All the great teams are like horror movie villains – you never feel safe until you know they’re dead. And even then, you expect them to spring back to life. Sometimes they do.
Hawthorn have become the Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Michael Myers of the AFL.
Each year they pull off their Lazarus act, and each year we’re left stunned and embarrassed – stunned because it was so unforeseeable, embarrassed because we should have seen it coming.
In 2014 they lost half their team to injuries, as well as their coach, with only four players playing every home-and-away game.
Last year they started 4-4 and then took the long road to the season’s final Saturday, with three finals and two trips to Perth.
Both years they won the grand final in matches that were effectively over by quarter time.
There was no semblance of that team last Friday night though. Sam Mitchell was anonymous when the game was in the balance, Brad Hill pulled out of contests, Josh Gibson was bizarrely out of touch, and even Luke Hodge, although defiant and resolute as ever, was mistiming crucial passes.
We witnessed the least ‘Shaun Burgoyne’ game of all time in Perth and it happened to be played by Shaun Burgoyne himself. (Click to Tweet) The competition’s smoothest operator getting caught holding the ball in front of goal, kicking it into the man on the mark, and twice turning the ball over uncontested into the corridor – and that was all in the first quarter alone.
Beyond the eye test, the 2016 incarnation of Hawthorn appears more vulnerable than any since 2010, their last season without a finals victory.
Across 2011 to 2015 their percentage was 146.3 per cent, peaking at 158.4 per cent last year, with a low of 135.7 per cent in 2013. This year it sits at an unimpressive 119.7 per cent, sixth best in the league, and miles away from the Eagles in fifth.
The Hawks are the worst contested possession team in the league, self-evident last Friday night when West Coast beat them to every hard ball, belting them by 45 in the contested possession count. This stat is instructive, but nebulous too.
The Hawks have lost contested ball by 37, 29, 28 and 18 in games against Sydney, the Bulldogs, North Melbourne and Adelaide – all Hawthorn victories, however narrow. The reality is that Alastair Clarkson’s Hawks have never been elite at contested ball, only once cracking the top four in the stat in the past five years. But they’ve never dropped below ninth either.
Hawthorn’s gift, and what’s made them so transcendent, is their capacity to maintain the ball once they do actually win it. That’s how they’ve managed to lead the league in disposals per game the past two years, and stayed in the top three each year from 2011-2013. This year that ranking has plummeted to tenth. Their marks inside 50 ranking, safely inside the top four every year dating back to 2011, has also collapsed to 13th.
Which is all to say, this is not the same Hawthorn. There is little, if anything, in Hawthorn’s statistical profile to suggest that they can win the premiership.
But that doesn’t mean they won’t.
Any argument in favour of Hawthorn’s flag chances is really just an argument against their contenders. The Swans and Crows are the two premiership favourites at the moment, both likely to secure home qualifying finals. The Hawks have no fear of Sydney, having won up there this season already. The scars of the 2014 grand final must linger too, in some way at least, if only for Heath Grundy.
Adelaide have pushed the Hawks close over the years, including the three-point defeat at the MCG earlier in the year, and the five-point preliminary final defeat at the same venue in 2012, an underrated classic and the most memorable finals victory of this Hawthorn era.
The Crows are a bad match-up for the Hawks, with their monster forward line capable of stretching Hawthorn’s damaged defence with height and pace, just as West Coast did. But the reality is that Adelaide haven’t beaten Hawthorn since Round 1 2011, and that will be a tough – albeit not insurmountable – mental block to overcome against maybe the greatest team of all-time.
Does anybody trust the Cats? A team so bipolar they can beat the Hawks, Crows and Dogs by five goals, and lose to Collingwood, Carlton and St Kilda and be taken to within an inch of their ninth life in a game that meant everything for them and nothing for Richmond. Geelong could easily win the flag, but they’re just as liable to lose to Melbourne this week. They’ll hold little fear of Hawthorn though, and that alone might make them the Hawks’ biggest threat.
The Dogs are too banged up, and without Nic Naitanui the Eagles aren’t a contender. North are done, while the Giants are fading, and likely lack the experience to topple the Hawks at the MCG, where they would most likely have to meet.
We’re down to four-and-a-half contenders – likely having to come from fifth, I can’t give the Giants the full integer. So often a premiership, or a title in any sport, comes down to which team has the single greatest strength. In 2007 it was Geelong’s offensive movement by hand through the corridor. In 2010 it was Collingwood’s manic defensive pressure. For the past three years, it’s been Hawthorn’s incisive, revolutionary foot skills.
This year it might be Adelaide’s potent forward line. It could be the hardness of Sydney’s midfield, or the transcendence of the Patrick Dangerfield-Joel Selwood combination.
But I still suspect, after 22 weeks, the most powerful thing in the AFL going into finals is the ominous spectre of Hawthorn. It’s been damaged this season, but it can’t properly be killed until September. The spectre might not even have any basis in reality – at this point we can probably assume it doesn’t – but it only has to be as real as other teams believe it to be.
Over the years we’ve seen capable contenders crumble under the pressure of usurping the greats – the likes of Roger Federer, Barcelona and the New England Patriots.
Because when you’re up 4-1 against Federer in a fifth set, you’re never two games from victory – you’re five games from defeat.
Hawthorn have earned that stature, and opposition nervousness has already handed them multiple victories this year. Their holes are becoming more glaring, and teams will find confidence from what Melbourne and West Coast have done to the Hawks in the past three weeks.
But in September it’s a different game, and if the Hawks are within striking distance in the fourth quarter, which they’re still just good enough to be, a Hawthorn victory is going to creep into the minds of 36 players on the field.