TOM De Koning’s talent has always been there for everyone to see. His nine-goal haul for the Dandenong Stingrays as a 16-year-old proved exactly that.
However, it was always as a ruckman where Carlton saw his future.
That future was crystallised on Thursday morning when it was announced that De Koning had signed a two-year contract extension, committing to his club until at least the end of 2023.
While his showing up forward may have been the most eye-catching, Carlton’s recruiting staff - including the Club’s Victorian recruiting manager, Paul Brodie - saw De Koning as a special talent.
“We held him in high esteem. All the way through, the biggest thing we loved about him was his competitiveness — both in the air and at ground level,” Brodie told Carlton Media.
“His ability to take a contested mark and his ability to compete at ground level, we saw that as a real asset for us. That’s probably what separated him from a lot of the other talls that were in the draft.
“While we drafted him in 2017, it was probably back in 2016 where we came to know Tom pretty well.”
As fate would have it, De Koning would become a Blue with pick No.30 in the 2017 NAB AFL Draft. That’s not to say there wasn’t an element of risk involved, by virtue of the fact that ruckmen were very rarely taken high up the draft order in recent seasons.
In the preceding five seasons, only a handful of ruckmen were taken inside the top 30 picks of the national draft.
Nicknamed ‘the King’ from the outset, it was with a healthy sense of irony that De Koning was very much the heir apparent at Ikon Park to Matthew Kreuzer since that night in November 2017.
"I had big ambitions... I didn't look back."— Carlton FC (@CarltonFC) October 5, 2020
An injury on the brink of the season could've been make or break for Tom De Koning.
Speaking to Carlton Media, he goes in detail about seizing his opportunity, his future goals and why he "couldn't be happier" in Navy Blue. ??
“The positive thing that was that even though we were struggling to win games, we were on the same page with giving up an early pick to bring Tom in even though he wasn’t going to have a big impact for the first 2-3 years,” Brodie said.
“The big picture was in three or four years when ‘Kreuz’ was coming to an end of his career, although not knowing that he’d be at the end.
“We knew it was the perfect time for a ruckman to be coming on, and that’s what we thought Tom was. He played a lot as a forward, but when he got drafted we always thought he was going to be ruckman.”
There are plenty of factors which come into play when it comes to drafting a young footballer: their scope for improvement in their football aside, interviews with family are part-and-parcel of the process and their strength of character is analysed to the nth degree.
When it came to the De Koning family, Brodie couldn’t vouch for them any higher.
Tom comes from a sporting family: his father Terry played 31 games for Footscray in the 1980s and his brother Sam was drafted by Geelong this time last year.
De Koning would ultimately be handed the No.12 guernsey at his new club, which was his old club: he supported Carlton as a kid before his childhood hero Nick Riewoldt – whose number he would wear at Ikon Park - swung him to the team from Moorabbin.
“They’re a really good family. His dad had a VFL/AFL background, the kids were all the athletic and sporty type. At the end of the day, he just comes from a good family with a great upbringing.”
Then, there was his strength of character.
While De Koning may have had injury setbacks in his time at Carlton, it was a lacerated kidney in the final months on his draft year which had the youngster worried about where it left him in the eyes of recruiters.
Sustaining the injury after a ruck contest gone wrong, Brodie said the way De Koning handled and applied himself was only further endorsement for the kind of player and person Carlton was welcoming to Ikon Park.
“The big one was his kidney: I remember we spoke to him and he was really good about it. He was disappointed that he missed the back half of his season but he was hoping he’d done enough to get drafted,” Brodie said.
“Tom’s the kind of kid that whatever happens to him, he takes everything in his stride and he keeps pressing on. He never gets down on himself and he works through everything.”
The experienced heads of Matthew Kreuzer and - originally - Matthew Lobbe were crucial for De Koning’s development according to Brodie, who believes the sky is the limit for the high-flying ruckman.
Natural talent aside, it’s De Koning’s commitment to his craft which Brodie believes will hold him in the best stead going forward.
“It’s been a gradual build for Tom, even though he’s had setbacks with injuries. Nothing has ever really gone backwards for him, everything has gone forward,” Brodie said.
“The development will keep rising with him, all the attributes that he’s got will get better and better. We’ve seen glimpses of it, Carlton fans have seen glimpses of it.
“With a couple of the setbacks he’s had, we probably put him back a little bit. To come through this year and have seven continual games where he had an impact was really pleasing, to know that he’s slowly starting to get there.
“He’s always seeking to do extras. It’s a testament to him.”