15/04/2024
With Hawthorn firmly in rebuild mode, the second half of the year will be about improvement for the kids, and hopefully avoiding the wooden spoon

Image: @HawthornFC. Twitter

OPINION: Off the back of a strong finish in 2021, Hawthorn is in prime position to push up the ladder in 2022.

With only four matches remaining in the 2021 AFL season, the Hawks were languishing in 17th place on the ladder tied on points with 18th-placed North Melbourne. Their first wooden spoon since 1953 was a very real possibility.

It would be easy to assume that the Hawks are several years away from contending for their next piece of silverware. In fact, if you ask any of the so-called experts, they will tell you the Hawks are in a massive rebuild and might be a decade away from premiership contention.

Several doomsayers even suggest that those games the Hawks won at the end of the season were pointless and meant nothing.

Things can improve quickly

After a recent commitment to the draft, the Hawks have acquired a core of promising youngsters combined with some premiership stars that could turn things around quickly.

The Sydney Swans have previously shown that it does not take long to change your fortune once you get your superstars back playing and get some games into the younger brigade.

The Swans finished the 2019 season 15th on the ladder, only above Carlton, Melbourne, and the Gold Coast Suns, and finished 16th in 2020 just above the lowly North Melbourne and Adelaide Crows.

Yet this year, with their superstar forward Lance Franklin back and more experience into their younger brigade, they managed to climb up and finish sixth and almost snuck into the top four to secure that coveted double chance, just missing out on percentage. They almost won through to a semi-final as well, only narrowly losing by the slightest of margins when they fell short to GWS by a single point.

The Demons finished 2019 second last before climbing up the ladder last year to narrowly miss out on finals and then climbed further this year to sit quite pretty at the top of the ladder for the majority of the season before winning the 2021 premiership against the Bulldogs.

St Kilda is another team that demonstrated how quickly things can turn. They finished 14th in 2019 before climbing the ladder in 2020 and finishing sixth including winning an impressive final.

Injuries to key players hurt

The Hawks have desperately missed key defender James Sicily out for the whole year and inspirational youngster Will Day out for the majority of the season. Add to that, the unfortunate back injury to star forward Jack Gunston and the setbacks to Jarman Impey and Changkuoth Jiath as well as the unexpected retirements of Tom Scully and Jonathon Patton earlier in the year, and the depleted injury stocks begin to tell a story. It is true that a couple of players do not make a team, however, the significance of these injured players to the Hawks’ form is quite telling.

Sicily usually takes on one of the opposition’s best forwards and with his strong intercept marks, his aerial ability, and agility across the ground helps propel the Hawks back into attack. The Hawk’s record with him in the side is much more favourable than when he is out.

The Hawks have not been blown out of the water in games this year. Despite their thrashing at the hands of Fremantle in round 17, just days after the club announced a historic succession plan involving legendary master coach Alastair Clarkson and former premiership captain Sam Mitchell, they have been mainly competitive in games this season. Some results may not have gone to plan and some games they should have won, they did not, but they have still been competitive and these young Hawks will be better for the experience.

A few weeks earlier the Hawks beat the Swans and the Giants. Since that round 17 demolition to the Dockers, the Hawks played Melbourne in round 18, then Adelaide, Brisbane, Collingwood, the Western Bulldogs before a final round match against Richmond.

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Apart from a narrow loss to the Crows in round 19, the Hawks beat Brisbane, Collingwood and eventual grand-finalist Western Bulldogs. They drew with the eventual premiers Melbourne and with less than five minutes left in the game against Richmond, led by five goals against the most dominant team of the past four seasons before letting the Tigers come back and finishing with another draw in Alastair Clarkson’s final game as coach of the Hawks.

Some people will say that these late season games did not count for much as the Hawks’ finals fate was already determined and it was mathematically impossible to make the finals. But when you look at the calibre of the teams they defeated, this makes it more impressive because the teams they were playing against were in finals contention and some, like Brisbane and the Bulldogs were even vying for a top four spot at the time.

Yes, noted that some recruiting in recent years has been questionable and may not have turned out as anticipated. The Hawks got Tom Scully and Jonathan Patton for bargain chips. At the time, it was thought by many at the AFL that Tom Scully would never be able to play AFL footy again, and Patton was supposed to be the key target for the Hawks up forward post Jarryd Roughead. While both showed teasing glimpses of what they could have become at Hawthorn, both would go on to unfortunately depart the club at the start of 2021, not planned and not known to the Hawks hierarchy at the time of the 2020 draft so that they could replace them.

Clarko may be gone but it’s not all doom and gloom

It is hard to fathom that the Hawks are letting go of their legendary four-time premiership coach, widely recognised as the best coach of the modern era, Alastair Clarkson, in order to replace him with a favourite son, albeit who has not yet coached at the AFL level in former premiership captain Sam Mitchell.

From all reports and based on Sam’s coaching of the Hawks’ VFL affiliate side, Box Hill, he may well indeed be a great coach too. Yet it still seems that the Board jumped to a decision in haste as they did not want to lose Sam Mitchell to Collingwood when he was about to interview for their vacant coaching role.

Many question marks were raised about how the master coach was moved on unceremoniously, and the passing of the baton to Sam Mitchell could have been handled much better.

However rather than dwell on the past, by focusing on the present and the future, one can see that there is still a bright light ahead.

