28/02/2024

How will the Hawks fare in their first season under new coach Sam Mitchell? Image:@hawthornfc/Twitter

After the departure of Alastair Clarkson was more tumultuous than originally thought of, how will Hawthorn present at the start of new era for the club under Sam Mitchell in 2022?

The transition from master coach Alastair Clarkson to the novice Sam Mitchell was not as smooth as Hawthorn would have liked.  

However, whilst some pundits are predicting doom for the brown and gold, many at the club believe that the darkest time has passed, and a new dawn and era awaits.

Last season:

14th (7 wins, 2 draws, 13 losses, 85.2%).  

Few people gave Hawthorn much chance of beating Essendon in round one, 2021. Fewer still gave them any hope after a disastrous second quarter, but win they did, by a solitary point. Nine losses in their next ten games after this win convinced many that their prediction of a bottom two finish for the Hawks was justified.

This run culminated in a six-goal loss in Sydney against the Gold Coast Suns, where an injury-ravaged Hawks unit was never really in the contest. 

The mid-season bye followed, and it was as if the light bulb had been switched on within the walls of Waverley.  

Mid-year draftee Jai Newcombe and young recruit Lachlan Bramble made their debuts, and immediately sparked into life a Hawthorn midfield that had laboured under the weight of its task. A forward line that had sputtered and occasionally stalled began to receive some decent service, and it appeared that Clarkson had once more been able to create a team that was worth more than the sum of its parts.

There was still the occasional downer – a ten-goal defeat at Fortress Launceston to Fremantle notable amongst the season’s low points. The final month of the season brought draws against eventual premier Melbourne and reigning premier Richmond, along with wins over finalists Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs. Where once there was despair, now there was genuine optimism amongst the brown and gold faithful.

Of course, the elephant in the room is the somewhat clumsy passing of the coaching baton. Incoming mentor Sam Mitchell does, however, have the support of the playing group, and with a host of established senior players coming back from serious injury, there is much to suggest that the second half of the season is as good an indicator of the club’s position as the first half was.

Ins:

Max Lynch (Traded – Collingwood), Josh Ward (National Draft Pick 7/Northern Knights), Sam Butler (National Draft Pick 23/GWV Rebels), Connor MacDonald (National Draft Pick 26/Dandenong Stingrays), Jai Serong (National Draft Pick 53/Gippsland Power), Ned Long (Pick 5 Rookie Draft/Northern Knights), Fionn O’Hara (International Category B rookie)

Outs:

Tim O’Brien (Free Agent – Western Bulldogs), Jonathan Ceglar (Traded – Geelong), Shaun Burgoyne (retired), Keegan Brooksby, James Cousins, Damon Greaves, Michael Hartley, Harry Pepper, Oliver Hanrahan (all delisted)

Track Watch:

The preparation of many of the key players in the Hawthorn squad will benefit in 2022 from being somewhat more injury-free than they have been in recent years. Tom Mitchell has stated that only now does he feel near to full fitness after the broken leg that he suffered in January 2019, while Jaeger O’Meara, traditionally one of Hawthorn’s harder trainers, also looks in the best shape that he’s been in for some time.

James Sicily looks set to return from the dreaded ACL injury that saw him miss the entire 2021 season. He will partner with last year’s revelation Changkuoth Jiath who will join him across the half-back line in the season opener against North Melbourne. 

Jack Gunston should return early in the season from the debilitating back complaint that kept him to one match last year, while the club will be conservative with Will Day’s comeback after multiple foot and ankle injuries.

Setbacks for Luke Breust (concussion), and Chad Wingard (ankle), should not keep them off the park for a considerable length of time, but there are concerns regarding Jarman Impey, who had been training the house down before sustaining a foot injury in early February.

What to look forward to:

Hawthorn has been training with ruckman and captain Ben McEvoy playing a lot of football forward of the centre. This, plus new recruit Max Lynch’s well-known love of a goal, leads many to speculate that Hawthorn’s 2022 game plan under Sam Mitchell will involve a greater reliance on fast ball movement than had previously been seen in Clarkson’s later years, to a forward line full of size and mobility.

To achieve this, James Worpel may be a vital cog in the Hawthorn wheel. Mitchell will be looking for the ball to be consistently won in the midfield and delivered with precision to strong leading forwards. The agility and availability of Jack Gunston will also be vital to Hawthorn’s structure.

The Hawks won three premierships in the middle of the last decade on the back of two key forwards and a resting ruckman but had Gunston as a fourth tall forward able to move sleekly enough to provide an important point of difference. In 2022 Mitchell will revisit this formula, and Gunston will remain just as vital to the structure’s success as he was seven years ago.

It’s a big year for:

Mitchell Lewis

There were many reasons for the upturn in Hawthorn’s form in the last month of the 2021 season. It must be noted, however, that the run of positive results coincided with the best form of the big forward’s season.

The last two pre-seasons have been marred by injury for Lewis. He started 2021 behind the rest of the pack in terms of his preparation, but whilst his 2020 season hardly got started at all, by the second half of 2021 he had formed a forward partnership with Jacob Koschitzke that was starting to show signs of quite some potency.

The lead-up to this season has seen no such fitness worries for Lewis, and track watchers at Waverley have been very impressed with the relish with which he has approached his preparation, culminating in an eight-goal haul in an early-February intra-club hit out.

Kicking a winning score has been Hawthorn’s biggest issue in recent years. With a more direct playing style under Sam Mitchell, expect Mitchell Lewis to improve markedly upon his 22 goals from last season.

Biggest unanswered question:

Does Hawthorn have enough depth in its list?

When the difficult mid-season period hits, when the cold bites harder, as hard as the injuries do, do the rebuilding Hawks have enough cattle and depth in the list to continue throwing punches when the going gets tough?

Hawthorn’s best 22 looks more than capable of attaining a respectable position in the middle of the pack, but the perception is that there is a fair gap back to the next batch of players on the list.

Hawthorn will look to fast-track the development of all their recent draftees Ward, Butler, MacDonald and Serong, as well as 2021 recruits Jai Newcombe, Denver GraingerBarras, Connor Downie, and the untried Jackson Callow to quickly fill this void.

Their ability to do so quickly could mean the difference between an unexpected run towards finals, and a season of oblivion.

Coaching pressure index:

Low

As a new leader with no experience of coaching a club in his own right, Sam Mitchell will rightly claim a few free-kicks as he feels his way and makes his own mistakes. He is regarded as a long-term coaching prospect and will lead the club with few worries about his future in 2022.

That is not to say that his year will be totally stress-free. Hawthorn’s supporters have become used to the success that the early part of the 21st century has brought and have not taken too kindly to a spell at the opposite end of the ladder.

There are also many amongst the Hawk faithful that remain loyal to Alastair Clarkson and were not impressed by the manner of his exit.  

However, Mitchell is not exactly being asked to leap tall buildings at a single bound. A slight improvement in 2021’s results and a more aesthetically pleasing game style should be enough to keep all at Waverley content.

Predicted round 1 lineup:

Ladder range:

9th – 12th

If Hawthorn can keep the majority of its best 22 fit and healthy for the bulk of the season, a cheeky dart at eighth spot may not be out of the question. However, football in the 2020s, with its unsettled travel arrangements and the constant threat of variables such as COVID hubs and irregular routines, makes this harder than ever to achieve.

We don’t expect Hawthorn to stand still or go backwards from their 2021 output, but finals may be another season away. Rather, expect Sam Mitchell and his straight-shooting coaching team to establish solid foundations this year, primed for another attack on the silverware towards the middle of the decade.

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