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Hawthorn’s off season won’t be as interesting as you might think

Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson. (Image: AAP Image/Joe Castro)
Expert
22nd August, 2017
73
3641 Reads

The big players of last October are out their first round pick, but there is no reason for the Hawks to fret as the season winds down for ten of the league’s teams. Hawthorn’s needs are limited, and there are ample avenues to fill them.

Hawthorn is set to finish at the lowest position on the ladder the club has plumbed since 2006 – 11 years, 266 games, and four premierships ago.

A fall that in hindsight ticks almost every pre-regression box but which still shocks the senses; Hawthorn? No, not them, they are football’s oak tree, the perennial contender.

The club shot for the moon last trade period, executing two highwire, pick-for-player exchanges with varying short-term impact.

Tom Mitchell set the record for total disposals in a home-and-away season in just 20 games, and looks set to end the year with a disposal average of 35. Jaeger O’Meara’s year has been ruined by injury, a sad if not unpredictable development. Still, he will have played half a dozen games, and hinted at his impact should he be allowed to play to his potential.

Those two deals cost the Hawks all-but the entirety of their 2016 draft capital, and dealt their 2017 first round (to St Kilda) and second round (Gold Coast) picks in the process. Hawthorn will enter the draft around the late 30s, ending up with the Greater Western Sydney Giants’ second round pick on traded from Carlton.

For a club finishing 12th, this looks like a disaster, and in many ways it is.

Except in other ways, for Hawthorn as they are currently built, it isn’t. The Hawks may have won nine games from 21 attempts this season, but not all is as it seems. The most successful club of the decade to date has executed a swift semi-rebuild around a core of players in prime age or just coming into it, and are not in the state of a typical post-finals run team.

Hawthorn haven’t reached their bottom. But they’re closer to the top than you think.

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Change it up
The six-week mark of the season has become a line of demarcation when assessing the Sydney Swans, who sit third on the premiership betting line despite starting the year 0-6. Lots has happened in the intermittent period of course.

Hawthorn has undergone a similar revival, albeit with one win under their belt through six rounds, and without the 11-2 record in their 13 outings. Their season from Round 7 to Round 21 looks like this: eight wins, one draw, four losses, a percentage of 103.7 per cent, three close wins from six close games, no blow-out wins or blow-out losses.

All told, the markings of a middle of the road team, not the 1-5 cellar dweller of the first quarter of the year.

Their winning record isn’t all that changed. After trying an uncharacteristic zig to start the season, head coach Alastair Clarkson threw out a refurbished gameplan at the six-week mark and went back to what his teams know best.

The Hawks, renowned for their ball control and kick-mark game, tried to play a more ground ball-centric style to start the year. Evidently it was not effective; Hawthorn’s playing stocks not pacey enough to make it work, ironically shifting to this style after losing their fastest outside player in Bradley Hill.

The Hawks had a kick-to-handball ratio of 1.14 and took 85.7 uncontested marks per game in the first six weeks of the season – the former would have been the sixth lowest ratio if recorded over the year, and the latter well down on their 2016 season mark.

Over that six-week stretch, the Hawks recorded an inside 50 differential of –8.0 per game as they were outscored by close to 40 points per week. It was a debacle.

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Since Round 7, they have moved back to something more in keeping with their roots. Their kick to handball ratio has lifted to 1.23, and their uncontested marks per game up to 94.5, the latter of which would lead the league if maintained over the year.

An adjustment like this, on the fly, is what makes Clarkson one of the best coaches in the league. Other teams saw their seasons flounder early doors (the Western Bulldogs come to mind, albeit Luke Beveridge’s men had a rolling run of position-critical injuries) but weren’t able to recover.

The Hawks have had their share of injuries this season, beyond O’Meara through the middle of the ground. James Frawley and Ben Stratton played eight games, Cyril Rioli seven, and Grant Birchall five. Paul Puopolo also missed a big chunk of the season, although somehow has played 14 games.

Layer in the demise of Josh Gibson, and the departure of Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell, and it’s a minor miracle the Hawks have ended up where they have.

That’s because Clarkson showed a willingness to get a bit whacky with his playing list.

Jack Gunston was out of form as a centre half forward, so he was moved down back in part to cover for the injuries sustained and has looked sound. Will Langford looks like an AFL-level player – a role player – in Rioli’s spot up forward. Ryan Burton, who played as an attacking midfielder for most of his junior career, looks set to win a Rising Star award as a half back flanker. James Sicily, hothead extraordinaire, is hitting home runs as a defender.

Hawthorn have been able to make it work in the end, and with a bit of injury luck might not be so far off a return trip to the promised land. No, I’m serious.

With a bit of luck
Here is Hawthorn’s notional starting 18 for 2017 filled with players I am comfortable are in the Hawks’ best line up in these particular positions.

