Hawthorn’s remarkable turnaround from the depths of despair this season has raised the legend of Alastair Clarkson’s coaching genius to mythical levels.
Being the club’s main orchestrator, such adulation of Clarko is more than justified, however any evaluation of the Hawks’ success would be remiss without reverting back to the end of the 2012 season and the hiring of recently sacked Carlton head coach Brett Ratten. A watershed moment in the club’s history, Ratten has had an immense effect at Hawthorn.
On assuming the Assistant Coaching role, Ratten was charged with the job of looking after the midfield and ‘adding strings to the bows’ of its players. One such example is club legend Sam Mitchell. Ratten emphasised developing Mitchell’s outside game to marry in perfectly with the extractor’s pre-eminence as an in-tight specialist. This saw Mitchell deployed in large phases off half back from 2013 onwards, where he remained the fulcrum of the team whilst alleviating its over reliance on playing him in the midfield. Mitchell played arguably his best game for the club in the iconic 2013 preliminary final against Geelong where he fully utilised his new skills in a pivotal performance primarily off half back.
From a structural sense, Ratten developed a multifaceted nature in the midfield and attack, in the segue he developed between both. It took the form of a marriage between the departments based around a few incumbent key midfield players supported by other players from attack who became part time burst players in the midfield. This would provide a different look to facilitate clearances while befuddling oppositions who found it impossible to mark, for they couldn’t fathom the match ups.
A stand out figure was Jarryd Roughead who was introduced in bursts as a big midfielder. His dexterity in the role had a profound effect, as well as the way he would smash lanes with his mass so that others could excel. This midfield merry-go-round created a sense of chaos with the feared attack taking on a murderers’ row demeanour as it ignited a plethora of options. When you factor in the teams’ outrageous skill by foot to pinpoint passes, it saw cricket scores racked up with players rolling into the forward 50 through transition.
Flip to 2017 and Ratten’s re-invention of the forward line has been huge in the club’s turnaround as he seems to have adhered to the same ethos. The struggles of the forward line had been a main theme of the early season. Its anaemic scoring and lack of defensive might saw oppositions exploiting it to the hilt by killing us on the rebound and associated spread.
This has resulted in Ratten structuring up predominantly a 4 man forward line, highlighted by three marauding defensive forwards and Luke Bruest (likely to include Cyril Rioli when fit) being the attacking accent supported by players in transition feasting on the abundance of scraps. The startling nature in this is the choice of Taylor Duryea, Will Langford and Ryan Schoenmakers in the defensive roles and the renaissance it has afforded their careers.
The choices are heady for the following reasons:
Duryea- Similar to Campbell Brown in his courage and desperation along with being vastly under-rated overhead. He plays big, aiding in spoiling in contested marking situations, then marauds the scraps on the ground;
Langford- Charging bull armed with an Adonis body, he smashes into contests, creating chaos, whilst affording so many second chance goals. He also limits or skews opposition exits out of defence. If he could add polish to his goal kicking, he would rocket to amongst the best 20 players in the AFL.
Schoenmakers- Played his best game for the club in his defensive marking role on Harry Taylor in last years’ finals. He is disciplined in the shut down aspect of play then pivotal with his skill by foot which sets up other forwards. He is also a very accurate kick, rarely missing when he has a shot on goal.
Ben McEvoy completes the structure. In a modern take of a ruckman playing ‘a kick behind play’, he floats behind the forward press between the forward 50 arc and wing, solidifying it with his brilliant contested marking. He also accentuates the attacking aspect when picking his moments to float into the forward 50.
Since adhering to the re-jigged set up after the mid season break, the turnaround has been startling as seen in a comparison of figures which represent almost a 3 goal improvement:
First 12 games – 4 wins -8 losses, 947 points scored at an average of 78.9 per game
Subsequent 6 games-4 wins,1 draw,1 loss, 568 points scored at an average of 94.66 per game
Selfishly, I hope the opposition think tanks’ curious aversion to giving Brett Ratten another chance as a senior coach continues, for his effect on Hawthorn’s prospects has been profound.