The three worst teams in the AFL, by a considerable distance, took to the field from late Saturday around the country.
Two of them, North Melbourne and West Coast, looked every inch the basketcases they are, taken to the cleaners by quality opposition in Melbourne and Carlton with embarrassing ease and putting up only the most token resistance. The Blues won by 108, while the Kangaroos saved themselves a triple-figure margin with the last three goals of the game to ‘only’ lose by 90.
Those two gruesome matches on Saturday night made the twilight performance of Hawthorn, despite a second-half fadeout and 29-point loss to the Western Bulldogs, look even more creditable on paper.
Indeed, such was the show the Hawks put on that every supporter who headed along to Marvel Stadium, plus the tens of thousands watching at home, has the right to feel frustrated that they couldn’t hang on to win a match in their keeping for large portions.
The Hawks are not a good team. Good teams don’t kick simple 15 metre chip passes out of bounds on the full, as the otherwise excellent Blake Hardwick did in the final term. Good teams don’t have their otherwise unstoppable spearhead turn into Matthew Richardson in front of goal, as Mitch Lewis did with three bad misses to spoil a game he could have ripped to shreds. Good teams don’t get pulverised in third quarters as repeatedly and as brutally as Hawthorn have this season.
But while they’re 1-6 and staring down the barrel of a bottom-three finish, if not a wooden spoon, the Hawks are better than that. Substantially better. No coach with the personnel Sam Mitchell has at his disposal has the right to be as impressive as they were against the Bulldogs – indeed, as they have been in the last three weeks.
Midway through the second term, with the Hawks 13 points to the good having bagged the only two goals of the quarter, the most glaring stat was seven. That’s how many centre clearances the Hawks had accumulated, six combined coming from midfield firebrands James Worpel and Jai Newcombe.
The Bulldogs, widely regarded as one of the best midfields in the business? None. Zip. Nada.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Mitchell, one of the most prolific coalface distributors in the game’s history, has the Hawks’ underrated midfield firing so spectacularly. This year, they have been the best team in the business out of the centre, and when they win it, particularly early on before fatigue sets in, the results are often damaging.
What Mitchell values above anything else is strength – I lost count of how many times Worpel and Newcombe in particular shrugged despairing Bulldogs tackles in that first half. That duo, plus the silky smooth Will Day, are why Mitchell deemed Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara surplus to requirements this season; armchair critics of the Hawks have taken repeated shots at them for gutting their list by shedding the two veterans, but the new set-up is working like a charm.
Worpel in particular was sensational against the Bulldogs; after two years in the wilderness as a second-string on-baller, he has found a home again at the coalface, with his eight clearances the second-most on the ground behind Newcombe (9). A veritable ball of muscle, you’d best start getting used to seeing the ‘Worpedo’ burst through stoppages and drive the Hawks into attack from here, because it’s going to happen quite a lot.
Tagging Marcus Bontempelli for large parts, Conor Nash had a huge influence on proceedings, with a game-high 22 handballs of his 26 disposals. He’s yet another example of the big, hard bodies Mitchell loves to have around the ball, and with the Bont reduced to 19 disposals, albeit with six clearances, there was plenty of open footy for his Hawks teammates and Nash himself to feast upon.
This was unarguably Ned Reeves’ best game, too, benefitting from the increased responsibility handed to him by Mitchell with first-gamer Max Ramsden as his sole backup. Against the game’s most in-form big man in Tim English, Reeves was not only comprehensively the better tap ruckman, with 14 of his 43 hitouts to advantage: he had an even greater impact around the ground, with all three of his marks intercepts and two of them contested.
English’s 11 disposals were far and away his lowest of the season, too, in no small part because Reeves stuck with him around the ground far more doggedly than Fremantle’s Sean Darcy managed last week.
In 2023, probably only Max Gawn has had the better of a duel with English – that’s some impressive company from the big number 7. Off the back of an eye-catching three weeks, Reeves is developing quickly into a very nice, long term number one ruck.
