Ever since Sam Mitchell took over from the great Alastair Clarkson as Hawthorn coach, via one of the most acrimonious changings of the guard in recent memory, there has been discussion aplenty about the team he leads.
Most of it, though, is about the list he has assembled, the players he has traded, the draftees that could be on the way. Far too little has been about, y’know, the actual coaching. What he’s doing with the motley crew he has assembled.
I’ve thought for 12 months that no coach in the AFL has been doing more with the players available to him. And if more proof was needed, it came via a stunning, defiant, memorable 10-point upset win over St Kilda, a game in which they simultaneously looked the better team throughout and only looked likely to get over the line in the final moments.
This Hawthorn team barely has a right to be competitive – let alone outplaying and, eventually, outlasting a team with premiership aspirations like the Saints. They certainly don’t have a right to win it as they did – via four goals in the final five minutes via a burst of inspired footy reminiscent of the mighty Hawks teams of old, many of which Mitchell himself was part of.
A delisted rookie seventh-gamer is their number one distributor off half-back. An Irish man mountain is their midfield enforcer.
They have a perpetually injured beanpole as their number one ruckman, a number one key defender who would be getting a game at precisely zero other AFL teams right now, and a number two who turns the ball over by foot more times than he actually finds a target.
Their forward line consists of one exceptional talent, an aged but still ingenious goalsneak, and a bunch of kids, role-players or both.
Yet they’re provably 20 goals better than the worst team in the competition, and now, having endured tantalising near-misses against the next tier up in Adelaide and GWS, have a serious win against a serious team to ratify everything Mitchell has instilled in a young, inexperienced group still at ground zero of a seismic rebuild.
Harley Reid. Pfft. The belief a win like this will give a team with developing talent to spare is worth more than pick 1 ever could be.
We’ll start with the most obvious area of improvement – the midfield. For just the fourth time this year, the Hawks lost the clearance count to the Saints – only 33-31, mind you – which would have been a critical weakness in previous weeks for a side which has struggled to generate scores from turnovers against all teams other than West Coast and North Melbourne.
Yet aside from the third quarter, in which the Saints bagged two goals directly from centre bounces and dominated the stat 6-2, this was the Hawks’ domain throughout. Particularly dominant in the first half, claiming 18 of the match’s first 26 clearances, it was once again the tough as teak Jai Newcombe (nine clearances) and James Worpel (six) running riot at the coalface and putting the Saints to the sword.
Defensively, the Hawks are improving their stoppage work with every passing week. Clamping down on Jack Steele’s critical role as an in-and-under distributor – I can’t recall seeing the Saints captain have less impact than his 14-disposal, one-clearance, two-contested possession afternoon – it meant the Saints struggled to get any flow from their clearances all afternoon, with the Hawks able to pressure, harass and force long, hopeful balls forward.
We’ll get to the man who mopped up most of those in good time.
The Hawks haven’t been a four-quarter midfield all year, and especially in third quarters they get beaten and beaten badly. It’s a hallmark of a young group that doesn’t quite have the senior experience to stop a run on, and it has been these lapses that have seen them put up competitive quarters or even halves against the likes of Geelong, Melbourne and the Western Bulldogs before fading away.
Mitchell’s first aim with his on-ball group has been to assign roles – it’s simplicity at its most effective at every stoppage. You can see it particularly at boundary throw-ins, where Mitchell pushes an extra man up to stoppages to allow a loose player, usually Karl Amon, on defensive side.
You see the Hawks get caught holding the ball quite a bit in traffic, partly because Newcombe and Worpel are empowered to drive through tackles rather than avoid them, and also partly because Mitchell, perhaps the best congested-footy brain of the modern era, wants his team to back themselves in working through it. The Hawks would rather give up a free kick at the source than bomb the ball long to an outnumber and grant an easy intercept mark.
The best example of how it’s working came early in the second quarter: after a throw-in, with Amon defensive side of the stoppage and Nasiah Wanganeen-Milera the Saints’ loose man a kick behind the ball, ruckman Lloyd Meek follows up at ground level after his hitout at Worpel spilled free.
