The entry of premiership cycles and stage-appropriate list management into the mainstream consciousness of AFL fans has roots in the Alastair Clarkson-led revival of the Hawthorn Football Club.
The addendum to any discussion of Hawthorn’s 2019 list is the injury to Brownlow medalist Tom Mitchell.
Hawthorn struggled in his absence early, with only the efforts of Jaeger O’Meara keeping the team remotely competitive at stoppages.
O’Meara’s 2019 did not bring the game-changing dynamism his pre-injury career promised, but he was nonetheless very effective at times. He tired as the season wore on, when James Worpel and later Chad Wingard picked up the slack.
In only his second season, Worpel was simply outstanding. Wingard struggled early with injury and a dysfunctional forward line, but his late-season midfield form was excellent. He offers a point of difference to Hawthorn’s midfield as a skillful second receiver.
A midfield that sees Mitchell, O’Meara, Wingard and Worpel at their prime, ably supported by veteran Liam Shiels, could conceivably become the league’s best.
Hawthorn’s inside midfield depth is less inspired. Daniel Howe is the archetypal tall midfielder who can exert aggression with his larger frame and take contested marks, but is worryingly slow of mind and body.
James Cousins was given an extended run of games in 2019 and performed admirably. He will rely on his ability to hit the scoreboard to stay in the AFL system.
Howe and Cousins are deserved but unexceptional AFL players at this point. Given both now have a reasonable portfolio of solid performances, other clubs may show interest and Hawthorn would almost certainly be open to offers.
Second-year Harry Jones is the only untried inside midfielder on Hawthorn’s list. By late 2019 he had made the transition from serviceable to dominant VFL player and was unlucky not to debut before injury ended his season.
Hawthorn is in the enviable position of having two players capable of playing first-choice ruck in Ben McEvoy and Jonathon Ceglar. Both have reasonable ruck craft, contested marking, and the ability to effectively link in transitional play.
Outside of ruckmen Brody Grundy and Max Gawn, McEvoy has claims to be the next best and his aerobic capacity is renowned. However, Ceglar is not as far behind McEvoy as reputation would suggest.
Hawthorn were clearly relieved to re-sign Ceglar on a three-year deal, not because of positional need but because they know he is externally underrated due to underexposure, playing second-string.
Hawthorn’s final-round win over West Coast saw Ceglar preferred as first ruck and soundly beat a much-improved Tom Hickey, while McEvoy was oddly shunted to a deep defensive position.
Given Hawthorn’s clear regard for Ceglar, their inability to devise an effective game-day strategy that uses two ruckmen, and the potentially significant trade gains, the trading out of McEvoy aged 30 is perhaps not as outlandish as it first seems.
Marc Pittonet is Hawthorn’s ruckman in waiting. He is oddly maligned amongst fans who perhaps have expectational fatigue from his five years on the list with limited and largely ineffectual senior exposure.
In actuality, he is the dominant VFL ruckman at just 23 years of age and were the context changed such that he was a new recruit, his profile would have fans excited. Pittonet’s solid build and aggressive game style will ensure he is at worst competitive. The issue that has held him back is poor contested marking, which improved only slightly in 2019.
Pittonet’s consistent VFL form warrants promotion to second-string ruck in a senior side but unfortunately he finds himself third in line at Hawthorn. He remains uncontracted and may choose to seek opportunities elsewhere. This would leave Hawthorn without a burgeoning ruckman, with the exception of the 208-centimetre Ned Reeves, who is as far from a senior debut as any player in the AFL.
In the conventional wing position, Isaac Smith and Ricky Henderson are consistent strong performers, but both are over 30. Fortunately, the injury and salary risk of acquiring Tom Scully in the 2018 off-season has worked.
His games were generally middling, but most importantly, the doomsday injury prognoses appear to have been overstated and he has stayed the best runner in the game. Confidence in Scully returning to his elite best is certainly higher than it was this time last year.
Of the younger prospects, Harry Morrison regressed from his impressive 2018 season and will need to re-capture form promptly. Slightly-built first year draftee Will Golds was solid without excelling in the VFL and will be given another year to improve. An elite outside midfielder should be a priority in the coming draft.
The 2019 season saw a changing of the guard for Hawthorn’s key position forwards. Jarryd Roughead retired and Ryan Schoenmakers’ injury woes have all but ensured his delisting.
Hawthorn’s inability to score heavily was closely scrutinised. Roughead, Ceglar and briefly James Sicily were all ineffectual as linchpins and the dysfunction persisted as smaller players in Paul Puopolo, Luke Breust and Jack Gunston were made to play uncomfortably focal roles.