For the most part, it’s Reeves, Worpel, Newcombe (who with 19 contested possessions put in a show that a young Mitchell himself would have been proud of) and Nash as the Hawks’ centre bounce team, and it’s a group that works supremely well together. Nash keeps the opposition’s most damaging contested ball-winner under wraps, leaving Newcombe and Worpel free to attack the footy. Newcombe usually gets and dishes off to Worpel, who can then find the smallest of gaps between would-be tacklers to set off.
Defensively, the Hawks are sound enough that one-time regular Jack Scrimshaw is now the sub if he can even crack the 23 at all, while the rest of the unit punches manfully above its weight. It’s remarkable how much influence James Sicily can have on games when given so much responsibility as a key back: standing Aaron Naughton for large parts, he was still required to be interceptor-in-chief, winning a game-high eight intercept possessions and nine of the best spoils you’ll see all year.
If and when the Hawks get better, Sicily will ideally become a third tall in the Jake Lever or even Tom Stewart mould, floating across to help out the key backs against the real monsters rather than needing to battle them himself. As it stands, his 18 kicks were mostly of the highest quality, gaining a team-high 550 metres and slotting an absolute barnburner of a goal late in the first half to put the Hawks back in front.
Sam Frost never has a dull moment on the footy field, but while aesthetically he is a jumble of different genres whenever he’s near the ball, his fearlessness is what every bad team needs. He’s not afraid to leave his opponent and inflict a spoil elsewhere, and he’s athletic enough to actually make that contest even while taking an eternity to decide whether or not he should go.
Like Sicily, he regularly plays above his station – ideally, he’d be a second tall keeping an eye on Jamarra Ugle-Hagan and not required to kick all that much, but for all that he is, the Hawks would probably be worse off without him. For now, at least.
They’ve found a good one in Seamus Mitchell, who before a mystery third-quarter substitution had kept Cody Weightman statless, all the while not being afraid to run off the Bulldogs goalsneak and present himself as a target for an outlet kick.
Blake Hardwick, too, is a reliable presence down there; far from as polished or professional as his predecessor in the No.15, but a safe user with a powerful right boot who takes no prisoners and doesn’t muck around. He’s basically Brayden Maynard with worse PR.
Jarman Impey provides the dash and carry from the back half, and for a slight bloke isn’t afraid to stand under a high ball and wait (which a few of his teammates would do well to learn from). He’s more than making up for Changkuoth Jiath’s total loss of form and at times baffling running patterns.
Up forward, the return of Mitch Lewis was always going to be a fascinating watch to see if it changed the Hawks’ structure inside 50, and the man himself could hardly have hit the ground running any better in his first game back from a serious knee injury.
The Hawks have suffered at times this season from not having a Hail Mary option; that is, someone who they could, all else failing, sit the ball on his head and expect a fair contest more often than not.
Lewis is that man – in both his games against the Bulldogs at Marvel Stadium in the last two years, I’ve left wondering whether the bloke has palms or just one of those big adhesive mats you put on the floor of the shower.
The Bulldogs got sucked into being too Lewis-conscious for much of the early going, and the Hawks had enough other options to make them pay. Luke Breust, at 32 years old, would still be the best small forward in the game if he played in a stronger team; ultra-intelligent, a superb reader of the ball coming at him and with all the forward craft that comes with a decade and a half at the highest level, he always knows when to lead up to the ball, when to fly for a mark, and when to stay down and crumb.
His three goals to half time were all classic opportunist majors, making the most of whatever scraps came his way.
21-14 up in the clearance count at half time, and 7-2 up in the centre, the Hawks deserved to be further ahead than just three points. The Bulldogs were being shown up for the hard ball, down 22 for contested possessions, but the Hawks’ sloppy ball use on crucial final kicks inside 50 or, more damning still, actual shots at goal, kept them within arm’s reach.
Strong in the middle, with a quality ruckman. A vulnerable, but structurally sound, defence, helped by fierce pressure on the ball-carrier. And a forward line suddenly unlocked by the return of their spearhead. Teams have made finals with less to offer.
The problem for Hawthorn, as it has been all year, is consistency. For a time, they’ve looked world-beaters against quality opposition, having led Geelong at half time as well as the Bulldogs. But as their infamously ghastly third quarter record this year shows, they can’t keep it up forever.