Ordinarily, a ruckman in that situation would be forgiven for just banging the ball on the boot, but Meek clearly has instructions to not do that at any cost. From the moment he picks it up, his first instinct is to find a handball target; he opts for Conor Nash, surrounded on all sides by Saints. It seems unwise.
Yet this is all part of the plan: sensing a turnover, two of those Saints abandon their defensive positions at stoppages and close in, while Meek continues to work by shepherding the third, Ryan Byrnes.
Suddenly, the Hawks have transferred their outnumber to goal side of the stoppage, with Nash using the limited time he has to run back into congestion – drawing the Saints in closer – and giving to Worpel, who has pushed clear of his direct opponent Hunter Clark and is streaming towards 50.
It’s tactics like this that explain why the Hawks had a whopping 96 handball receives in the first half, compared to the Saints’ 52; and also why come match’s end, they’d have more handpasses than kicks (210-214 if you’re interested). It’s only the second time the latter has happened for them this year – the other against Melbourne – but only GWS have handballed more than the Hawks this year, while they rank down in 13th for kicks per game.
Worpel is the exception to Mitchell’s rule – it’s a constant source of frustration for fans to see him hack the ball high and handsome to an outnumber or no one at all, and I can’t help wondering how much of it is intentional and how much the number 5 not trusting his handballing skills. Here, he spurns a teammate in Tyler Brockman – who had pushed up to the stoppage to create the outnumber in the first place – running past for a handball receive, and bangs it long inside 50.
He gets lucky, or to be more accurate, Mitch Lewis makes him lucky: a veritable tumble punt wobbles its way inside 50, where the spearhead reads the drop zone a split second earlier than Dougal Howard, and with the Hawks having successfully spread the Saints’ defence, he has a free leading lane to take a simple mark on the lead. Goal.
Speaking of the latter bit, that’s another Mitchell move that proved tremendously effective against the Saints. St Kilda, in the first ten rounds, had given up 90 marks inside 50 – far and away the lowest in the AFL.
Yet the Hawks managed 18 on Saturday – four each to Lewis, Jacob Koschitzke and Luke Breust – and their methods were beautiful in their simplicity. With the exception of Lewis, who basically does whatever he wants, the rest of the Hawks’ usual forwards basically only use one part of the 50 each. And if they’re not there, they rarely even call for the ball.
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Three of Koschitzke’s four marks inside 50 came within about 20 metres of each other, around 40 metres from goal on the half-forward flank, on the wrong side for a right-footer.
If you look at the aforementioned play from the throw-in, you’ll see Koschitzke in the background not even going for the ball – in fact, heading the opposite way. It looks for all the world like he’s been instructed to lead only to the far side of the 50, as an option if the Hawks, instead of blasting in, had chosen to switch and try the open side.
It’s not always positional – sometimes it’s about distance. Breust, for instance, had eight of his 11 disposals for the match within 30 metres of goal. It’s a mutually beneficial arrangement – Breust’s 31-year old legs don’t need as many miles in them to run up and back down the ground in the manner some small forwards do, and the Hawks have a crafty opportunist near the big sticks who only needs an inch to take a mile.
It’s fascinating to compare this uniformity to, say, where Jack Higgins or Max King got their touches inside 50 for the Saints (which is to say: everywhere). Higgins’ heat map is below.
The result is defined, straightforward leading lanes for forwards to structure their play around, and affords, in theory at least, greater cohesion between them and the midfielders kicking it to them.
It also makes life more difficult for opposition interceptors, with Callum Wilkie, the Saints’ best aerial exponent, held to one intercept mark on Saturday. Given it was Howard that had the lion’s share of the time on Lewis, for Koschitzke to so effectively occupy Wilkie’s attention was commendable, and mostly down to one thing: when the ball wasn’t on his side to lead, he would get as far away from the ball as was reasonably possible, often running back towards the goalsquare as Lewis or another forward let up.
Few defenders are brave enough to leave their man free in the goalsquare, and a defender’s defender like Wilkie was seldom prepared to take the risk.
