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Hawthorn season review: A remarkable reverse tank

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Roar Guru
15th September, 2021
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1095 Reads

I know I said I’d be doing Fremantle but I forgot to do a Hawthorn review. We first start with what worked (hint – not the coaching handover), what didn’t work, remaining questions, and the solutions to those problems.

This year was always going to be ignominious for the Hawks, such was their list build. The last few years, the Hawks had recruited players like Jon Patton and Tom Scully to contend for the now. However, the downward trend began early in the season, dropping a five-goal lead to give North Melbourne their first win for the season.

However, it was not a season bereft of highlights, as the back half of the year featured what I call the reverse tank, leaving the Hawks with a worse draft hand. Without further ado, let us begin with what worked.

What worked

The backline
A backline that features Changkuoth Jiath, Denver Grainger Barass, Sam Forst, Will Day, Lachie Bramble and Blake Hardwick should not be as good as it is. When you consider that Alastair Clarkson was trying Ben McEvoy down at centre half back because the Hawks have no key defenders not even a year ago, it is a change in fortune.

When you combine that with the fact that James Sicily is also due to come back in, it makes the Hawthorn backline a fearsome unit with equal parts of offence and defence. The only issue, and I have often said this of the AFL, they have too many running half backs. But if they can continue the trajectory of their development, I predict that the Hawthorn defence will become miserly indeed.

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Their youth
With the retirements of Jon Patton and Tom Scully it has opened room in both the salary cap and the best 22 for players to put their best foot forward. It enabled Jacob Koschitzke and Tim O’Brien to combine as a solid key forward pairing with the former kicking 27 goals and the latter kicking 22 goals to sit second and third on the Hawthorn goal kicking leaderboard, respectively.

Tom Phillips slotted in seamlessly on the wing to provide hard gut running and enabled Changkuoth Jiath to develop quietly as a half back flanker before pushing into the midfield as an outside midfielder with some run and dare.

The young cohort of the Hawthorn footy club are finally developing along nicely and will form the core of their next premiership. It was the impertinent impatience of their talismanic former coach that may have held them back with his trade first mentality.

Dignified retirements
I just want to take this opportunity to praise the long career Shaun Burgoyne has had at both the Hawthorn Football Club and Port Adelaide Football Club. Playing 407 games cumulatively at two clubs resulting in four premierships, and one Showdown Medal, Burgoyne became something of a Mr Fix-It for the Hawthorn side.

Shaun Burgoyne

(Photo by Albert Perez/Getty Images)

Clarkson would plug him into a hole that he had in the side and Burgoyne would thrive, resulting in 11 more seasons at Hawthorn when he was only predicted to have one or two seasons with the Hawks due to debilitating knee injuries. He leaves the game as one of those rare players respected by even the most one-eyed opposition supporter.

I am certain he will be quick to join either the media or coaching as he is an extremely intelligent footballer and will make the footballing landscape better by his presence. While it was unfortunate they couldn’t get the win for Burgoyne, he was able to leave the game with his head held high, and he could probably even play another season if he chose to.

What didn’t work

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We can proselytise about Shaun Burgoyne’s career all day if we would like, but the Hawks finished 14th, so clearly there are some things that didn’t work. We will outline what I believe failed and resulted in such a poor showing for the Hawks here.

Their trade cattle
The latter years of the Clarkson tenure will be defined by the failure to launch of the trade targets that Alastair Clarkson sought. Most notably, Jon Patton and Tom Scully both failed to fire a shot after injury interrupted times at Western Sydney. While such trading has yielded a Brownlow Medal to Tom Mitchell in 2018, it was supposed to take the Hawthorn football club to another charge at the promised land.

Targeting big-name targets like Tom Mitchell, Chad Wingard and Jaeger O’Meara has made the task now facing the Hawthorn football club exponentially harder as they need to rebound back up the ladder deprived of that vital developing player that would be soon to enter their prime.

Tom Mitchell

Tom Mitchell. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Now, they have deliberately gone down the ladder to yield high draft picks, and they have been more targeted in their approach for trade targets over the last one to two years but the legacy of aggressively trading for certain personnel over the 2017-2018 period is just now being felt.

The coaching handover
I have little doubt that Sam Mitchell can coach, but there is just something that doesn’t ring true about a club legend coaching the club they played for. We saw it with James Hird, we saw it with Nathan Buckley, and we may potentially see it with Sam Mitchell.

