“I HAD big ambitions.”

When Tom De Koning looks back on his 2020 season, those goals he set would get the tick of approval. But he would also know that there’s still plenty more to come for Carlton’s emerging ruckman.

After two games in his debut season, the talented if not raw ruckman had to bide his time for his next chance at the elite level, with injuries thwarting him for the majority of 2019.

When Matthew Kreuzer went down with injury, De Koning had his sights set on seizing his chance alongside Marc Pittonet.

However, for the second straight season, it looked like Lady Luck wasn’t in De Koning’s favour. In 2019, it was a serious knee injury on the day of Round 1 which set him back three months.

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This year, it was an ankle injury just days before the season restart. It had the chance to make or break the third-year Blue.

“It was pretty disappointing, but I learnt from last year when I had the injury. It’s not the end of the world and there are people who are worse off,” De Koning said.

“[The ankle] wasn’t a bad injury so I was fortunate enough to get back within five or six weeks and didn’t really miss much footy.

“I was super determined to make my way back in and find some form and consistency. I was really happy with how it turned out in the end.”

How it turned out was seven games to add to his senior belt, with the man known around Ikon Park as ‘The King’ slotting in seamlessly when getting his senior chance.

Impressing teammates, fans and pundits alike with his raw athleticism, it marked a long time coming for De Koning — and just a taste of what’s to come.

While it’s rare to see De Koning without a smile on his face, his competitive drive kicks in the moment he enters the field, whether it be on game day or training.

“I didn’t look back,” he said.

“I was really focussed and determined to get into the AFL side I was fortunate enough to make my way in.

“I thought early in the pre-season that I was feeling really fit, really good and ready to go. I was really happy with the way it turned out, but I’m looking forward to bigger and better things next year.”

The tests against the best

There were 715 days between De Koning’s second and third senior game, and there couldn’t really be a more daunting test waiting in the wings for a young ruckman.

After some standout form for the reserves side, De Koning was thrown into the mix against none other than the eventual All-Australian ruckman, Nic Naitanui.

With ruck partner Pittonet sidelined in the second term with a finger injury, De Koning had to go head-to-head with one of the very best.

Tom De Koning went head-to-head with Nic Naitanui in his third career game. (Credit: AFL Photos)

At the time, and looking back on it now, it was an opportunity which De Koning relished.

“Going up against ‘Nic Nat’ was a bit daunting before the game. I felt like I was up for it,” he said.

“I had nothing to lose so I went out there and I gave it my all. We couldn’t come away with the win, but it was another good learning game for me.

“He’s an amazing ruckman and someone whose game style is pretty similar to me.”

Of course, Naitanui wasn’t the first test which De Koning had to negotiate in 2020.

It may have just been a practice match on a hot Melbourne day in February, but going head-to-head against Brodie Grundy was an opportunity that the youngster wasn’t going to pass up.

“To go up against Grundy in pre-season was awesome. He’s one of the best ruckmen in the League and I grew up modelling my game off of him,” he said.

“I was fortunate to have a couple of battles against him and I learnt a lot through those couple of games. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but I was really lucky with how it all turned out.”

“It’s where I want to get to”

You’d be hard pressed to find two more different ruckmen at the one club than Tom De Koning and Marc Pittonet.

However, it’s something which they both believe works to their advantage.

Learning off of Matthew Kreuzer throughout the year, De Koning believes the partnership with Pittonet is something which will only grow and reap rewards in the future.

Tom De Koning worked closely with Matthew Kreuzer and Marc Pittonet in 2020. (Credit: AFL Photos)

“Me and ‘Pitto’ are good mates. We work together and we’re obviously pretty different ruckmen, but I think it works pretty well,” he said.

“It’s good to develop our game in different ways. Looking back on it, early in the pre-season, ‘Pitto’ and I were having some really good battles.

“I felt like I was up for it. I felt like I was ready to go.”

De Koning believes his grounding of a combative pre-season and reward for consistent form in the reserves scratch matches helped his cause.

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And he’s under no illusions of what he wants to achieve in the Navy Blue.

“Long-term, I’m pretty focussed about becoming the next ruckman: it’s where I want to get to. I love playing around the ball,” he said.

“Coming back playing reserves, I was going up against really good ruckmen at that level. I thought ‘Why not? Why can’t I go up to AFL level and match that?’.

“It was an exciting year.”

The highlight of “a pretty weird year”

An exciting year, a different year, weird year.

While De Koning may have envisaged a return to senior action, he never would have thought it would come in the circumstances that it did.

To go with his return to the AFL fold was also his first win in the Navy Blue, and it came thanks to the boot of Jack Newnes with that after-the-siren thriller.

It was a year where De Koning felt the love from the Carlton faithful back home, and playing in front of those passionate Melbourne crowds once again is something that De Koning simply cannot wait for.

“I feel really fortunate. I’ve got such a good support base, I feel: I’m lucky enough to be sponsored by the Cheersquad,” he said.

“Next year, if we’re able to have big crowds, I think it’s going to help us get over the line.

“I feel really blessed to have all of the supporters on my side and it gives me a lot of confidence to know they’re cheering for me and they’re happy to see me out there. I couldn’t be happier.”