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.
Clarkson did not conceive the notion of a list rebuild and the team that he put together was not even necessarily the best of that era.
Clarkson’s intention to completely overhaul Hawthorn’s list, however, was unprecedently blatant. He inherited a team at the end of 2004 that was unsalvageable.
Clarkson wholly abandoned the idea that Hawthorn would win a premiership simply by extracting more from the inherited squad and incrementally improving with occasional draft gems and opportunistic trade bargains.
Clarkson’s rebuild strategy was bold but calculated. It was sacrificial momentarily. Improvement was steady then rapid, and success was ultimate. It was the origin of the term premiership cycle.
Clarkson’s strategy is well documented but as the club once again seeks to return to premiership contention, albeit it from a very different starting point, it is worth re-examining those steps to success and their relevance this second time around.
Since securing the fourth premiership of this successful era in 2015, Hawthorn has finished third, 12th, fourth and ninth, and tellingly not won a final. Clarkson appeared to maintain faith in his team well into this period but has since conceded the current list cannot compete for a premiership.
The club’s foregoing of top-end youthful talent to bring in star players Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Chad Wingard during this period has been criticised in that it was designed for now-unrealised immediate success and could undermine the coming list rebuild, whatever form it may take. Some also rue the decision not to move-on accomplished players while they still held trade value.
It is clear that Hawthorn cannot follow their earlier blueprint for premiership success in its entirety. Clarkson amassed nine first-round picks in his first four years attending the draft, ultimately netting future stars in Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin, Jordan Lewis, Grant Birchall and Cyril Rioli.
The AFL’s priority pick system from which Hawthorn benefitted is now defunct, and a huge increase in the market value of first-round draft picks – largely a reaction to Hawthorn’s success – means Clarkson’s ploy to aggressively trade out accomplished players will never again prove so lucrative.
In any case, of the current Hawthorn players aged over 27, only Jack Gunston, Luke Breust, Ben McEvoy and Isaac Smith offer tempting trade value. Given the influence each still exerts on team performance and a general aversion to older players, an advantageous trade outcome for Hawthorn would require a reciprocal club at the right stage in a premiership cycle, with the right positional need and with access to draft currency. This is possible, but unlikely.
It may seem absurd, but first-round draft picks may be less crucial this time around. Hawthorn of 2004-2006 anticipated first-round draft picks to deliver elite talent. More than this, they viewed these picks as their best, and possibly only, means of acquiring quality key position forwards.
Clarkson inherited not one key position forward young, talented and durable enough to play in a future premiership. By that stage Trent Croad was established in defence.
Clarkson understood that key position forwards are essential, but cruelly difficult to attain. He also understood that young key position talent should be acquired in the early stages of a rebuild to account for the typically slower development of taller players.
Hawthorn’s want for key position forwards is evident in the surprise selection of Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin in 2004, but more so in the selection of Beau Dowler and Mitchell Thorp in subsequent drafts even as the talent of the 2004 pair was emerging.
Hawthorn fans are taunted by their club’s selection of Mitchell Thorp at pick six in 2006, before Joel Selwood at pick seven. The selection in isolation is indefensible, but in the context of Hawthorn giving themselves multiple opportunities to ensure they got what they viewed as a key component in this strategy, the selection feels a little less nightmarish.
In 2019 Hawthorn find themselves considerably better placed in terms of key position forwards. Mitchell Lewis is now widely recognised as an emerging star. Tim O’Brien was serviceable in the second half of the 2019 season when he was moved forward. His impressive vertical leap, which makes him effective in the ruck in bursts, is now translating to contested marks.
By the end of 2018 Hawthorn fans had tired of O’Brien’s mistimed marking attempts and his career had faltered. O’Brien’s earliest games saw him struggle to find his role in an already well-established, high-functioning forward line. He didn’t attract the ball and didn’t develop consistency and confidence in his marking.
It is no surprise that O’Brien looks capable in a forward set-up designed with him in mind.
Hawthorn’s Irish recruit Conor Nash was harshly criticised for single-digit possession games in 2019. He had barely played the game before Clarkson – a coach notorious for favouring long VFL apprenticeships – made him a regular senior player.
He is 21, near ruckman-sized and incredibly athletic. His forward pressure and clean groundwork in 2019 reached a level such that he now makes the team on performance, not just potential.
These players are not Jarryd Roughead and Lance Franklin. Their significance is that Hawthorn’s talent search this time around is less encumbered by an alarming positional need. Requiring elite talent in general is a less onerous and more flexible position for the club to find itself in.