Even with so many personnel out injured, the Hawks have been competitive in games this year.

Defence

With Will Day, Changkuoth Jiath, James Siciliy, Blake Hardwick, Jack Scrimshaw, first round pick Denver Grainger-Barras and the running machine Jarman Impey all back and firing, this is the nucleus of a great defensive unit and as Garry Lyon recently pointed out on SEN, “you can see some of the magnets falling into place that are going to be there (long term).”

Like all of the successful premiership winning teams, they espouse the virtues of team defence and play that role well.

Tyler Brockman has only played a few games but he is already showing glimpses of why he’s a star in the making. Jai Newcombe has shown why he propelled off the Box Hill Hawks list and the Hawks swooped on him in the mid-season draft. Imagine when he gets a full pre-season into him. By coming into the side, he has also allowed Tom Mitchell to play a different role, allowing Mitchell more time up forward.

Jackson Callow also picked up in the mid-season draft shows significant promise so with a full pre-season under his belt, can become a great target both in defence and up forward.

The midfield

In terms of the midfield, there are some elite players in there with Brownlow medallist ball magnet Tom Mitchell, former number one draft pick Jaeger O’Meara, the flashy Chad Wingard and the inspirational captain Ben McEvoy usually leaving the ground with a bandage around his head after leading by example and constantly putting his head on the line.

The Hawks need to find a way to get the best out of James Worpel when he combines with Mitchell and O’Meara. Selecting a gun midfielder in the draft could also enhance the Hawks’ midfield depth.

The ruck solution

Identifying an age gap between their current ruck stock and their emerging young ruckman in Ned Reeves, the Hawks cleverly traded out Jon Ceglar to Geelong while bolstering its ruck stocks for the future by bringing in 23-year old Max Lynch from Collingwood during the trade period.

The 200-centimetre ruckman – who was starved of opportunity behind Brodie Grundy and Darcy Cameron at Collingwood – looks set to form a long-term duo with rising youngster Reeves.

Apart from three games at AFL level, we have not seen much from Finn Maginness, but he has impressed at Box Hill and if the reports that came with recruiting him under the father-son rule eventuate then he will be another one that the Hawks will want to get games into. His three-kilometre time trials have been extremely impressive as well and the young mid has exciting upside.

The firing attack up forward

Up forward, Dylan Moore had a breakout season and appears to be a ready-made replacement for when Luke Breust eventually retires, although the premiership small forward showed with his great crumbing skills and elite kicking, he still has plenty left in the tank.

Then there are the young inexperienced but fast improving tall forwards in Jacob Koschitzke, Emerson Jeka and Mitchell Lewis while captain ‘Big Boy’ Ben McEvoy provides a great target when he goes forward too. ‘Kosi’ and Jeka need more experience against big-bodied defenders but that will come with more game experience.

Unfortunately Jack Gunston’s back injury kept him to only one game in 2021. But if the Hawks can get the triple premiership star back on the park, the beautiful marking sharp-shooter will play a key role in the Hawks climb up the ladder. However if injury problems persist to curtail his career, the Hawks may need to unearth a key forward in the draft to assist the other tall forwards.

The new quality coaching panel

It’s not only on the field where the Hawks have shown they are fast improving. New coach Sam Mitchell, who won four premierships and a Brownlow with the Hawks before moving to finish his playing career and then be an Assistant coach at West Coast, has surrounded himself with a great panel of high quality assistant coaches with a diverse background across the AFL.

Mitchell’s lieutenants include Chris Newman (Hawthorn and Richmond), Andy Otten (Adelaide), Robert Harvey (Collingwood and St Kilda), Andy Collins (Hawthorn/Box Hill), former premiership teammate David Hale (Fremantle and Hawthorn), Adrian Hickmott (Essendon, West Coast, Geelong and Carlton) and ruck coach Damian Monkhorst (Collingwood and Hawthorn).

Now that he has got his men, the Hawthorn coaches’ priority is to devise an effective game plan for his young team.

Apart from Harvey, these assistants may not be the highest profiled coaches, yet they bring an exceptional skill set and knowledge that they can impart on the young Hawthorn brigade.

And that is why the Hawks are not as far off as some might think. They have shown they can almost match it with the best. It’s just as Clarko has alluded to on several occasions, ‘they currently lack a bit of polish’.

During the trade period, some of Hawthorn’s stars like Jack Gunston, Tom Mitchell, Jaegar O’Meara and Chad Wingard were mentioned as potential trade options. However they made it very clear they did not want to leave Waverley. Possibly because they can see how quickly they may be able to taste success. The Hawks currently hold picks 5, 21 and 24 in the 2021 AFL Draft. If they can uncover gems with those picks, they might just accelerate their rebuild even further.

Perhaps it might be wishful thinking from some one-eyed Hawks supporters. It may be an extremely tough assignment. I am not for a second underestimating how mammoth of a task it will be but who says that just like other teams before them, the Hawks cannot also climb up the ladder and make finals in 2022?

Just like in 2016, when the underdog Bulldogs beat the highly favoured Sydney Swans to win the premiership from seventh spot on the ladder, they do not have to be the best team all season. They simply have to qualify for the finals in September and be the best team in September.

And just like in 2008, when the underdog Hawks did it themselves and beat the highly favoured Cats to secure their premiership.

Afterall, they’ve now got the 2008 Premiership Captain as their new coach!

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