IT WAS a rainy July night at Eastern Ranges training, circa 2015. 

Blake Hardwick, then one of the Ranges' top draft prospects and who later in the year joined Hawthorn at pick 44, was nowhere to be seen. 

The TAC Cup club's talent manager, Len Villani, went looking for Hardwick – the round 15 NAB AFL Rising Star nominee – only to find him in the change rooms still getting his boots on. 

Villani chuckles even now at Hardwick's cheeky response to why he was taking so long: "You can't take the Ferrari out in the rain."

"Ever since then, it's been an in-joke and we used to give it to him about taking the Ferrari for a spin," Villani told

"It was said tongue-in-cheek and he's that sort of kid. He's a quality, knockabout person." 

The Ferrari analogy might be farfetched, but Hardwick's right foot is fast gaining traction as a key weapon in the Hawks' defensive transformation, alongside fellow Rising Star contender Ryan Burton. 

His kicking efficiency of 87.1 per cent from his 11 games this season is ranked No.1 in the competition out of the top 300 players for total kicks. 

That part of Hardwick's arsenal has long been established in his second year in the AFL, but he showed something new in the past fortnight. 

Coach Alastair Clarkson entrusted the 20-year-old with daunting jobs on Adelaide superstar Eddie Betts then Collingwood dynamo Jamie Elliott in consecutive weeks with spectacular results.

Each player kicked just one goal as the Hawks won back-to-back matches for just the second time in 2017. Hardwick poured over vision during the week of both Betts and Elliott, although he said he kept his preparation as normal as possible. 

"It's good to get some experience on those types of players; they keep you on your toes and take you to the ball, so it makes it a bit easier," Hardwick told

"But it's definitely a hard task at the same time. I tried to get physical with (Betts) a bit, but he doesn't say much at all. Jamie was similar to Eddie – he didn't really say much, either. 

"But it's more of a team defence than an individual defence and it's about the team doing everything we can to influence their impact on the game, and we did all right." 

Making Hardwick's defensive feats more noteworthy is the fact he entered the AFL as a forward, even though he spent time playing across half-back for Victoria Metro in the under-16s.

He led the TAC Cup in goals in his draft year with 56 in 16 matches despite standing just 181cm tall. Villani ironically described him as an Elliott clone, given his "exceptional" vertical leap, power, intuitive skillset and goalkicking nous.

The knock on Hardwick back then centred on his aerobic ability, but Villani now envisions a future midfield role for him. 

Hardwick, a Prison Break tragic and FIFA aficionado, is settled in the backline, but still yearns, on occasion, to be unleashed up front.

He managed only one game in his debut season, as a late replacement for Cyril Rioli. Rioli's presence, plus that of Luke Breust and Paul Puopolo, meant the Beverley Hills Junior Football Club product had to bide his time. 

"It's been great, especially in the backline, to learn off the likes of Hodgey (Luke Hodge) and (Grant) Birchall," Hardwick said.

"At the moment, I'm happy just playing down back, but maybe in the future I'll play forward again." 

Hardwick has things sorted off-field, too. He is doing some work for clubmate Brendan Whitecross' gardening and landscaping business.

NAB AFL Rising Star hub: news, nominees and past winners

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