By Peter Blucher.
Tom Hickey will play his 50th AFL game for St.Kilda on Sunday, but 50 won’t be the number foremost on his mind.
More important will be nine. And next week 10. And so on.
Nine? That’s how many games he will have played in a row this year when he runs out against Essendon at Etihad Stadium.
And as he continues to establish himself among the premier young ruckmen in the competition durability will be a primary focus.
Now in his sixth AFL season, Hickey had never played more than six games in a row before this year. That was Rounds 5-6-7-8-9-10 last year before he found himself in the VFL in Round 11.
On a year-by-year basis his games tally since his debut in 2011 reads 2-10-12-6-11-8. He desperately wants and needs a 20-plus game tally this year to build on the outstanding momentum he’s built up in the early part of the 2016 season.
Indeed, it’s been long journey to the half century for the 201cm 25-year-old Queenslander, who was a local talent foundation selection by the Gold Coast Suns in the 2011 AFL National Draft and played 12 games for the Suns before moving south.
So long, in fact, that West Coast’s Andrew Gaff and Jack Darling, Essendon’s Dyson Heppell, North Melbourne’s Shaun Atley and Melbourne’s Jeremy Howe (now at Collingwood), who were taken in the same draft, had reached 100 games before the end of last season.
But there was never any doubting his talent. Suns recruiting chief Scott Clayton was always conscious of the volleyball convert’s long-term potential and was initially very reluctant to release him.
In just his fifth AFL game at 21 Hickey had pulled in seven contested marks in a game against Collingwood at the MCG to go with 19 possessions (12 contested), 24 hit-outs, eight marks and four tackles.
His seven contested marks is still a Suns record, having survived the power-marking efforts of emerging Gold Coast superstar Tom Lynch.
Clayton played hard-ball at the negotiating table, and only when St.Kilda offered selection No.13 in the 2013 National Draft, which the Suns ultimately used to snare midfielder Jesse Lonergan, did he relent and release the Alexandra Hills junior and Morningside AFLQ premiership player.
And even then he did so fully expecting Hickey to go on and become a very good senior AFL player.
He has done exactly that this year after a combination of injury and indifferent form curtailed his progress in his first three years at St.Kilda, prompting senior coach Alan Richardson to admit only recently that over the summer he couldn’t see Hickey displacing ex-Lion Billy Longer from the No.1 ruck spot he enjoyed last year.
Hickey, who signed a two-year contract extension last year to the end of 2017, has not only surpassed Longer he’s become an influential big man across the competition.
After starting the season with a career-best 20 possessions, six clearances and 56 hit-outs in Round 1 against Port Adelaide he’s added the consistency which was sometimes missing.
Wearing his trade mark mop hairstyle, the ever-jovial but fiercely-determined giant also had a career-best 12 handballs and six 1%ers in Round 6, and a career-best eight tackles last week, showing his capabilities are not just in the big-man department but at ground level too.
Through eight games this year he’s averaged 13 possessions and 31 hit-outs after he averaged 10.6 possessions and 15 hit-outs per game last year.
With 248 ruck hit-outs, getting on for twice as many as he’s had in any previous year, he sits sixth overall in the competition behind Melbourne’s Max Gawn (330), North Melbourne’s Todd Goldstein (290), West Coast’s Nic Naitanui and Adelaide’s Sam Jacobs (273) and GWS’ Shane Mumford (262).
Of those ahead of him, only Gawn is younger and less experienced. He’s 24 and has played only 47 AFL games after two knee reconstructions early in his career.
Goldstein is 27 and has played 157 games. Naitanui is 26 and has played 139 games. Jacobs is 28 and has played 135 games. And Mumford is 29 and has played 136 games.
Goldstein and Naitainui have been All-Australian and Jacobs and Mumford have been All-Australian nominees. And Gawn has future All-Australian written all over him.
This puts Hickey in some pretty good company as he prepares for Sunday’s confrontation with Essendon’s Matthew Leuenberger and a milestone that will make him the 64th Queenslander to 50 AFL games.