Can anyone actually beat Hawthorn?
Shane Mumford of the Swans in the ruck (Slattery Images)
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With Geelong, protectors of the infamous Kennett Curse, now out of the finals equation, it’s not hard to form the view that the biggest stumbling block to Hawthorn winning the flag is now Hawthorn themselves.
Even before last weekend, there was just a certain air about the Hawks.
They finished the season minor premiers with a mammoth percentage of 154. They entered September on the back of a road win over Sydney, who had the next best percentage, and a comfortable 25-point win over the West Coast Eagles.
Excluding an after-the-siren loss to the Cats, the last time that Hawthorn lost to a top eight side was Round 5.
Results aside, plenty appeared, and appears, to be falling into place: Luke Hodge has made a very timely return. Sam Mitchell’s had another big year.
Buddy Franklin, after being knee-deep in the Coleman Medal race, withstood some extra attention to kick four goals against Collingwood on Friday night.
Grant Birchall and Cyril Rioli both earned All Australian squad selection. Josh Gibson has furthered his development.
The only lingering concerns are injury-related: Jordan Lewis’ hamstring made him a late withdrawl on Friday, Brendan Whitecross suffered an ACL injury later that night and Brent Guerra is unlikely to see September action.
But it would be underplaying it to say Hawthorn are in the box seat. They threw away they key three weeks ago.
The last remaining question is not whether Hawthorn themselves are a stumbling block to winning the flag, but rather who is capable of stealing it from underneath their noses?
Statistically, in terms of the gap in wins between first and eighth, this year’s was the closest top eight since 1993.
While the size of eighth-placed North Melbourne’s loss on the weekend dampened the significance of that, the fact two away teams won in upsets suggests there are reasons behind why that statistic came to be beyond an uneven draw.
It’s not inconceivable that a genuine threat lies within the five remaining potential Hawthorn opponents.
So let’s break down these threats and non-threats, using three indicators.
First, we’ll look at form against Hawthorn in 2012. It’s a pretty basic place to start, given one team has had three cracks at the Hawks and failed.
Second, we’ll look at form. Some teams have it this time of year, others don’t. To make it a fair and accurate comparison, we’ll use each club’s last five games against the eventual top eight.
Finally, we’ll assess where each team stands with regards to three key factors in beating the Hawks. Having a strong key forward (the comp’s leaders for marks inside 50, Tom Hawkins and Jack Riewoldt, played a big role in three of the Hawks’ losses this year), reliable key defenders (Buddy, Jarryd Roughead, David Hale and Jack Gunston won’t contain themselves) and the ability to win and control possession.
The last one might sound strange, but it’s the one common thread between the West Coast, Sydney and Richmond wins this year.
Each side won the disposal count (the Eagles by 50, the Swans by 19 and the Tigers by 81), with a particular emphasis on uncontested possessions (the Eagles had 40 more, the Swans 11 and the Tigers 57).
Each side is ranked from least likely to beat Hawthorn to most likely.
Form against Hawthorn: 56-point loss (Rd 3). A long time has passed since this result, and it’s a shame these teams didn’t meet again, so it appears we probably can’t read too much into the form guide with Adelaide and Hawthorn.
Last five games vs. top 8: 2 wins, 3 losses, 97.61%. This ranks the Crows fourth out of the non-Hawthorn sides that remain. Not terribly convincing.
Key factors: In Taylor Walker the Crows have the key forward box ticked, he’s kicked 54 goals so far this year and ranks fifth for marks inside 50. It’s also handy that Kurt Tippett, while often criticised, ranks in the top 20 for the latter stat.
Down back, however, Daniel Talia’s injury from last weekend puts a real dampener on things. In terms of the final key factor, Adelaide were absolutely smashed last week by the Swans: they had 56 less disposals and 58 less uncontested possessions. They lost both counts to Melbourne three weeks ago. Again, not terribly convincing.
Form against Hawthorn: 38-point loss (QF), 47-point loss (Rd 17), 22-point loss (Rd 1). Unlike other teams, with the Pies we have the benefit of three games to refer to. Put simply, that they didn’t get within three goals once doesn’t look pretty.
Last five games vs. top 8: 1 win, 4 losses, 71.16%. Another alarm bell is ringing here. This is clearly the worst percentage not only of the remaining six teams but the top eight as a whole.
Key factors: This is where things get interesting. For all that has just been said, we know that Travis Cloke is entering form once again, booting six goals against the Hawks on Friday night. Chris Tarrant is one of a number of options they have to tackle Franklin.
Finally, there’s no shortage of ball winners at Collingwood.
Dane Swan and Dayne Beams lead the comp in uncontested possessions per game, while Steele Sidebottom scrapes into the top ten.
Unfortunately, Collingwood haven’t been able to translate that into success against the Hawks, and indeed other top sides. They edge ahead of Adelaide purely because they have more finals experience and the reputations of guys like Swan, Beams, Scott Pendlebury, Sidebottom and Cloke.