Behind the ball, the Hawks have been equally sound all year, if lacking in personnel: but there has been one clear standout all season long, and James Sicily reached new heights on Saturday.
Sicily is a marvel. He’s a shorter, angrier Darcy Moore with fewer quality players around him. He’s regularly required to play well above his stature as a tall defender – at no point more obviously this year than when he was required on Tom Hawkins for large stretches of Easter Monday, his worst game of the season by a stretch.
Sicily had eight intercept marks at Marvel Stadium, as well as 22 intercept possessions. Those are obscene numbers, the latter five clear of any other player in 2023. The Saints only had 10 all game.
Mitchell’s greatest quandary this season has been trying to free up his greatest aerial weapon, in the way the Magpies do Moore or the Tigers Noah Balta. He might have found the answer: James Blanck.
Blanck, let’s be honest, isn’t great as a key defender. Max King kicked four on him on Saturday, while in his previous two full matches this season, the Hawks have let in 13 goals to tall forwards, including five from Logan McDonald against Sydney in Round 2. He offers little with the ball, rarely intercepts, and in general struggles with probably the toughest job in footy: stopping the monsters.
Sicily, meanwhile, is remarkable at everything: he’s lost just four contested defensive one-on-ones all season, winning or drawing 27. But there’s a reason Moore, for instance, had just 26 of those contests (losing only four as well) across the first ten rounds: the Magpies structure their backline to set him free wherever possible.
Does King kick four goals if Sicily is on him? Honestly… yes. Sicily had Aaron Naughton kick four goals three, largely when he was responsible for him, when the Dogs played Hawthorn in Round 7. He’s an attacking key defender, and occasionally, especially in a side like this Hawks team, that comes back to bite him.
There’s also no way known he rules the skies like he did on Saturday if he’s at least partly responsible for stopping King. There’s now way he takes four contested marks grappling with someone King’s size, or gets far enough up the ground to bash in three inside 50s. There’s no way known he racks up 42 – yep, FORTY-TWO – disposals for the game, a nightmare for the Saints’ given he’s also the Hawks’ best field kick.
The Hawks have the skeleton of a good team right now: bullocking on-ballers, a great spearhead, an intercept king, and young players developing into the remaining roles. But it has been rare to see it all come together.
In the final six minutes on Saturday, it did.
It began with Sicily – of course – shunting Anthony Caminiti out of the way to intercept, with 6:13 on the clock.
Per possession, only Sydney and Richmond have executed more clanger kicks than the Hawks this year, and sloppy ball use had cruelled them throughout the middle stages of this match. But Mitchell encourages his team to take it on, to try risky things, precisely for this situation: it’s late in the game, and caution needs to be thrown to the wind.
So Sicily, instead of banging long, or switching, or being ultra-reckless and going up the middle, hits up Lloyd Meek with a perfectly executed 20-metre pass. He dishes to Dylan Moore, the hardest-working half-forward in the league, who has doubled back on his opponent and now streams towards goal. He too tries a kick that means instant turnover if he misses, finding Conor Nash in the centre of three enclosing Saints. Better than that: the pass tempts Jimmy Webster into leaving his man and trying to impact the Irishman: not only is he too late, but he bounces off the bigger man and takes himself out of the contest.
This is why Mitchell loves big, solid bodies around the contest. This is why he wants his team to take risks. When you do, luck tends to go your way.
Then comes a mistake: Nash misses Koschitzke, Webster’s man, all by himself inside 50, where a chip pass could easily find him for a shot. Instead, he heads long. As it turns out, that’s an even better option; the kick is just long enough to clear the Saints’ defensive web, which had automatically gravitated towards Lewis’ hard lead to the pocket. Howard and Wilkie expect the ball to come to the spearhead, and have positioned accordingly; instead, it comes over the back, and a strong mark is taken by the young, slight Connor Macdonald, just before Liam Stocker can arrive to spoil.
Developing youth? Tick. Macdonald goals, and the Hawks have a pulse.
