big man the opportunity to run at the ball and create separation with well-timed body work.
Among the top 10 forwards for total hit-outs, Hawkins ranks a clear No. 1 for hit-outs to advantage percentage (34.1 percent), streets ahead of Jeremy Finlayson (27.9) in second spot.
On top of his ability to involve his teammates from ruck contests, Hawkins himself is a genuine scoring threat, often plucking the ball out of mid-air and slamming it on the boot.
2) F50 ruck hardball gets (taking it from the ruck) have been recorded from 2004-20.— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) October 21, 2020
Hawkins held the record with 15 in 2019. He has 20 already this season in four fewer games. The 3rd best ever was Luke Darcy in '04 with 12.
He is a constant scoring threat.#AFL #AFLGF pic.twitter.com/tsIP2TGfYM
Champion Data began recording forward 50 ruck hardball gets in 2004, which in basic terms is simply grabbing the ball out of the ruck.
With 20 and counting so far this season, Hawkins has blown his own previous record from a year ago out of the water with 15 in four fewer games. Outside of Hawkins, Luke Darcy in 2004 is the only player to have recorded 12 or more.
Playing from behind offers Hawkins room to create, while playing from the front leaves you open to being worked under the ball.
WHAT WE LEARNED FROM ROUND 17
Richmond's 26-point win over Geelong on September 11 was comprehensive.
A dominant defensive performance from Dylan Grimes and Noah Balta effectively quelled any influence Hawkins could have on the contest.
Finishing with just six disposals and one goal, the Coleman medallist struggled to have any influence, often times working against two or three Richmond defenders.
In fact, such was the dominance of the Tigers defence, forward 50 stoppages were a rare commodity, with Hawkins dishing out just three ineffective hit-outs.
From that night, the Cats will be replacing Tom Atkins, Brad Close and Ben Jarvis with Gary Rohan and Gary Ablett inside 50, providing them with significantly more firepower around the stoppages, but it's worth noting what we learned.
3) While all the talk is about Balta vs Hawkins, Nankervis vs Hawkins could be just as pivotal.— Kane Pitman (@KanePitman) October 21, 2020
A dominant Richmond defence allowed little opportunity for the Cats to score in RD17 but Nankervis consistently took front position or to the side nullifying Hawkins.#AFL #AFLGF pic.twitter.com/k50IFkxtQS
Unlike McInerney, the duo of Ivan Soldo and Toby Nankervis used their considerable frames to position themselves either in front or to the side of Hawkins, initiating early contact, not allowing him any airspace to create.While Soldo won't be there on Grand Final day, Nankervis is coming off a near best-on-ground performance against Port Adelaide in the preliminary final, a game in which the Tigers led the clearance count 41-29.
Nankervis played 69 percent game time against the Power, with veteran defender David Astbury filling in back up ruck duties when required.
"He [Hawkins] is doing everything and it will certainly take more than one player to be able to curb his influence on the game," Astbury said earlier this week. "Last weekend (against Brisbane), particularly early in the game, he didn't just look like the most dangerous forward out there, but he also looked like the most dangerous ruckman."
While the general rule for key defenders on Hawkins is never play from the front position, the opposite is true when it comes to the ruck. Never play from behind.
Nankervis laid the blueprint in Round 17. Establish positioning early, initiate contact, deny momentum and neutralise the threat. It's remarkable that Hawkins presents this kind of challenge to specialised ruckman across the competition, and it's yet another match winning string he has added to his bow since he last entered the Grand Final arena nine years ago.
While Hawkins vs. Balta is grabbing the headlines, keep an eye on Hawkins vs. Nankervis on Saturday night.
It's a matchup that could prove just as critical.