#3: West Coast
Form against Hawthorn: 25-point loss (Rd 23), 5-point win (Rd 4). West Coast, along with the Swans, are one of the only remaining sides to have claimed the Hawthorn scalp this season. Their round 23 loss on the road, with the Hawks playing for a minor premiership, doesn’t seem like too much of a big deal, either.
Last five games vs. top 8: 3 wins, 2 losses, 113.99%. Another tick here. They rank ahead of the Swans and it was hard not to be impressed by their win over North Melbourne last week. Sure, they no longer have home ground advantage, but that factor appeared to mean little in the first week of finals.
Key factors: It’s a big tick down back for the Eagles. Darren Glass has had a magnificent year and Eric Mackenzie has been groomed for taking big jobs.
Josh Kennedy recently returned from injury, but he’s exactly what the Eagles will need if they want to beat the Hawks.
In his eight games, he’s averaged 2.12 goals a game and 2.9 marks inside 50 a game (eighth best in the league). Jack Darling is also dangerous up forward, slotting 51 goals for the season.
Led by guys like Matt Priddis, Daniel Kerr and Scott Selwood, West Coast know how to win the footy, too. However, since Round 15 they’ve struggled in games against Hawthorn, Geelong, Fremantle, Adelaide and Sydney to control the game by winning the disposal count and the uncontested possession count.
As you’d expect, last week against North Melbourne was a different story, but they’d need to be fully switched on to dominate the Hawks again.
Form against Hawthorn: 56-point loss (Rd 8). All you can say is a lot has changed at the Dockers since Round 8. St Kilda took time to adapt to Ross Lyon and the same was always going to be true of Freo.
Last five games vs. top 8: 3 wins, 2 losses, 117.78%. The Dockers eclipse the Eagles here on percentage, making them the highest ranked out of the five contenders in terms of recent form against the best opposition. Their massive road win over Geelong last week only adds to the momentum that’s seen them win nine of their last ten.
Key factors: Coming off a final in which Tom Hawkins was held goalless with zero impact by Zac Dawson and an army of purple jumpers whenever the ball went his way, it’s fair to say the Dockers might have what it takes to contain the forward dangers at Hawthorn.
The potential continued absence of the All Australian nominated Luke McPharlin complicates things, but in Alex Silvagni and Michael Johnson, the club is hardly short on quality options.
Last week we also saw Matthew Pavlich tear apart a defence containing two All Australian nominated key defenders to boot six goals in a dominant, best-on-ground display. The only worry with the Pav is the slight injury concerns that have been following him around lately. But if he can continue to sweep them aside, boy oh boy … he’s a major threat.
Finally, there’s the question of whether Freo can control the footy and assert themselves over the highly fancied Hawks. Ross Lyon coached teams have a habit of getting the game to be played on their own terms, and they’ve won the disposal count in their last four matches by an average of 53.
But before that they weren’t all that strong in these areas, being beaten by Adelaide (convincingly) and Port Adelaide in late-season games. One thing’s for sure though: Freo’s the flavour of the month, and it’s a damn good month to own that title.
Form against Hawthorn: 7-point loss (Rd 22), 37-point win (Rd 5). The Swans own this category. Beating the Hawks in Tassie was a huge feat earlier in the year and they fought a gallant battle in the return stoush at the SCG.
Last five games vs. top 8: 2 wins, 3 losses, 107.94%. Although they are only the third best out of the remaining threats, the percentage is healthy, indicating they have been more than competitive in recent big games. The three losses are concerning, but two of those were single-digits.
Key factors: Ted Richards has had the kind of year that just eases all those concerns about Buddy going wild. The Swans have achieved John Longmire’s goal of becoming the best defensive side in the league. The back line work together and are very adept at repelling attacks.
Up forward, Sam Reid’s time does not appear to be now so the key man is Adam Goodes, who had three goals last week and was also instrumental in the win over the Hawks earlier in the year. The only question is can his recent return to form continue, but you suspect he will warm to the big stage.
As already mentioned, the Swans dominated possession against the Crows. But in the two weeks prior to that, they did the same against Geelong and against Hawthorn, where they racked up 38 more disposals and 16 more uncontested possessions.
This is a side that had three midfielders nominated for All Australian honours in Kieren Jack, Lewis Jetta and Josh Kennedy. Then there’s Jarrad McVeigh, Ryan O’Keefe and Dan Hannebery as well.
A lot of boxes are ticked here, so Sydney will be more prepared than any other side for the challenge.
If any side is going to do it, it’ll be the Swans.
Michael DiFabrizio is completing his journalism degree. As an AFL writer, he has been an expert columnist at The Roar since 2009, and appeared in The Age and on ABC television and radio. Follow Michael on twitter @mdifabrizio