By Peter Blucher
Queenslander Tom Hickey will make his long-awaited AFL finals debut in Perth tonight to add his football career highlight to the biggest year of his life and his biggest single lifetime thrill.
Set to play in the elimination final for West Coast against Essendon, Hickey will have to drag himself away from the nursery at home and his young son.
Lou Hickey, almost as if sensing the football urgency, was born two weeks early on the Wednesday of the end-of-season bye on 28 August.
This was after Hickey and wife Chloe were married last November just before making the huge move to the other side of the country.
It was a move that will see the 28-year-old ruckman make his finals debut in his 98th AFL game.
Among Queenslanders, only three players have waited longer for a taste of finals football.
Mitch Hahn, now on the coaching staff with the Brisbane Lions, was 135 games into his career with the Western Bulldogs before his first final, while Marcus Ashcroft waited 127 games and Matthew Kennedy 111 games.
This, of course, will change at the Gabba on Saturday night when Lions captain Dayne Zorko makes his finals debut in what will be his 167th game in the qualifying final against Richmond.
But tonight it will be all about Hickey, the Alexandra Hills junior and Morningside QAFL premiership player who started his career with the Gold Coast Suns in 2011 and switched to St.Kilda in 2013.
He will share the ruck duties with injury-plagued West Coast favorite Nic Naitanui, who will play just his fourth game of the season and his first since Round 17.
The Eagles, locked into a sudden-death finals campaign from the outset after losing the last two home-and-away games to Richmond and Hawthorn, last night made three changes for the start of their premiership defence.
Naitanui will replace the injured Oscar Allen, while 2018 premiership pair Will Schofield and Mark Hutchings will come in for 2018 grand final teammate Liam Duggan and youngster Jack Petruccelle (omitted).
Captain Shannon Hurn was name despite being under a cloud with a hamstring strain.,
Jarrod Cameron, younger brother of Lions ace Charlie Cameron, was named as an emergency.
Essendon, coming off a Round 23 loss to Collingwood, will welcome back four key figures and one football fairytale – captain Dyson Heppell, Cale Hooker, Jake Stringer, Orazio Fantasia and Will Snelling.
In a first for the AFL, 22-year-old Snelling will play his first final and just the fifth game of his career after being picked up by Essendon in the mid-season rookie draft.
Having played one game for Port Adelaide in 2016, he went back to play with junior club West Adelaide in the SANFL and earned a stunning recall on 27 May after being overlooked in last year’s national draft.
The 176cm utility played Rounds 18-19-20 before being dropped, but earned another chance with strong form in the closing weeks of the VFL.
Martin Gleeson was ruled out with injury, while Michael Hartley, Josh Begley, Dylan Clarke and Tom Jok were omitted to make way for the heavyweight foursome.
Michael Hurley was named in his customary position at centre half back despite a partial shoulder dislocation in Round 23 which has seen him walking a fitness tightrope since then.