The Alastair Clarkson Hawks are the Patriots and the Spurs – brilliant and boring, wonderful and plain.
Sometimes the plainness and the ‘boring’ is beautiful but the familiarity of excellence wears on us all.
Clarkson, in his way, in the box is just as terrifying as Lance Franklin on the left half-forward flank. Because he can’t be tackled or have his kicks smothered, the coach has an ethereal, untouchable magic that feels like it can take any form and tighten its grip around the neck of his opponent on any given afternoon.
It was because of Clarkson, and Clarkson alone, that people toyed with the idea of talking themselves into Hawthorn in the qualifying final last year. On one hand there was ‘the Tigers are better than the Hawks in every conceivable aspect’, but on the other hand there was ‘well, Clarkson has two weeks to prepare’.
We’re in a similar place again this year. The Hawks’ list is wholly uninspiring, but just good enough that if you stare at the rows of line-up for long enough you can awkwardly contort yourself into thinking they almost might be a fringe contender if weaponised to the 100th percentile of their potential.
Whatever Hawthorn can achieve this year, they will achieve. Last week that looked like something potentially significant. A highly touted Crows outfit, more or less the same squad that dominated the competition when last healthy in 2017, was made to look clueless.
The Hawks were beaten at stoppages and lost contested ball – par for the course in recent years – but it didn’t matter. They used the ball cleanly and with sharp purpose and set up defensively with such positioning and economy of movement that all Adelaide’s clearances did was build kinetic energy for their opponents’ counter-attacks.
The Crows were off, and the Hawks punished them.
The Bulldogs too were off on Sunday, until they weren’t. After three quarters of fumbling around in the dark, the lights suddenly came on in the last and the Hawks were left in a daze, as the Dogs kept winning clearance after clearance, belting the ball into an appetisingly open forward line.
Hawthorn were left helpless and tired, two men down, unable to summon a response.
It all happened so quickly. Five-goal leads shouldn’t disappear in 15 minutes, even with just two on the bench. The Adelaide game was a testament to everything Hawthorn can do, and the Bulldogs’ final quarter reinforced what they cannot.
More than any other team, perhaps, it feels like Hawthorn have exceedingly little to do with the outcomes of their matches. They will structure themselves perfectly, use the ball crisply, and they will – for the most part – take advantage of their chances.
If the other team is off, they will win. But if the other team is on, they will lose. In finals, opponents, as they were last year against the Hawks, tend to be on.
Hawthorn have a tremendously high floor and probably the lowest ceiling of any finals contender. There’s just not enough raging talent or powerful infliction of will. With Tom Mitchell down, outside of James Sicily, it doesn’t feel like any Hawk can truly physically impose themselves on the game and forcefully redirect its journey.
Hawthorn are a slick, immaculately oiled machine that could use some more maniacs. They have superstar role players like Luke Breust and Jack Gunston, the perfect complements to round out the edges of what was an all-time great team. Now the Hawks are all rounded edges but not enough in the middle.
They will be fine this year and to bet against them making finals would be dangerous. Chad Wingard will come back, to give them some needed spark and ambiguity, and Tom Scully should only get better, adding further dynamism.
The forward line is filled with class, the defence with intelligence, and the midfield, while deficient, will work ceaselessly. Jaeger O’Meara may emerge as a star, and James Worpel will continue to be a cult hero.
But this year it will all likely add up to not much, and as the older guard phases out, you wonder when the next time will be that Clarkson’s genius will rise to the most meaningful stage again, where it lived for so long.