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 Sam Mitchell. This was a win built on system, on style, on playing a certain way and playing it well enough to achieve something remarkable.
I could have written the above after just about any of their six victories this season – as it happens, it came after Hawthorn brought down a then red-hot St Kilda outfit in Round 11, in what I described as one of 2023’s finest coaching performances.
But it has never been more true than right now for the Hawks. The toast of the town after they rent Collingwood asunder with as fierce a pulverising as a 16th-placed team has ever given to a presumptive minor premier and raging flag favourite, I’m pleased to say I’ve been big on this team since they were 1-6 and second last.
Back then, I called the Hawks the best bad team you’ll see. That’s no longer true. This is an inconsistent but dangerous lot who, on their day, are utterly terrifying.
At the heart of it all against the Magpies was an 18-3 centre bounce differential – and it was as staggering as the stat suggests.
I’d love to know what percentage of centre bounces the Hawks have turned this season into deep inside 50 entries, because I’m betting it would be among the best in the business. It’s still a kamikaze brand of ferocity and all-out attack that they drive, which backfired last week when it was St Kilda getting first hands to the ball and punishing them going the other way, but when it works, it’s devastating.
All year long the Hawks have either been the year’s best team at winning centre bounces, or close enough to it. What hasn’t always followed has been scoring from them, partly due to a Mitch Lewis or bust forward line when it comes for marking options and partly due to the tendency of Jai Newcombe and James Worpel to sink the slipper into the ball and get it as long and deep as they can rather than spotting up a target.
Neither of those things were an issue against the Magpies: while Lewis was again a commanding figure, just as impressive were second-gamer Brandon Ryan, who already looks a likely type, and the in-and-out Jacob Koschitzke. The Pies don’t have much depth when it comes to genuine height in defence – something Craig McRae will surely rectify in coming weeks by recalling Billy Frampton. And whether one of those trio were clunking marks or just providing a focal point for Luke Breust and Chad Wingard to rove to, the Hawks’ set-up in attack has never looked more dangerous, and against the hardest team to score on this year, too.
Wingard’s form turnaround in the last month has been as impactful as it has been surprising: I remember pondering earlier this year whether he’d mentally checked out and was just clogging up a spot that could be given to young Tyler Brockman, or someone else who’d be a bit hungrier. But whether he was carrying an injury or he’s just pulled his finger out, his last three weeks are probably his best in brown and gold.
Breust, too, is such a perfect player for a team in the transitive state the Hawks are in: in a league largely dominated by key forwards, his smarts at ground level and reading of the ball off hands are second to none, and more than make up or the yard of pace he’s lost to Father Time.
Give him the ball anywhere close to goal and something good will probably happen: we haven’t talked enough about how remarkable it is that a team ranked in the bottom five for average inside 50s per game has a 32-year old small forward who has kicked 42 goals, and could very easily sneak his way to 50 in the last three rounds.
As for getting it inside 50, there has been a slight but noticeable change in the way the Hawks move from the centre, and it revolves around Will Day.
Day made for a fascinating watch on Saturday afternoon: his primary role for much of this season has been as the defensive midfielder, the insurance policy to enable Worpel and Newcombe to attack the ball as vigorously as they do while trying to limit the damage of the ball going the other way.
Consequently, up until the Richmond game a fortnight ago, Day was averaging a tick under four inside 50s per game, comfortably behind Worpel (5.47) and Newcombe (4.71), neither of whom are quite as measure with ball in hand.
That day against the Tigers, and especially against the Magpies, Day has been unleashed and given licence to attack: he still sets up in that quasi-quarterback role, but it’s now more of a back-of-the-stoppage burst player, kind of similar to how Wingard, at Port Adelaide, turned the 2014 preliminary final by starting centre bounces at half-back and just running hell for leather forward through the stoppages. (I may be the only person on earth who remembers this.)
Especially from the centre, rather than look to bomb it forward, Newcombe and Worpel now regularly look to dish off to Day running past, with his defensive sweeper role turning into an attacking one too quickly for the Pies to react to it. I lost count of the times he burst into space – his gait is long and almost hypnotically languid, a far cry from the ball of muscle and energy that is Worpel rolling forward – took time to consider his kick, and aimed it to the right spot.
After eight inside 50s against the Magpies, Day now has 22 in the last three weeks alone. Worpel, meanwhile, has had 11, including only two against the Pies, while Newcombe has had seven, four of them at the MCG on Saturday.
