“He was someone I could always trust.”
In a game as unpredictable as Australian Rules football — where an erratic bounce of the ball can decide matches and momentum is hard to reverse — those words carry serious weight.
Whether it was in defence, in the midfield or up forward, West Coast’s Tom Cole, a Rising Star nominee this year, was the Bendigo Pioneers’ Mr. Fix-it for coach Brett Henderson in 2015.
“He never played a bad game,” Henderson told AFLPlayers.com.au.
“The difference between Tom and other players was how close his good and bad games were — it was minimal. He was versatile. He played off half-back but it wasn’t out of the ordinary to throw him through the midfield — he was big-bodied and was strong over the football.
“If we had any issues in the middle, Tommy would go through there and straighten things up.”
From the start, Cole’s determination to play well and succeed stood out for Henderson. The Pioneers weren’t successful in 2015, winning only two matches for the season but that didn’t halt AFL recruiters’ interest in Cole.
The Sandhurst youngster had most traits to make it at the top level — hard working, versatile and followed instruction.
“I always thought he was going to be drafted,” Henderson added.
“I thought if he went to another level, such as nationals or in an elite environment, his game would grow and improve. He was always going to cope with that change.
“Occasionally, his kick lacked a little bit of penetration and his pace over the ground — those were two areas that needed a bit of work but Tommy seems to have adjusted those since.”
It didn’t the West Coast Eagles long to work out they had a player on their hands after drafting Cole in the second round in the 2015 National Draft.
Most players who enter the system are competitive and have an appetite for hard work but, as development coach Mark Nicoski found out, their first pick the previous year had more than most.
“He wasn’t your average kid,” Nicoski told AFLPlayers.com.au this week.
“He was a shy kid who worked really hard but he was a bit of a goer and we knew that from the start, that’s why we recruited him. He won’t take a backwards step and he’s one of those guys you can always count on to have a go.”
“It was evident that he was always going to get a game at some point. When you get a kid who’s that competitive, it’s only a matter of time until it all clicks for them.”
It was slow going for Cole early days at the Eagles. Coming across from country Victoria, the young utility had his share of homesickness at times, like any other interstate draftee.
In his first two years in the system, Cole amassed two and four games respectively, while providing some snapshots of brilliance along the way that would make the Eagles sit up and take notice.
Cole is now one of the Eagles’ best runners on game day and that coupled with his extreme intensity when competing will be a major reason for the 21-year-old becoming “a really good AFL player”, according to Nicoski.
That determination seems to run in the Cole family, with dad Russell, who tragically passed away from cancer earlier this year, described as a player with great resolve for Seymour, while Cole’s uncle was a superstar for the same club.
In the middle of the year, Cole’s cousin Jason amassed 60 possessions and kicked six goals against Benalla. Being a part of a footy family, according to Henderson, has been an advantage for the West Coast youngster.
“He might not remember much about his dad playing but they are a competitive family so he grew up around footy and probably saw the ways to do things from a professional point of view.
“He had a resilient body, he was never injured, which comes back to that professionalism as well.”
As his draft year wore on, Cole’s stocks steadily continued to rise, with the Eagles swooping on him with pick 36, which pleased but also surprised Henderson given how long it took an AFL club to jump on the teenager.
But the former under-18s coach fully expected Cole to go well when exposed to an elite environment and feels some satisfaction in seeing him do so.
“I’m not surprised. It’s always good to see guys you’ve coached go onto the next level — it probably means you didn’t stuff them up!”
Season 2018 has been Cole’s breakout year, playing 20 games and set to take part in his first AFL Grand Final – he’ll be one of the youngest on the ground on Saturday.
Nicoski believes that while Cole’s form is partly a result of natural progression, he credits the individual for taking responsibility of his career.
“For some, it takes longer for that penny to drop but Tom clicked and had a strong pre-season, which has held him in a strong position for the year to unfold,” Nicoski added.
“We’re proud of the way he’s handled himself, handled tragedy and the way he’s gone about things this year – it all revolves around the fact that he’s matured as a young man.
“Couple that with how competitive he is and that’s the reason we’ve seen such a strong year from him. That will continue to grow as the years progress.”
Although he was shy at the beginning, and still somewhat is, Cole’s beginning to show more of his personality around teammates and coaches.
And despite his lack of experience at the top level, Cole is only 26 games into his AFL career, he’s also found a good balance.
“He’s got a good sense of humour,” Nisocki said.
“It’s funny because he’s always in the circle of boys when they’re telling each other stories and having a laugh so he definitely has a bit of pizzazz in there.
“At the same time, when it’s time to switch on, there are none more focused than Tommy Cole.”
All 44 players will be feeling their share of nerves at 2.30pm on Saturday but if there’s one thing we’ve learnt in the short time he’s been on the big stage, it’s that little unsettles West Coast’s No.28.