JOHNNO: Is Hawthorn’s season already on the line?

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Hawthorn (AFL Media)

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Hawthorn are the AFL premiership favourites in 2013, as they should be after a whole summer spent burning over last year’s grand final loss.

The Hawks let themselves down in the final 15 minutes of that grand final, and will have been using that as motivation to rectify those areas where they feel they were lacking.

But do we need to start querying how highly we should rate them after a NAB Cup campaign that has been winless, and displayed a few other worrying signs?

Being defeated by Gold Coast in game one was not the way any top team would be comfortable with starting, even if it was only by a point. This was followed by their game against the Lions in which they only kicked one goal.

No worries, they would have said, they were just blowing out the cobwebs.

Their third game, they faced the Western Bulldogs and lost by one point again. They had a number of senior players missing, but as everyone talks about their depth, they would have been starting to get concerned.

Most recently they faced Richmond in Tassie, and went down to a goal after the siren from Tiger spearhead Jack Reiwoldt. The margin? You got it, one point.

No wins so far in the NAB Cup, and as we all know it is difficult to just flick a switch and find form. Form is built over a number of weeks, and so far the Hawks do not have much to speak of.

The biggest concern is the fact that they have fallen from being the first-ranked kicking team in the comp during the last home-and-away season to 16th over this pre-season period.

This is a decline in their key strength, and must improve in a hurry.

There’s no question that the sides who have defeated the Hawks in recent weeks set themselves for the contest with relatively strong team selections, wanting to gain much-needed confidence by beating the best in the competition.

The Hawks must be prepared to be the hunted this year.

They need to be strong in turning this into a positive for themselves, then go out and hunt the opposition just as fiercely.

Clinton Young left over the break to move to Collingwood, and Hawthorn will miss his outside run and penetrating kick.

Brendan Whitecross’ knee injury during last year’s finals, tearing his anterior cruciate ligament, means that a handy option is unlikely to be available for much or any of this season. Luke Hodge had an injury-riddled season last year, and an interrupted summer.

Then there was Matt Suckling going down with a season-ending knee injury on the weekend. This will really hurt his side. The Hawks generate a lot of scores from his run out of defence, and his quality foot skills consistently hurt the opposition.

Last year Suckling had the club’s best tally of rebound 50s, and the second-highest number of score involvements after Sam Mitchell.

He’ll be missed most during kick-outs. With only six seconds to bring the ball in, he would have been the perfect option because of his precision and his retention rate after disposal – the third best in the league.

2013 will be a test of Hawthorn’s depth. Full back Brian Lake is a big inclusion, and if he can overcome injury issues will be valuable as a key defender with excellent disposal this year.

Brad Hill has been good, and it could be a huge chance for delisted Geelong midfielder Jonathan Simpkin to prove his worth after being given another chance at AFL level.

It’s the early part of the year that would worry Alastair Clarkson.

In round one on Easter Monday they face Geelong, a side they have not defeated in their last nine matches, with five of those losses by less than a goal. Being off their game is the last thing Hawthorn need.

Nor is it just the challenge the Cats pose. Hawthorn’s first seven games are against the other seven finalists of last year.

The Hawks can’t afford to end that first phase with a record of two and five.

They have enough class over the ground, no question. The question is whether they can bring that class together for the all-important early matches.

If they can, they deserve to be premiership favourites, and as the season unfolds they should cement their place as the number one side in the comp.

Six-time All-Australian Brad Johnson is a former Western Bulldogs captain, Team of the Century member, and played a record 364 games for the club. He now commentates for Fox Footy and writes for The Roar.
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