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FB B Hardwick J Frawley
HB R Burton G Birchall
C J O’Meara T Mitchell I Smith
HF J Gunston L Breust
FF P Puopolo J Roughead C Rioli
Fol. B McEvoy L Shiels S Burgoyne

That’s… I mean that’s not bad, is it? It’s actually pretty good, albeit with a couple of holes in key positions that don’t have slam-dunk propositions on the bench.

Hawthorn’s list of players outside of this starting 15 is nothing to sneeze at on this year’s form, either.

T Duryea K Brand R Henderson
J Sicily B Stratton R Schoenmakers
T OBrien D Howe B Whitecross
B Hartung W Langford T Vickery
C Glass J Ceglar

That list includes Sicily, Taylor Duryea, Billy Hartung, Langford, Daniel Howe, and Ricky Henderson, who’ve all played significant time this year.

Sicily makes it into this list mostly because he’s something of an awkward fit in a starting line up with the rest of the Hawks in place – he’s not a centre half forward, and the Hawks have options for a starting rebound defender. He will certainly be in the line up come Round 1.

Again, it’s not the 2001 Superdraft, but Hawthorn have enough first team talent to consider themselves a better-than-average team come Round 1 2018 – as most of us did this year. Their best 22 will remain on the older side of average, as will their list overall, but unlike a few months ago, there’s a chance Hawthorn’s overall list position is stronger than we all realised.

The Hawks were quietly smashed by the injury luck hammer in 2017; outside of O’Meara the injuries were somewhat unpredictable and clustered in nature. It may have turned into a blessing in disguise down back given it meant Clarkson and his rapidly diminishing band of coaches were able to throw science at the wall and see what stuck. But up forward the Hawks were caught short handed.

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Jaeger O'Meara Hawthorn Hawks AFL 2017 tall

AAP Image/Julian Smith

Filling out
It helps place into context the aggression the Hawks displayed in the 2016 off-season.

The idea was to rebuild on the fly by bringing in more established talent to complement a solid homegrown core. Thinking fans knew that at the time, but after the 2017 season and with a helping of hindsight it becomes all the more clear.

What’s Hawthorn’s next move? It likely won’t be trading their way into the first round of the draft as many expect, unless a home-run pitch is thrown their way. Hawthorn’s list structure is unique in the scheme of a regular topped out team, its prime-age players unlikely to command a king’s ransom in the halls of Etihad Stadium.

There is no doubt some tinkering around the edges could be in order, to inject a little more youth with picks in the 30s or 40s by shedding one or two of their players just about to enter prime age, but who’ve been in and out of the team.

Hartung and Duryea’s names tend to come up in these conversations every year, mostly because they’ve been stuck at Box Hill on account of the settled excellence of the first team. Now the Hawks have crested, they’re still not regulars.

Hawthorn would be interested in Jake Lever, particularly given they don’t have an obvious centre half forward who is ready to go immediately. But there is almost no chance they have the best package available to satiate the Adelaide Crows, who will rightly demand a show-stopping effort to compensate them for the loss of an outstanding young key position prospect.

Lever has been plying his trade mostly as a spare defender for the Crows in 2017, but has done it at an extraordinarily high level, and has all of the intangibles a modern number one defender must possess: agility, quick hands, acceleration and strong verticality. He suits the Hawks to a T, but it looks a bridge or four too far.

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Instead, I would expect the Hawks to look to the rapidly swelling delisted free agent pool. Clubs have delivered themselves some mighty bounty by sorting through the discard pile in recent years; Dylan Roberton and Joel Hamling, now key position mainstays at St Kilda and Fremantle respectively, were discarded by their draft teams.

The upside of delisted free agents are cost control (the minimum salary is $100,000 plus match payments in 2018, or 0.7 per cent of the salary cap), the short term (one year minimum) nature of deals, and that all they cost is a list spot and latent salary cap space that has to be spent anyway.

There are no names on the table yet because no one has hit the delisting window, but as soon as it opens, the Hawks should hit the phones.

Otherwise, a relatively benign player exchange period looms for the Hawks, who fired their bazooka in 2016.

Hawthorn might not have the young and dynamic list of a Melbourne or Western Bulldogs or St Kilda, the bundles of potential at Brisbane, or the spit-shine ready Gold Coast Suns. They certainly aren’t stuffed with blue chips like the two Sydney teams. But what they do have is workable in the short-term, and full of interesting potential in the medium-term.

That the Hawks are even in this position should still cause us to sit back and marvel. Now that assistant coach Cameron Bruce has left the Alastair Clarkson Coaching Academy for a senior assistant job at Carlton (under former graduate Brendon Bolton), Hawthorn’s 2013 coaching ranks have been almost completely pilfered.

Adam Simpson, Luke Beveridge, Chris Fagan, Bolton and Bruce were all in place when the Hawks won the first of their three straight premierships, and now all find themselves in senior or senior assistant coach positions at competing clubs. Add to that Leon Cameron and Damien Hardwick, who were at Waverley under Clarkson earlier in the piece.

There’s something about Al, and so long as that’s the case, the Hawks are in safe hands.

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