Hawthorn surprised most by finishing fourth on the ladder at the end of the home and away rounds last year, but were not a particularly strong side.
In fact, the competition lacked depth of quality teams in 2018, and there were only four good ones. Hawthorn only had to play one of this quartet after Round 4 last season, and none of them from Round 11 onwards.
A soft draw after the bye rounds saw them rise from tenth into fourth, but no educated football observer was surprised when they were bundled out of September in straight sets.
Still, it was an impressive set of results for a club that was bouncing back from a 12th-placed finished in 2017.
Hawthorn best 22
B: B.Hardwick, J.Frawley, B.Stratton
HB: R.Henderson, J.Sicily, G.Birchall
C: T.Scully, J.O’Meara, I.Smith
HF: J.Worpel, J.Gunston, H.Morrison
F: L.Breust, J.Roughead, P.Puopolo
Foll: B.McEvoy, L.Shiels, C.Wingard
Int: S.Burgoyne, J.Impey, D.Howe, J.Ceglar
Em: K.Brand, T.Miles, T.O’Brien
The named 22 above is quite a short team, given it has James Sicily and Jack Gunston in key positions, when both are more like third talls. Is a smaller side the way to go for the Hawks, or do the likes of Kieren Brand, Tim O’Brien and Ryan Schoenmakers play? It is likely that one or more of them will get regular games, which means a running player or two will have to make way.
But with Tom Scully still on the comeback from a long injury and Grant Birchall more myth than man these days, there are always going to be spots up for grabs.
It must be noted that Tom Mitchell was not considered for the above squad after breaking his leg during pre-season training and is expected to miss the entire 2019 season.
Hawthorn weren’t going to be any good with Mitchell this year, so it’s hard to see them being excellent without him. They weren’t a one-man band last year though, with Gunston and Luke Breust having career-best seasons up forward. Gunston was okay during the finals, but Breust was poor, and the Hawks averaged four goals less in September than they had through the regular season.
Opposition teams would be well served going ultra-defensive on Breust, because he struggles when being clamped and other teammates don’t have his creativity or smarts.
Jarryd Roughead’s form is only going one way after years of magnificent service, and Paul Puopolo offers less value than he did in a stronger side.
James Worpel made a favourable impression from his opportunities, and looks to be a goer with good hands that will no doubt spend significant time in the midfield.
Harry Morrison is another young prospect that gained much experience last year, and will benefit from it.
But it’s easy to see why so much is left to Gunston and Breust. They are the head of the forward-line snake, and if you cut them off, the rest will wither.
A player that might get a look in up forward is ex-Saint Darren Minchington. He looked to have a level of ability at St Kilda, but never nailed down a spot. St Kilda has hardly been an environment to develop elite talent, so perhaps Clarkson and crew can find his best.
Jaeger O’Meara will be the prime mover in the middle now thanks to Mitchell’s absence, and most people in the AFL world were pleased to see him finally string together a host of matches. He built his game time up the longer the season went, but played more of an outside role and will likely increase his contested and clearance work now.
Can Scully go straight back to being the player he was in 2016-17 at GWS? It’s unlikely, and patience is going to be required. The idea of him and Isaac Smith running each wing certainly has appeal. Smith is another who played at a high level in 2018, and will need to again if the Hawks are to maintain their standing.
Chad Wingard is an addition to the club that is one to look forward to. With no Mitchell, he should be required to take on more midfield responsibility than he does up forward. His career contained some extreme highs early on, but he struggled for consistent impact as time went on at Port. What can he do under Clarkson?
Liam Shiels has traditionally been on defensive duties through the Hawks midfield, and continues to be a consistent hard body in the clinches and working both ways, but has transitioned the tagging roles to the very effective Daniel Howe.
Ben McEvoy leads the ruck division, with support from Jon Ceglar. McEvoy lacked the influence last year that he had in 2017, which was career best for him. If Ceglar can play most of the year, it will allow McEvoy to spend more time up forward and try to push his goal tally up around a goal a game.
James Sicily is the stud of the backline, a firebrand with expert judgement in the air, beautiful hands and a thumping boot.
His hot-headed immaturity is often on display, but some players need to play on the edge and it is too much to ask him to curb his natural personality. Rather, it should be embraced and encouraged, and refined to try and keep himself on the right side of being reported.
New captain Ben Stratton is one of the best two lock-down defenders in the competition, so versatile in being able to shut down players with a range of heights, speeds, strengths and skill-sets. Blake Hardwick finished second in the Hawthorn best and fairest last year, using his poise and kicking skill to provide drive from defence.
With a rebounding absence created by Ryan Burton going to Port, the versatile Ricky Henderson may be pushed a bit more behind the ball if Grant Birchall can’t get fit and stay on the park. Shaun Burgoyne is an option there, as he is everywhere, and Jarman Impey is another utility on the list that can play the role.
Alastair Clarkson is an accepted coaching genius, and now he has Sam Mitchell, one of the smartest footballers to ever play, alongside him as an assistant coach after his two years at West Coast. No doubt they will be a force to be reckoned with, especially in regards to taking advantage of the new rules.
But the Hawks are old, carrying a few cripples, and without the depth of quality they have had in previous years.
There are no gimmes among Hawthorn’s double-up opponents this year either, with the two weakest of them, Brisbane and North, holding a 3-0 record over the Hawks in 2018.
Hawthorn are in a transition period, which was covered up by a high finish last year. They are not a contender.