Hawthorn fans have been through a torrid time in the recent past, given it’s been a whole 18 months since their team won a flag.
Forgive them if they lash out at you. Offer them your ears and a shoulder to cry on. Exercise patience. With your help, they’ll get through it. Life just isn’t fair sometimes.
In the trade period, Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis, both four-time premiership greats, both best-and-fairest winners and both All-Australian representatives while wearing the brown and gold, were hawked off like cheap watches. Brad Hill was traded to Fremantle.
You can just picture Alastair Clarkson walking into opposition clubs and opening his coat to show off a glittering array of premiership stars hanging inside.
Hawks fans were upset for about 15 seconds, before coming to the understanding that if Clarko was doing it, it must be right. Four premierships in the space of a decade will give you that leeway.
Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara, Tyrone Vickery and Ricky Henderson were added to the side by way of compensation, and player-for-player heading into 2017, the Hawks should come out just in front.
Let’s see what the new Hawthorn side might look like.
Hawthorn Hawks’ best 22
|B||Grant Birchall||James Frawley||Ben Stratton|
|HB||Shaun Burgoyne||Josh Gibson||Luke Hodge|
|C||Isaac Smith||Tom Mitchell||Billy Hartung|
|HF||Cyril Rioli||Jarryd Roughead||Jack Gunston|
|F||Paul Puopolo||Tyrone Vickery||Luke Breust|
|Foll||Ben McEvoy||Liam Shiels||Jaeger O’Meara|
|Int||James Sicily||Ricky Henderson||Taylor Duryea||Daniel Howe|
Emergencies: Will Langford, Kade Stewart, Ryan Schoenmakers
Starting at the back, we see an incredible conglomerate of experience, with 1375 games played between the defensive six named above.
Josh Gibson, Grant Birchall and Ben Stratton have been doing what they do for years, while James Frawley took some time to settle in after crossing from Melbourne, but is now comfortably entrenched in this group.
Each of these defenders has a different speciality. Skillsets that are different yet complementary are vitally important in a back six. So is continuity.
The above four lack the flexibility of other players, so won’t be moving anywhere from defence. Clarkson will want to inject some fresh blood down there. Taylor Duryea has been a defensive mainstay for a few years, and may start getting more midfield minutes.
James Sicily has been used at half-back across pre-season, and may play most of his football there this year, despite producing some impressive performances inside forward 50 in 2016. Daniel Howe should get more opportunities to cement a spot in the best side.
Luke Hodge and Shaun Burgoyne, both giants of the game in their respective ways, are likely entering their last seasons. They will be relied upon for impact at crucial times, rather than four-quarter performances.
The Hawks will be running with a brand new midfield in 2017, thanks to the acquisitions of O’Meara and Tom Mitchell who are replacing Lewis and Sam Mitchell.
At stages, we will probably see a centre-square quartet of O’Meara, Mitchell, Tyrone Vickery and Jarryd Roughead, none of whom played a game for the Hawks last year.
Clarkson usually runs with a two ruck strategy, but Vickery should be relief for Ben McEvoy only. McEvoy should ruck 80-85 per cent during games, which would be significantly higher than in his previous time at the Hawks. The limited ruck division will be a weakness opposition sides will look to exploit.
O’Meara is such an exquisitely skilled footballer, memories of what he can do haven’t really dimmed in his two-year absence. If his dodgy knees hold up, he will become an outright superstar. Tom Mitchell is one of the best midfielders in the competition, who does his best work at the coalface, both offensively and defensively.
Liam Shiels will provide his patented, no-frills hardness, while Isaac Smith and Billy Hartung will be important running the wings, especially given speed across the ground was a weakness for the Hawks last year. This can often be the case with such an experienced team.
In fact, Hawthorn’s three biggest losses in 2016 were to teams with young list profiles – GWS were the second youngest, Melbourne the fourth and Western Bulldogs the fifth. The Hawks experience helped them get over the line in close games, but that luck ran out as the season wore on, and the new kids on the block with speed in their legs found them out.
Clarkson knew this, and addressed it with the ushering out of Mitchell and Lewis. It wasn’t just about infusing O’Meara and Tom Mitchell, but it’s also about promoting the likes of Daniel Howe, Kade Stewart, Teia Miles, Blake Hardwick and Kieran Lovell.
The forward line is where it gets interesting.
Vickery has assets, in the form of good hands and a beautiful set shot technique, but is more mentally fragile than most playing the game. He can easily be a 40-goal forward in the Hawthorn set-up though, which will mean he has delivered.
Roughead was a feel-good story of the AFL off-season, back after a year off fighting cancer. He has walked into the captaincy, to top things off, but how much can we truly expect of him? His JLT Series campaign has been extremely promising.
The lethal combination of Jack Gunston, Cyril Rioli, Luke Breust and Paul Puopolo will continue to put scores on the board, through their combination of work ethic, craft, cleverness and pressure skills. Can the midfield deliver them enough opportunities, particularly if O’Meara goes down?
Hawthorn ranked last and second last for contested possession and clearance differentials last year, with Clarkson rightly placing a premium on ball movement ahead of these stats. In today’s game, where rebounding swiftly from the back half is such a high priority, turnovers kill you more than not being able to get first hands on the ball.
That said, the Hawks didn’t want to be as bad as they were. Tom Mitchell will certainly help, as will O’Meara. Sam Mitchell and Lewis are much more uncontested players these days than their reputations insist, so an area of concern has been addressed.
A straight sets exit from the finals last September was a more accurate reflection of Hawthorn’s season than the third place finish on the ladder. To the eye they looked like a sixth-7th team, and that was backed up by points for (6th), points against (7th) and percentage (6th).
There was no shame in slipping back to the pack after a stellar three years at the top.
The older heads will be a year slower and with diminished hunger. The young heads are not quite ready to take the responsibility of winning games. Another drop is likely. The Hawks haven’t missed the finals since their premiership hangover of 2009, but we might just get to see how September plays without them this year.
Predicted ladder spread: 7th-12th
Predicted finish: 9th
Best and fairest: Tom Mitchell
Leading goalkicker: Jack Gunston
All-Australian potential: Jack Gunston, Tom Mitchell, Cyril Rioli
Rising Star candidates: Ryan Burton, Blake Hardwick, Kieran Lovell, Kade Stewart