Part of it is fatigue – six of Newcombe’s nine clearances came in the first half, and he spent much of the last quarter in the forward line (where, to his credit, he bobbed up with two goals).
Kicks started to go awry from exhausted players, gaps opened up covering space defensively for the Bulldogs to attack the corridor with more gusto, and centre-square breakaways now came with four or five Bulldogs blocking Worpel’s space, forcing him to bomb aimlessly.
In the second half, the Bulldogs won the clearance count 32-17, and with it dried up the Hawks’ ability to attack. After 18 inside 50s in the first quarter alone, Hawthorn had just 29 across the final three terms.
I discussed after the Hawks’ Easter Monday capitulation to Geelong the risks inherent in the way they play out of the centre – they’re just about the most aggressive team in the competition in that regard, with all players encouraged to attack the ball with bull-at-a-gate pace, meaning if the opposition wins possession, gaps open up going the other way.
This reversal meant the Hawks needed to take every chance they could get, which they most assuredly did not.
Improving that will come with time and miles in the legs, but of greater concern in the immediate future is the Hawks’ lack of polish. They could easily have been four or five goals in front of the Bulldogs at half time, not three points, and from there would have had the ball in their court. That lead was always vulnerable given the Hawks don’t really do third quarters these days.
That lack of polish came everywhere. It was in Harry Morrison butchering the ball under no pressure, most notably in the last quarter when he had an option long and one short after marking on the wing, and ended up choosing the Bulldog in between.
It was in Dylan Moore, or Breust, or Chad Wingard running inside 50 under no pressure and spraying wide.
It was in Mitch Lewis ruining a day out with a 1.4 scoreline – no key forward with five marks inside 50 and 12 for the day, three contested, should be finishing with only a solitary goal.
Worpel, too, otherwise the Hawks’ best, suffers from occasionally running too fast for his brain to catch up: two or three times he bolted from the centre, and rather than try and spot up a leading forward, banged the ball long and indiscriminately towards the goalsquare, where Liam Jones was an immovable object all evening. Jiath can and has been a seriously electric half-back to watch, but teams are alert to his tricks, and know how quickly he begins to resemble a headless chook when he sprints right into a trap of three or four Bulldogs.
Overall, though, of the 23 Hawks that took to Marvel Stadium, I could only point to three who couldn’t leave with heads held high: Jiath, whose attacking traits have been curbed by defensive responsibilities that he is now simultaneously too worried about to go on many of his line-breaking runs and not good enough to actually carry out; Fergus Greene, who with Lewis back and firing was effectively attempting to be a decoy and not given enough respect by the Bulldogs to carry it off; and Wingard, who had several pitiful defensive efforts that make me wonder if it’s time he followed Mitchell and O’Meara to greener pastures elsewhere.
It was Wingard opposed to Jason Johannisen when the Dogs half-back recognised the Hawks had inexplicably left the centre corridor unguarded during the third quarter after conceding a centre-bounce free kick, sprinted off him, ran unchecked to 50 and put the Bulldogs in front. I’d expect those 15 seconds to be front and centre of Mitchell’s video review this coming week.
One play under a high ball at half-back opposed to Ed Richards, in which he slowed to a jog rather than try and mark it on the full only for Richards to sprint right past him and very nearly clutch it, was just about the most ordinary effort I’ve seen live from a player all year – and I watched the entirety of the Bulldogs’ Round 2 embarrassment at the hands of St Kilda.
This is going to be a frustrating year for Hawthorn fans. There will be times when they get smashed by teams that can bully or at least match them at the coalface, or overwhelm their backline with height and strength.
But they play with such gumption, such aggressive intent, such passion and such ferocity, that any team that rocks up expecting an easy kill will have a surprise in store. You can’t rely on the Hawks being easybeats like many of us thought they’d be at the start of the season.
Sam Mitchell is slowly but surely turning a motley crew of rookies, rejects, father-sons and the odd top draft pick into a team to respect, if not fear just yet. 2023 has all the makings for a tough old slog, Hawthorn fans: but that light at the end of the tunnel is real, and with every passing week it shines just a little brighter.