The Saints win the next clearance via a ruck free kick, and Rowan Marshall drives it in. Once again shunting a lesser opponent in Cooper Sharman off the ball, Sicily gathers in the back pocket and, knowing time is of the essence, unfurls a torpedo. It doesn’t set anything up – but it does get the ball out of bounds. And we know how the Hawks love their boundary throw-ins.
The time is past for a defensive-side stoppage blocker, so the loose man – Moore – comes to the back of the contest. It doesn’t matter; this time, Ned Reeves wins a ruck free kick, and handballs to the half-forward. It’s sloppy, but eventually, Moore gathers.
Even under pressure, Moore refuses to kick long in hope; he jinks, dodges this way and that, and via Macdonald, the ball ends in the hands of Sicily again. The Hawks’ best kick goes wide, switching the play expertly to Blake Hardwick. He misses his handball, too, but it’s in front of Josh Weddle with enough time to gather, shrug Dan Butler’s tackle, and handball to Jarman Impey. Four handballs ensue, before Amon decides enough is enough and kicks.
It’s a shank – slewing off the boot and wobbling inside 50 barely a metre off the ground, and it wastes the opportunity. The Saints close ranks, Josh Battle tackles Breust. Ball up, and the bullet is dodged.
The Hawks, though, force a boundary throw-in, and then their frenetic pressure forces a hacked kick out – Sicily’s domain all day. This time, though, it’s Jarman Impey who intercepts, having led Sharman to the ball: realistically, it’s the result of a panicked kick from Byrnes whose only thought was to get it as far out of trouble as possible. Exactly what the Hawks are trained to not do.
A pack forms in the goalsquare, but Impey spots a better option: he bites off the riskier kick. Half a metre lower or shorter, and the ball doesn’t clear Stocker in the forward pocket; but it’s beautiful, and Moore marks over his head.
Stocker has gone to ground, and Moore realises; playing on quickly, he closes the distance, opens the angle, and snaps a team-lifting goal.
It’s worth noting that it only happens because of the amount of space he had in his pocket: what was that about the Hawks having designated spaces for each player?
From the next centre bounce, with three minutes and change on the clock, the Hawks charge again. Newcombe gathers, shimmies past Higgins, and choses to chip to the first gold jumper he sees: Amon, in space on the wing. He then does what Mitchell doesn’t want: perhaps feeling the pressure of time, or delayed by Bradley Hill cutting across to block Weddle’s planned handball receive, he bangs it long to a contest.
It’s a three on one at the point of contact; Lewis gets hands to it, but pressured by Howard, can’t mark. At ground level, Wanganeen-Milera hacks it clear… into the waiting arms of Hill. Where the last one of those had found Impey, this time it’s on a Saints chest. Luck of the draw.
The ball is bombed long down the wing; no one marks, but at the fall of the ball it’s that man Sicily again, handpassing out to Newcombe, who shrugs another tackle – Gresham’s this time – gives to Sicily again, and then on to Amon.
Amon again kicks – but this time, it’s precision. He takes on the corridor and hits up a lunging Day, who on tired legs barely makes it. It’s a certain turnover, and probable goal, if he doesn’t; but suddenly, the whole ground is wide open.
Moving it quickly on to Weddle by hand, the ball is sent wide to the wing, and to young Sam Butler. He too wants to keep it going, but like Weddle before him, he sees Wilkie perfectly positioned down the line ahead of him. He can’t bomb.
Not to worry – the Hawks have another running handball receiver, throwing caution to the wind. Lachie Bramble has run off his man – maybe Higgins? – and Butler draws the Saint on the mark before handballing. Bramble, too, draws a Saint – Wanganeen-Milera – and thumps a sloppy but effective handpass to the overlapping Moore.
Seventy metres out from goal, Moore has a five on three ahead of him – but the Hawks’ forward craft is taking effect. Breust draws Wilkie out of the danger area into the pocket, like the Hawks have done all day. Howard is solely occupied by Lewis, who sits in the hot spot, the focal point around which the whole unit is assembled. And Koschitzke has battle in a one-on-one.