Eleven players in Hawthorn’s first premiership in 2008 were inherited by Clarkson. Rick Ladson, Michael Osborne, Robert Campbell and Campbell Brown were foot soldiers, Chance Bateman and Mark Williams were more talented but not vital cogs, and Shane Crawford and Trent Croad were still capable but past their best.
None of these players were to play in following premierships. Of the inherited list, it was Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell and Brad Sewell that formed the foundation for sustained success. They were the tough, hard-bodied midfield that kept Hawthorn remotely competitive when the youth was still developing, then punished teams when Hawthorn rose to the top.
These players have since been phased out of the squad. Now Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Chad Wingard should be viewed in the same light.
Hawthorn failed to develop midfield replacements while in premiership contention, with the exception of the dependable but not elite Liam Shiels early on. High-priced recruitment of mature midfielders was Hawthorn’s only option to ensure a baseline competitiveness that new draftees cannot provide, no matter how talented. Melbourne serves as a cautionary tale of the long-term peril of allowing a team to dip below baseline competitiveness when fast-tracking draftee exposure without support.
After 2008, Hawthorn faltered. They still had their drafted stars and their hard-bodied midfield, but other components had fallen away. A second mini-rebuild phase came at this point and saw the club flip its previous approach to the draft.
Top picks were traded out for experienced players, with emphasis placed on prospective recruits’ capacity to fill a positional need over their perceived market value. Hawthorn acquired Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson, David Hale, Jack Gunston and Brian Lake to take them to the top, and later Ben McEvoy and James Frawley (via free agency) to stay there.
In addition, low-profile trades for Matthew Spangher and Kyle Cheney provided valuable depth. Bringing in Jonathan O’Rourke was Hawthorn’s only trade misstep during this time. Even the premature departure of Lance Franklin via free agency did not derail the plan.
Hawthorn will look to trade-in new talent throughout this current period of rebuilding. But again, while there are certainly list deficiencies, there is nothing so dire as to panic Hawthorn into unfavourable deals. Expect Hawthorn more so than previously to act opportunistically and less structured, and take high-reward risks on injury-affected players at a discount rate a la Tom Scully.
So far, trades for Jarman Impey and Jack Scrimshaw appear astute, Tyrone Vickery through free agency obviously less so.
Very little attention has been given to Hawthorn’s performance in the more speculative lower reaches of the draft during their original rebuild.
Between Clarkson’s appointment and the 2008 premiership, Hawthorn used 28 selections outside of the first round. Eight played more than 25 games, five of which were mature-aged recruits, including three with links to Clarkson’s time at Port Adelaide in Brent Guerra, Stuart Dew and Stephen Gilham.
In Hawthorn’s mini-rebuild of 2008-2012 they used 38 selections outside of the first round. Twelve played more than 25 games, four of which were mature-aged recruits, including future stars in Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo.
Clearly Hawthorn’s modest fortunes here were tied to a preference for mature-aged talent, perhaps more a reflection of a need for ready-made players than truly considered valuation.
In terms of raw youthful talent outside of the first round, in nine years Hawthorn only identified four exceptional players in Luke Breust, Josh Kennedy (whose potential was reached elsewhere), as well as Liam Shiels and Brad Hill selected with still quite high picks at 34 and 33 respectively.
Players like Matthew Suckling, Clinton Young, Brendan Whitecross, Shane Savage and Taylor Duryea were handy, but not exceptional. Limited retention of first-round picks during the mini-rebuild netted Ryan Schoenmakers, Isaac Smith and Jed Anderson, with the mature-aged Smith the only true success.
Hawthorn held onto unavailing talent for too long. Sure, it was difficult for youngsters to break into such a strong team, but certain players were given an unmerited long period to develop. Coaching staff would argue there are sophisticated metrics used to inform player progression – and this is probably true.
Hawthorn has proven highly astute at the trade table. However, their track record in identifying elite young talent outside of the first round and in being ruthless in judging young players on their list has been unexceptional.
This is concerning because this element of list management will undoubtedly be a key component of their prospects for future success. Hawthorn’s draft performance during and after their premiership three-peat involves too many listed players still maturing to definitely judge.
Selections of Blake Hardwick, James Sicily, Mitchell Lewis and James Worpel with low picks during this period is certainly cause for optimism. The quick and painless severance of failed big-name recruit Tyrone Vickery, and the unblinkingly decisive eviction of the club’s only recent first-round picks in Ryan Burton and Kieran Lovell, are similarly causes for optimism in that Hawthorn has shown they will not succumb to sunken-cost fallacy.
The Clarkson-led revival of Hawthorn was brilliant, but not flawless. Hawthorn fans justifiably have faith in their coach this second time around, but no matter Hawthorn’s reputation as a well run club, they need to improve.