It was clear all throughout 2021 that the Hawks and Clarkson were doing this careful dance trying to force the other out before it culminated in Jeff Kennett inevitably showing Clarkson the door three quarters of the way through the season.

The acrimonious nature of the handover has removed any honeymoon period that Sam Mitchell would have been entitled to had the handover occurred at the end of 2022 like it was supposed to. It means that the Hawks will need to surge up the ladder as soon as possible, and while I don’t doubt that Mitchell is qualified, I do doubt the list is ready for that yet.

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I believe there was no negatives for Sam Mitchell doing another year as head coach of the VFL side and continuing to get games into his desired players, but what do I know? I am not privy to the conversations that pervade the Hawthorn Footy club, and I may very well have egg on my face in a year’s time.

Sam Mitchell of the Hawks addresses players

(Photo by Cameron Grimes/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Questions that remain

Will Hawthorn grow to regret their treatment of Clarkson?
Short answer: without immediate success, yes, I believe they will. A longer, more nuanced discussion would require more space than I have here, but the Hawks effectively pushed out the generational coach in Alastair Clarkson, leaving them with an untried yet ambitious coach in Sam Mitchell.

As any Collingwood supporter may tell you, this is a precarious position to be in. As I said earlier on in this piece, the nature of Clarkson’s ousting from the club may leave stark reminders of Buckley’s ascension to the Collingwood job.

Will they trade out established talent for a better draft hand?
Much has been made of the potential trade between Richmond and Hawthorn for the services of Tom Mitchell. He still has currency for any club looking to bolster their midfield stocks and their clearance domination, yet it leaves the Hawthorn football club relying upon an ageing Liam Shiels, Chad Wingard and an injury-prone Jaeger O’Meara.

They may have depth in Jai Newcombe and James Worpel, however, these players should be given time to continue their apprenticeship.

Solutions for the Hawks

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Draft Mac Andrew
Ideally, the Hawks would find a way to get multiple first round draft picks so they can look after multiple aspects of the ground. However, given the ageing Ben McEvoy and Jon Ceglar, as well as questions surrounding Ned Reeves, drafting a talent like Mac Andrew would relieve the pressure. They must find a good key forward as well as providing a suitable chop out in the ruck for the Hawks.

What’s more, Tim O’Brien is 27 not an upcoming forward like they would like, so drafting a talent like Mac Andrew would provide ample potential for the Hawthorn forward line.

Trade one of Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara or Chad Wingard
Each of these players are solid contributors, yet none of them will be part of Hawthorn’s next premiership. They should trade them while they still have value, and the Hawthorn football club is on the way up. However, they should not make it a fire sale, lest they reduce the value of the players and they get a fair market rate for them.

Chad Wingard

Chad Wingard (Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

With this additional pick, they can use it to draft an exemplary forward midfielder like Josh Rachele or Neil Erasmus.

Best and fairest: Tom Mitchell
I know that best and fairest awards at the club level generally aren’t midfielder medals like the Brownlow is. But the form of Tom Mitchell is too scintillating that I believe he will blow away all opposition on his way to his third Peter Crimmins medal since 2017.

He averaged 34 disposals, 388 metres gained, 4.7 clearances, and 5.4 score involvements. He was magnificent for the Hawks this season and may very well cap it off with another best and fairest.

Best win: Sydney Swans, Round 13
The Hawks went into this match as rank outsiders, but they embarrassed the Swans on their home deck, which is no longer the fortress that it once was. To run out 38-point winners against a hostile and over performing Swans side was extremely well played as well as marking the first match for the mid-season draftee Jai Newcombe, where he tackled the house down.

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Letter grade on the season: C-
The Hawks have earned my highest grading thus far simply because there was no expectations on them. The reverse tank of the last few rounds dragged their rating from a D grade to a C grade and is an ominous sign of what is to come.

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Way-too-early prediction: 9th to 13th
The Hawks are one of those wild card clubs who could challenge for the eight next year or they could fall further down into disrepair. I believe they will improve their position on this year but it will not be the rapid rise that supporters were hoping for.

The Hawks have done well with their picks to date but I believe the meta narrative surrounding their off-season is only rivalled by Collingwood and Carlton in terms of the internecine arguments that have been occurring.

Well, there you have it, folks. I forgot to do the Hawks in the natural order of things, so I decided to jump back and do them today.

But don’t worry – come tomorrow, I will be writing up my thoughts on Freo and whether they truly are the way to go.

Leave your thoughts and queries in the comments below and I will do my best to get to each of them.

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