After Round 9 last season, Hawthorn sat 17th on the ladder, with the second worst percentage in the competition.
Three of their games lost had been by between 12-15 goals. The empire was in ruins.
From that point on the Hawks played 13 games for seven wins, a draw, and six losses. Their average losing margin dropped from 52 points in those first nine rounds, to 21 points from that point on.
They weren’t outstanding, but they were decent. Extrapolate that second half of the year form out over an entire season, and they would play finals in any given year.
The Hawks are one of the mysteries of 2018. Some are certain the decline will continue. Others are equally confident they can bounce back to finals.
B: James Sicily Kaiden Brand Ben Stratton
HB: Ryan Burton James Frawley Grant Birchall
C: Shaun Burgoyne Tom Mitchell Isaac Smith
HF: Luke Breust Jack Gunston Taylor Duryea
F: Paul Puopolo Jarryd Roughead Cyril Rioli
Foll: Ben McEvoy Jaegar O’Meara Liam Shiels
Int: Blake Hardwick Jarman Impey Ricky Henderson Will Langford
Em: Tim O’Brien Daniel Howe Brendan Whitecross
There are 15 Hawthorn premiership heroes still on the list, but the vast majority of these are role players. Gone are the likes of Buddy Franklin, Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Josh Gibson, Jordan Lewis and Brian Lake.
In fact, if we look back at the 2013 flag, basically four full seasons ago, only ten players remain at the club. It shows how quickly turnover happens in the AFL world.
The Hawks have 17 players on the list that have played six games or less – eight of these were taken in the rookie draft, and only one of the remainder was taken higher than pick 40 in the national draft. There is no elite young talent on the list waiting for a chance. The coaching staff will be hoping they can make mountains out of molehills.
Hawthorn’s midfield is startling for its lack of depth.
They are heavily reliant on Tom Mitchell, who is as durable as he is prolific. Treated disgracefully by John Longmire at Sydney, it was pleasing to see him come into his own and dominate to the extent of almost 36 disposals and seven tackles a game. His running patterns show that his footy IQ is off the charts. He either gets to where the ball is, where it’s going to be, or where he wants it to go.
Shaun Burgoyne can play anywhere, but is still Hawthorn’s second best midfielder even at 35 years of age. His poise is unquestioned, and hopefully he hasn’t gone on a year too long. It will be a pleasure to see his smoothness for another season. You just know he’s going to win his team a game by cooling slotting a goal from 45m out in the dying minutes at some stage.
Liam Shiels is basically an elevated jobber, while Isaac Smith is plain. It was easier to look good behind the stars as when they were still around, but it’s a bit more difficult as responsibility increases in their absence.
It is hoped Jaegar O’Meara can provide some more yeast to the midfield, but the former Sun has played six matches at the highest level in three years. He’s shown enough in his time at the Hawks to suggest he can be a solid AFL player, but does he still have that hint of magic that made so many fall in love with his talent?
Hawthorn’s forward-line has always been greater than the sum of its parts, with each individual reputation enhanced by being part of the successful whole – there was no greater example of this than Jack Gunston and Luke Breust last season, when they struggled given the work wasn’t being done for them upfield.
Apart from a five-goal haul against the hapless Suns, Gunston kicked 11 majors in 14 matches, including going goalless seven times, before being sent into defence. Breust was more consistent, but still averaged his lowest goals per game for his career.
Jarryd Roughead was solid on his return from missing 2016 from cancer, but is unlikely to get better at 31. Cyril Rioli played seven uninspiring games last year, so there is improvement there. Is he still the best Rioli in the AFL?
Paul Puopolo will do his thing, but has a shelf life. Taylor Duryea was another who mixed his roles last year, but 100 games into his career we need to see more.
Jarman Impey has been added to the forward-midfield mix, and can add something on the outside, perhaps to take over the Brad Hill role that wasn’t really filled last year, playing on the opposite wing to Smith.
Assuming a return to type for all the players above, chemistry shouldn’t be a problem, and they should be able to hit the scoreboard regularly from their chances, but is the midfield going to give them enough?
The Hawks look good in defence, with a mix of vast experience and impressive up-and-comers.
James Frawley, Grant Birchall and Ben Stratton have played almost 600 games between them, and possess eight premiership medals. James Sicily, Ryan Burton, Kaiden Brand and Blake Hardwick, all in their early 20s, have played 116 matches between them, but each one looks like a long term prospect.
The Hawks will get their chance to build momentum in the early going, playing only two top eight sides in the first six rounds. The loser of Hawthorn vs Collingwood in Round 1 will have the media hounds snapping away at them.
The backline can stand up. The forward-line, assuming they go back to a more familiar structure, isn’t far removed from what they had in their premiership three-peat. But the midfield is severely under-resourced. Does Alastair Clarkson have something up his sleeve in order to offset this weakness?
In racing, a famous saying is that you should always forgive a good horse one bad run. Is Hawthorn still a good horse? Or are they soon to be sent to the knackery? We’ll find out soon enough.
Prediction – ninth
Cam Rose’s AFL ladder prediction
Ninth: Hawthorn Hawks
10th: Collingwood Magpies11th: Western Bulldogs
12th: St Kilda Saints
13th: West Coast Eagles
14th: North Melbourne Kangaroos
15th: Fremantle Dockers
16th: Brisbane Lions
17th: Carlton Blues
18th: Gold Coast Suns