It’s still technically autumn, but you wouldn’t know it in Melbourne this week, with tonight’s clash at the MCG set to be be played in true winter conditions.
Despite a down year for the Hawks in 2017, they managed to hand the Swans their only two losses between rounds 7 and 23.
There aren’t really any surprises when these teams meet, or at least there haven’t been in recent meetings.
The Swans want to play in a scrap and the Hawks want to play in space. Unless the weather gets really ugly, there’s not much reason to think that will be any different tonight.
Sydney aren’t playing particularly well. They are coming off a home loss to North Melbourne and are only a few weeks removed from losing their previous Friday night match to a grossly undermanned Crows side at the SCG.
But for all of their mediocrity, John Longmire’s side have been pretty good on the road this season, handing the Eagles their only loss of 2018 at Optus Stadium and overrunning the Cats for the Swans’ 43rd straight win at Kardinia Park – don’t look that up.
(Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Sydney will back their clearance strength to get the ball moving in their direction and into their attacking half, but the Hawks won’t be too concerned about that for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, these teams are tied fourth for clearance differential at +15 on the year.
And secondly, Hawthorn will back their defenders to pick the ball off and hurt the Swans on the turnover.
James Sicily is in All-Australian form, Shaun Burgoyne continues to operate on a different plane of existence to mere mortals and Ryan Burton is as smooth as they come even if he’s yet to really hit his straps this season. Having the three of them setting things up from the back half is almost unfair.
George Hewett and Tom Papley could get the important defensive jobs on two of them.
With no Lance Franklin, Sydney’s half forwards will be every bit as important as their midfielders – and in some cases they are one and the same.
Luke Parker and Isaac Heeney are, in some order, the Swans’ second- and third-best midfielders but I expect both to spend considerable time forward due to their ability in both the air and on the ground.
The Hawks don’t bat very deep with midfielders. Tom Mitchell is a star and healthy Jaeger O’Meara is trending that way as well.
After that pair, wingers Isaac Smith and Ricky Henderson are the only other midfielders averaging better than 20 disposals a game.
Will Langford’s addition to the side could add some bite around the ball should Alastair Clarkson choose to deploy him there.
Sydney should be able to spare one of their gun mids to add potency to their attack. Enter Heeney.
It’s not hard to make a case that Heeney is more valuable as a 70 percent forward than a 70 percent midfielder anyway, and tonight that might be what the Swans need to kick a winning score.
He’s a tough match-up, though Ben Stratton would fancy his chances, and a beautiful ball user who can create plenty of scoring opportunities for his team and headaches for this opponents.
Gary Rohan too could be important thanks to his aerial prowess and pace, but it’s impossible to count on him for more than 10 touches in any given week.
Youngsters Oliver Florent, Will Hayward, Ben Ronke and debutant Tom McCartin will all have roles to play. If they could combine for half a dozen goals the Swans would be rapt.
At the other end of the ground the Hawks are again beautifully balanced even without Cyril Rioli and Paul Puopolo.
Luke Breust is second in the Coleman race with 20 goals from seven matches and skipper Jarryd Roughead has added 13. Jack Gunston has contributed a dozen, as has Smith.
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
All of those players are terrific finishers. Hawthorn are 11th in the league for generating scores from inside-50s at 40.6 percent (the Swans are eighth at 41.9 percent), but if you narrow it to goals per inside-50, the Hawks jump to third – behind only Adelaide and West Coast – at 25.7 percent.
Some of that is because they have great finishers, and some of it is because they create great opportunities.
Despite Rioli and Puopolo’s absence, the Hawks are still a good forward-pressure team – Hi there, Jarman Impey – and set up smartly defensively.
Hawthorn have scored more points from forward-half takeaways than any other team this season (an average of 40 a game).
The elements could play a part, but the Hawks have better options in attack and should be a bit too slick.
Hawthorn have won the past three encounters between these sides by six, six and five points. Fingers crossed this one is just as close.
I’m tipping Hawthorn to make it four in a row, and to do so by three goals.
That’s my Friday night forecast. What’s yours?