IT'S HARD to believe, but wind back two seasons and Max Gawn was a little-known ruckman fighting for his career.
Gawn has been recognised by his fellow players as the game's No.1 ruckman, with the No.17 ranking in this year's AFL Players' Top 50.
But the Demons overlooked Gawn for selection in the first 10 games of the 2015 season.
Two games after the 208cm, 111kg big man finally forced his way back into the side, everything changed.
Gawn led Melbourne to its first win in 10 years at Geelong's fortress, Simonds Stadium. His stats looked like this:
MAX GAWN V GEELONG: ROUND 12, 2015
|19 disposals||Eight marks (six contested)|
|44 hit-outs||One goal|
"He just exploded that day," then-coach Paul Roos told AFL.com.au.
"He'd shown it a bit in the VFL, but we were waiting for him to clunk a few marks at AFL level.
"He was able to say to people, 'I've got some genuine talent and genuine ability', and that included our coaching staff."
fter the match, Gawn told a journalist he felt 'invincible' after his career-best performance.
Roos was quick to jump on the ruckman's comments and when the players came into the club for game review the following week he had written 'Mr Invincible' alongside Gawn's name on the whiteboard.
"We were all able to have a laugh about it and it gave us something to latch onto for the rest of the year," Roos said.
Big Cat Mark Blicavs was Gawn's opponent that afternoon.
"I remember the first quarter he just marked everything that came his way," Blicavs said.
"He gave his midfielders first use but he also covered the ground really well for his size."
Boosted by a big pre-season, Gawn ramped up that workrate in 2016 and produced a career-defining year.
MAX GAWN'S 2016
|22 games||928 hit-outs (No.1 in AFL)|
|16 goals||16 Brownlow votes|
|All Australian||3rd in club best and fairest|
Roos credited Gawn's improved aerobic capacity with the ruckman's evolution, also noting more continuity in his training after knee issues restricted Gawn in the past.
"Another good pre-season this time around should see him go up another gear in 2017," Roos said.
He may not be invincible, but Gawn begins an important season for the Demons as one of the AFL's toughest ruckmen to combat.
"It's his consistency from week to week which makes him so dangerous," Blicavs said.
- Ben Guthrie
25. Nick Riewoldt
Last year's ranking: 25
Official AFL Player Rating: 157
AFL Fantasy value: $667,000
It's hard to comprehend what this man is still able to do on the football field. He looked shot a few years ago after knee troubles but they are no longer apparent. A move to the wing last year proved successful, with Riewoldt leading the AFL in marks. His aerial prowess, combined with his size and elite tank, make it almost impossible for opposing coaches to quell his influence. Despite the positional change, the former captain did plenty of damage on the scoreboard in 2016, with 41 goals to his name.
24. Dylan Shiel
Last year's ranking:
Official AFL Player Rating: 19
AFL Fantasy value: $591,000
23. Todd Goldstein
Last year's ranking: 12
Official AFL Player Rating: 6
AFL Fantasy value: $582,000
Last year was something of a disappointment for Goldstein, based on his own lofty standards. He carried a knee injury through the second half of the season and it hampered his play. When the 2015 All Australian is in top form, he is probably the best ruckman in the game. He wins the ball around the ground, was second in the competition for hit-outs last year and can take a mark as well. An ankle injury has hampered his preparation but there is no doubt Goldstein will continue to be one of North's most important players.
22. Callan Ward
Last year's ranking:
Official AFL Player Rating: 21
AFL Fantasy value: $579,000
Renowned as one of the competition's toughest players, the GWS co-captain has continued his steady climb up the top 50 rankings following another consistent campaign. Ward failed to finish in the Giants' top three in the best and fairest for the first time last year – a sign of the developing talent around him – but led from the front with his uncompromising attack on the ball. He ranked second at the club for contested possessions (11.4) and clearances (5.5), and third for tackles (4.5). Many expect the inspirational skipper to be hoisting the premiership cup on the last Saturday in September.
21. Matt Priddis
Last year's ranking:
Official AFL Player Rating: 16
AFL Fantasy value: $623,000
Others struggled around him, but the midfield warrior just kept on keeping on last season – despite playing with two bulging discs in his back late in the campaign. Priddis averaged 27 disposals, only slightly fewer than during his 2014 Brownlow Medal year (28.5), while his clearance work remained elite and he led the AFL for tackles. West Coast fans are salivating at the prospect of seeing how Priddis' chemistry with former Hawthorn champion Sam Mitchell develops throughout 2017.
20. Sam Mitchell
Last year's ranking: 6
Official AFL Player Rating: 23
AFL Fantasy value: $602,000
After securing his fifth Hawthorn champion award – second only to Leigh Matthews' eight – Mitchell stunned the football world with his bombshell trade to West Coast. Despite turning 34 in October, Mitchell remains one of the AFL's finest midfielders and is coming off a campaign where he averaged nearly 30 disposals. The newly-crowned 2012 Brownlow medallist's classy distribution by hand and foot, combined with his razor-sharp football smarts, will be invaluable to the developing Eagles engine room.
19. Eddie Betts
Last year's ranking: 32
Official AFL Player Rating: 28
AFL Fantasy value: $482,000
The most prolific goalkicking small forward in the game, who vies with Cyril Rioli for the title of best small forward overall, has enjoyed a career surge since leaving Carlton to return to his native Adelaide at the end of 2013. In three seasons as a Crow, electrifying Eddie has kicked 189 goals, including a career-high 75 last year to finish equal-third in the Coleman Medal and lead Adelaide's goalkicking for a third successive season.
18. Cyril Rioli
Last year's ranking: 17
Official AFL Player Rating: 9
AFL Fantasy value: $512,000
With renewed confidence in his once-dodgy hamstrings, Rioli is at the peak of his powers. The little master enjoyed a career year in 2015, but then stepped up again last season as Alastair Clarkson leaned heavily on his trio of star small forwards to create havoc in a remodeled and undersized attack. Rioli booted a career-high 47 goals – at a remarkable 75 per accuracy – and terrorised defences with his relentless pressure at ground level. From 21 games, Rioli was only kept goalless twice on the way to earning his third All Australian jumper.
17. Max Gawn
Last year's ranking: -
Official AFL Player Rating: 13
AFL Fantasy value: $642,000
16. Robbie Gray
Last year's ranking: 10
Official AFL Player Rating: 3
AFL Fantasy value: $526,000
Smart, consistent midfielder/forward who perhaps hasn't received the level of kudos he has deserved after winning the Power's past three best and fairest awards. Gray slides in the view of his fellow players after missing three games through injury last year. Despite the setbacks he maintained his excellence while teammates battled, averaging 26.3 possessions (including 13.6 contested) and contributing 25 goals with his typical cleverness around the sticks.