The Saints’ loose players – Ben Paton and Mason Wood – now have a dilemma. Five seconds earlier, Paton has made the decision to let Breust run into the pocket, thinking he might need to come up and pressure Moore. It’s a mistake; not only is he far too far away to get there, but it means Wilkie, the Saints’ chief interceptor, is the one who takes over Breust duties. It means, by the time Moore gets the ball, he’s in a useless spot unless the Hawk has the shank to end all shanks.
Wood, too, is clearly not an experienced loose man in defence: he is playing the man and not the ball. He’s concerned about Lewis, and positions himself to block a potential leading lane for the big tall, while also being close enough to support Howard aerially for the long ball. But the problem is that he and Paton have found themselves on the same line: worse still, they’re both being inexorably drawn to Breust, expecting Moore to follow his running path towards the boundary.
Moore doesn’t. He slows, almost stops, and then, shifting his body towards the inside, makes the perfect decision. He kicks for Koschitzke, putting it about eight metres in front of him, meaning if he can push off Battle, there will be no other Saint that can stop him.
Koschitzke does just that. As it happens, it’s his only mark inside 50 all day on that side of the ground. Sometimes, structure is just a guideline.
This is what happens with handball chains. The Saints are set up for long, pressured kicks: if teams hold their nerve and run at the defensive with quick hands and adventure, down comes the wall.
Koschitzke goes back, and after a day of Hawks misses from set shots, is surely only a 50-50 prospect. He flushes it. Hawks lead.
There was a handball chain. There was an expertly spaced forward structure. There were broken tackles, quick thinking under pressure, and daring kicks inboard. It was all straight out of the Mitchell playbook, and executed magnificently.
But with one last centre bounce, the game is not won just yet. And sure enough, the Saints win it – but Gresham, thrown onto the ball in the last quarter, can only scrub a kick forward, forced to do so from defensive side of the circle with Hill having made the mistake of being sucked up to the contest rather than holding space for an outlet kick, as Amon had done with Newcombe mere minutes ago.
It’s Sicily on the end of it – who else? – gathering at speed, burning off Sharman, and handballing wide to that man Moore again. He could have tried another torp, but this is the right option.
Moore tries to lace out Sicily, and can’t quite get there – but running back with the flight, the captain does enough to force a draw with the on-rushing Stocker, forcing a boundary throw-in.
Worpel wins the clearance, and then, just as he had done in the second quarter (and all year), he whacks it onto the boot straightaway. It’s probably the wrong option, and a minute earlier, he’d have likely paid a price.
But the Saints, now trailing, have run the gauntlet: Wanganeen-Milera has followed Weddle up to the stoppage to create equal numbers, meaning that instead of having an extra behind the ball, it’s a two on two. And just for good measure, the kick, as luck would have it, clears Wilkie and gets to Breust one out with Paton. Breust marks.
Luck played a big factor in this Hawthorn win – as it does in every close win. Had Reeves’ hitout not found Worpel at that final stoppage, had his kick fallen a metre short, had Paton stayed with Breust and let Wilkie intercept a minute earlier, maybe none of this would have happened.
But the Hawks gave themselves the best chance of pulling off a miracle with the way they set up. This was less a Houdini act and more a ripple that, inch by inch, contest by contest, became a tidal wave that swept the Saints away.
There were mistakes, and mistakes aplenty. And there will continue to be for the rest of this year, and probably next year, and the year after, too. Empires aren’t built in a day, and this Hawthorn team is under no illusions about the stage it is in.
But every inch of the way they play is meticulously designed to give them the best possible chance at victory. Running the gauntlet and taking the game on might backfire against Melbourne, or Geelong, or another team that can match them at the contest and ruthlessly expose their turnovers. That will happen.
But the Hawks don’t have the cattle to play it safe. It’s the most admirable thing about them, amid a long, long list of admirable things about this team.
And all of it starts with Mitchell. This was a win built on system, on style, on playing a certain way and playing it well enough to achieve something remarkable.
It’s 2023’s finest coaching performance to date – and it will take something truly special to usurp it.