Improvement came when younger talls in Mitchell Lewis, Conor Nash and Tim O’Brien were finally entrusted with more responsibility. Lewis is the conventional high marking emerging star. Nash and O’Brien have followed more textured pathways to senior selection, and in Nash’s case he is only starting to add key position elements to his game style.
The development of these three is the most crucial outcome from Hawthorn’s 2019 campaign. Gunston and Breust remain Hawthorn’s best forwards but they now need to find their place in this generational shift. In this context, trading out these two may seriously be considered. This is especially the case if the club anticipates the impressive goal sense and flair of yet-to-debut young forwards Jackson Ross and Matthew Walker to translate to senior level.
A defensive small forward is a pressing need at Hawthorn. Cyril Rioli’s early retirement obviously blind sighted Hawthorn’s list management and Puopolo is on the brink of retirement. While all forwards in the modern game are forced to learn defensive aspects, true defensive forwards have an instinct to not simply corral defenders but to chase even when the defender seems out of reach.
Wingard can do this, but is now preferred in midfield. Delisted free agent Darren Minchington was intended to play this role, but is likely to be delisted. There is no young player on Hawthorn’s list capable of playing this position. Oliver Hanrahan and Dylan Moore both showed promise in their run of senior games in 2019, but aren’t defensively styled.
Moore is a hard-running half forward with deceptively strong marking ability. Hanrahan is an intriguing prospect. He was brought into the senior side just as his occasional flashy plays in the VFL were seemingly escaping him. The only asset he brings to the senior side is his rapid-fire style of play. If he is able to refine his possessions but maintain the breakneck urgency, he could be a weapon.
Classy rebounding defenders have long been a hallmark of Hawthorn’s game style and the 2019 list has an impressive brigade of young talent of this kind.
The 2019 campaign saw Jarman Impey and Jack Scrimshaw join the already-established James Sicily and Blake Hardwick as dynamic playmakers from the back half.
Where Hawthorn’s rebound has typically depended on foot skills, Impey’s pace to break lines is a tantalising new element for Hawthorn fans. His serious knee injury just as he was taking his game to the next level was a season low-point.
The athletically gifted Changkuoth Jiath continued to improve and was rewarded with a senior debut, but still makes glaring mistakes at VFL level.
Irish recruit Conor Glass is fast and skilled, and has been serviceable since very early on. But there has been no obvious improvement over his four years at the club. He still has time, but perhaps needs to try something new.
Teia Miles was unsighted at senior level and will not be on the list in 2020. Veteran Shaun Burgoyne is confirmed to be playing on, with Grant Birchall’s future unclear. In any case, they will be transitioned to increasingly supportive roles next year to limit the impact of their not-far-off departure.
Key position defenders are Hawthorn’s most serious liability. At 31 years old, James Frawley is the only quality tall defender. He is rarely appreciated externally, but is the premier pure stopper in the game.
Kaiden Brand is his stand-in. Brand’s nervous demeanour made him difficult to watch in his early years. To his credit, he has improved in aerial contests, but still panics when the ball hits the deck. He possesses good disposal and intercept marking instincts, and these traits have made him a dominant player at VFL level.
However, Hawthorn need him to play on gorillas and his inability to do so dependably means his time at the club is probably limited.
Thirty-year-old Tim Mohr was picked up last off-season as additional cover for Frawley. It seemed an astute move at the time – Mohr is a capable one-on-one defender if nothing else – but serious injury will now see him lose his spot on the list.
The only developing young tall defender is Jacob Koschitzke in his first year. He looks assured in marking contests, but has a long way to go.
Hawthorn has tired of playing the undersized David Mirra on opposition tall forwards and it appears his time at Hawthorn is up.
Captain Ben Stratton is also less inclined to man taller opponents. Stratton absolutely needs to return to his best in 2020. Middle-sized pure stoppers without strong rebounding abilities have little value in the modern game unless they’re at the elite standard.
First-year Damon Greaves appears to aspire to a Stratton-like game style and should also heed this warning.
While Hawthorn’s age profile is an easy target for derision, the list is already deceptively advanced in its rebuild. Most pressingly, the club must add key position defenders and defensive small forwards in the coming off-season, not simply in the form of young talent but in ready-made coverage.
Like most teams they need more elite talent in general, but a high-quality outside midfielder to eventually replace Smith and Henderson should be a priority.
Finally, Hawthorn fans need to recognise that there are legitimate reasons the club could be better placed by trading out certain veteran stars.