Can the Hawks fly again in 2018?

Stuart McKenzie Roar Rookie

By , Stuart McKenzie is a Roar Rookie

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    Hawthorn are perhaps the hardest side to get a read on for season 2018.

    With a perceived ageing list and the ongoing loss of stars, most pundits expect a lowly finish for the Hawks and betting markets have ten teams more highly fancied.

    However, you shouldn’t be so quick to write them off for 2018.

    In 2017, Hawthorn won 10.5 games, a modest return. What’s dismissed though is the large number of serious injuries suffered in 2017, with minimal contributions from Jaeger O’Meara, Cyril Rioli, Grant Birchall, James Frawley, Paul Puopolo and Ben Stratton.

    Those six players played 49 of a possible 132 games – that’s 73 games missed, an average of over 12 games per player. It’s doubtful that any team would have been competitive with such an immense loss of games from such significant players.

    The Hawks’ poor start to the season, coupled with serious injuries to key players, saw the club move from aiming to contend for a flag to regenerating the playing group. The injuries proved a blessing in disguise.

    Blake Hardwick, James Sicily and Ryan Burton’s statistics for the second half of the season showed that they were among the best backmen in the competition.

    Tim O’Brien progressed as a genuine ruck-forward and youngsters Connor Glass, Teia Miles, Harry Morrison, Kurt Heatherley, Dallas Willsmore and James Cousins gained experience at senior level. Keen fans are confident that one or two those players will develop into genuine senior footballers.

    Jack Gunston proved a highly effective defender, while Will Langford and Taylor Duryea showed they could play forward.

    So, where are those injured players?

    O’Meara and Puopolo played the final two games of 2017, Rioli and Frawley were ready to go by season’s end, and Stratton will be right for the start of pre-season training. As for Birchall, he is recovering from a serious knee injury and is expected to have a delayed start to pre-season.

    Ever so quietly, Alastair Clarkson has overseen a transformation of his list. With the return of injured players and the development of youngsters, here’s a first pass at the best 22 for season 2018.

    B: Hardwick Frawley Sicily
    HB: Birchall Brand Burton
    C: Smith O’meara Hartung
    HF: Rioli Gunston Impey
    F: Puopolo Roughead Breust
    R: McEvoy Howe Mitchell
    I/C: Burgoyne, Shiels, O’Brien, Stratton

    Of that best 22, only 13 players remain from the 2015 premiership team two seasons ago, giving a mix of youth and experience. It also offers Clarkson real flexibility, with James Sicily, Ryan Burton, Jarman Impey, Jack Gunston, Jarryd Roughead, Shaun Burgoyne and Tim O’Brien capable in multiple positions.

    But it’s in defence where Hawthorn look especially strong.

    Sicily and Burton both mark the ball, Hardwick has a kicking efficiency among the highest in the competition, and Birchall, Sicily and Burton are high possession, rebounding defenders with exceptional kicking skills.

    Frawley is an established, dependable key defender and the athletic Kaiden Brand was a big improver in 2017.

    It’s an appealing back six, with real intercept and rebound ability.

    Both the Bulldogs of 2016 and the Tigers of 2017 highlighted the value of high-intensity forward pressure. This has always been a feature of Clarkson’s teams and Rioli, Impey, Puopolo and Luke Breust are a quartet of small forwards the equal of any in the competition.

    Supported by Roughead and the roaming Gunston, this is a seriously dangerous forward line.

    Since 2015, the Hawks have experienced an unprecedented loss of players, many champions. Whether they can be adequately replaced is a key question in assessing the club’s prospects.

    While it’s early days the replacements appear to be close to the mark.

    Out In
    Sam Mitchell Tom Mitchell
    Jordan Lewis Jaeger O’Meara
    Brian Lake Kaiden Brand
    Luke Hodge Ryan Burton
    Josh Gibson James Sicily
    David Hale Tim O’Brien
    Matt Suckling Blake Hardwick
    Brad Hill Billy Hartung

    Mitchell and O’Meara are ready-made replacements for Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis. Each of the youngsters – Brand, Burton, Sicily, O’Brien, Hardwick and Hartung – have careers to date that compare well with Lake, Hodge, Gibson, Hale and Suckling at the same stage.

    And there’s the Clarkson factor. It’s easy to think that with four premierships in 12 years, it’s all been smooth sailing for the coach, but as the graphic below shows, that’s clearly not been the case.

    With four of his 12 years having been outside the top eight (and 2010 was a near fifth after a horror 1-6 start to the season), this is not unfamiliar territory. No doubt Clarkson will spend the summer scheming for the coming season and what he produces next year will be a fascinating side story.

    Yes, there are some big unanswered questions: can Kaiden Brand hold down a key defensive post? Can Daniel Howe build on an excellent second half of 2017 to become the big-bodied midfielder Hawthorn need? Can Tim O’Brien develop the required consistency? Can Ryan Burton, James Sicily and Blake Hardwick sustain the excellence of season 2017? Can Shaun Burgoyne play quality footy as a 35-year-old? Will James Birchall recover from his serious knee injury?

    If the Hawks get affirmative answers to most of these questions and can avoid the injury curse, they are poised to rise again for what would surely be Clarkson’s finest hour.

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