By Luke Voogt
Tom Hawkins will perhaps be the difference between the 2020 Grand Final and the Cats’ preliminary final loss to the Tigers last year.
Cats fans breathed a collective sigh of relief on Wednesday as Hawkins trained with the side after testing negative for COVID-19 following throat soreness.
“It was a bit of a rough start to the week, one I would have rather spent with my teammates, but I’m feeling really good,” the big Cat told the media today.
Hawkins said the minor ailment had not affected his preparation but had “just made it a little different”.
He said this year’s Grand Final lead-up felt more like a normal game compared to his previous two Grand Final campaigns in Victoria.
But that will change once he crosses the white line.
“Once you’re in the game you know it’s pretty high stakes.”
Hawkins will likely face Noah Balta, who will possibly have help from Dylan Grimes and David Astbury.
Balta and Grimes kept Hawkins to one goal and six possessions in round 17.
“Noah’s a great athlete and he seems to … read the game pretty well,” Hawkins said.
“I think as a whole we’ve learned from last time.”
Unlike that game, Hawkins will have Cats champion Gary Ablett and gutsy forward Gary Rohan with him to create more scoring avenues.
“They’re just dangerous players,” he said.
“We’ll just look to capitalise on our form going forward.”
Patrick Dangerfield has also been in white-hot form both up forward and in the midfield, and provides coach Chris Scott with another explosive goal-kicking option.
The game will feature arguably the AFL’s two best midfields and a big ruck battle between the in-form Rhys Stanley and Toby Nankervis.
Skipper Joel Selwood and Cam Guthrie, who is in career-best form, will line up against opposing captain Trent Cotchin and Tigers star Dustin Martin.
Like Dangerfield, Dusty can be game-changing up forward.
Guthrie and Brandan Parfitt are solid options to match up on him in the midfield, while Jake Kolodjashnij or Tom Stewart will likely get the job when he is forward.
In last year’s preliminary final Lachie Henderson struggled while pinch-hitting for then-suspended Hawkins.
But the Coleman medallist is in for Saturday night’s historic Grand Final at the Gabba and Henderson will play back, where he has starred this finals series.
The Cats will need a team effort from him, Mark Blicavs and the rest of the backline to neutralise Tom Lynch – who kicked five goals in last year’s preliminary – Jack Riewoldt and mercurial small forward Daniel Rioli.
So many different battles could determine the outcome, with the bookies placing Richmond slightly ahead of the in-form Cats.
But if the Cats start well, win possession and kick accurately it will go a long way towards a premiership.
The Cats need no extra motivation for the biggest game of the year.
That said, the desire to give Gary Ablett a final game worthy of his incredible career might just give them the extra edge they need.
Cats by 4.