It’s not just correlation that the Hawks have kicked 45 goals at an average of 3.56 inside 50s for every major in that timespan, against the flag favourites and two teams in St Kilda and Richmond fighting for the eight, where up until Round 19 they’d averaged 5.05 inside 50s per goal. Or that their accuracy has improved drastically, with scores of 15.5, 14.9 and 16.9 resulting on far fewer under-pressure flings at goal and more set shots and open-space drop punts.
But while all those stats are impressive and paint a picture of just how the Hawks got to the point where they could torment the Magpies, their key sticking point is something less definable but obvious to the naked eye: my God, are they quick.
The most symbolic moment of the afternoon came not from the Hawks, but from McRae choosing to sub out Tom Mitchell for tactical reasons (that’s what the Pies have reported anyway, so who knows what the icing of his thigh on the bench means). With the Pies’ midfield getting massacred at centre bounces, the primary role he’d be acquired for from the Hawks was failing, and the speed on the game made him essentially a liability around the ball.
In short, Mitchell was subbed because he couldn’t go with the Hawks’ on-ball brigade, the one Sam Mitchell valued enough to send a Brownlow Medallist packing for peanuts and get accused of trying to tank the Hawks to Harley Reid. No doubt the sight of their former star watching on from the sidelines as his removal from the game made zero difference to the on-ball domination or the Pies’ ability to stop their spread would have made for some delicious, Damian Barrett-flavoured schadenfreude for the brown and gold army.
Mitchell values two things above all else as coach: strength and speed. The former is why Newcombe and Worpel have risen so high in his esteem as to make Tom Mitchell surplus, it’s why Conor Nash has become a diet Patrick Cripps in the last two months but with a big more breakaway leg speed, and it’s at least part of why Finn Maginness was capable of performing one of the most dominant tagging jobs in recent memory on a Nick Daicos who didn’t have the faintest idea how to shake him.
(As an aside: given how many teams have either failed to implement or just plain given up on any plans to stop Daicos getting his usual plethora of disposals, I hope Maginness’ masterful job, aided by a swathe of teammates determined to make the Brownlow favourite’s evening a living hell, shows the footy world that it actually is possible to keep him to under 20 disposals. In fact, why not make it five!)
As for speed, the Hawks have that in droves coming off half-back. Who knows where Josh Weddle’s career will head – I thought Changkuoth Jiath was going to be a superstar this time two years ago and he’s regressed badly since – but if the Hawks keep playing this way then it suits him down to the ground.
He’s almost the embodiment of Mitchell’s Hawks: young, brash, quick enough to burn off teammates and opponents alike and confident enough to try and do it just about every time, and while not always the most polished ball-user hits enough targets and takes enough chances by foot to make it more than worthwhile.
While not everyone has Weddle’s leg speed, others compensate with their desire to move the game on: James Sicily, allowed free rein by the Pies to rack up 37 disposals and 19 marks, most of them uncontested, was just about the only Hawk his teammates would slow down for to try and find. Going at 89 per cent efficiency all evening, little wonder.
It all comes back to one simple, crucial point: more than any other 16th-placed team I’ve seen in the final month of the season, the Hawks want it.
They want the ball with a passion so deep as to dwarf even a side who seemed a fortnight ago to be inevitably hurtling towards a premiership. They want to beat their opponents so badly, both on the scoreboard and in the litany of scuffles that broke out in the third term as they continued to hunt Daicos, that defeat will be compounded by a row of walking wounded.
More than anything tactical, it was this want that shut down Collingwood’s ball movement whenever they tried to mount a comeback.
Oleg Markov, installed midway through the third term as sub, is almost the league’s quickest player even with three quarters of miles in his legs. Newcombe running him down in the dead centre of the ground at a critical stage of the third term, with an open paddock in front of him and a teammate riding shotgun for the handball receive in a trademark Magpie wave, was the moment everyone watching realised the Hawks wouldn’t be broken like Collingwood have so many teams in the last 18 months.
Teams this year have mostly been confident that their own talent and systems will be strong enough to overcome whatever the Hawks throw at them. St Kilda were the only team to properly try and address a Hawthorn strength when they locked down James Sicily with Cooper Sharman – and even then, they learned the hard lesson earlier in the year when the captain racked up a million touches on them in a narrow, and possibly season-defining, loss.
The Magpies rocked up to the MCG confident that whatever the Hawks could do, they could to better – and as it turns out, they were wrong. Unless other teams work out how to stop Mitchell’s methods and cut the Hawks down to size, then it will happen to them, too.
A young 2023 Hawthorn isn’t capable of playing as well as they did against Collingwood every week, but when they are… look out.