‘Reinvention’ is the key phrase coming out of Hawthorn lately. The current challenge directed at genius coach Alastair Clarkson is for him to try and rebuild a dynasty at the club that enjoyed a ‘three peat’ of flag success between 2013-15.
Hawthorn’s fall from grace came with a straight sets elimination from the 2016 finals, followed by an even worse performance last year, with the team missing the finals all together. The 2017 season was a tale of two halves. The first half was confronting for all concerned, with the club being consistently smashed. This period saw 4 wins and 8 losses, with an average losing margin of 47.62 points. Many individuals, whose reputations were garnered by their association with one of the best teams the game has ever seen, found themselves lacking. Lauded as heroes during the glory years, last year saw these players exposed as paper tigers during periods of struggle. The second half of the year brought a youth inspired renaissance which culminated in a 6 win, one draw and three loss end to the season. It warmed the cockles of all Hawk fans, heartened by the promise of a new age to help propel the team back up the ladder.
The youth who announced themselves in the second half of 2017 will be key to the team’s prospects in 2018. Players such as Ryan Burton, James Sicily, Blake Hardwick and Daniel Howe are justifiably viewed as being the team’s torchbearers to light up a new age.
One player who is not stealing many headlines, however, is James Cousins. The young midfielder was given a brief taste of senior level football in 2017 by playing three games. He would have played more if not for a season ending shoulder injury. Cousins was picked up in the 2017 rookie draft at pick 46. On the evidence of his brief foray into the big time, this is an outrageous steal. He displayed the qualities of a natural ball winner. He read the play well and positioned himself perfectly in the clinches to win the pill. Despite his lack of size, he excelled as an in and under beast. He also showed real dexterity in tight with the associated clearances, an aspect the team has been dismal at for a long time.
Cousins reminds me of two legendary past players – Sam Mitchell and Chance Bateman. The reference to Mitchell is because Cousins is an old style midfielder. He has the ability to kick with both feet, a skill which was on display during the inspiring win against Sydney last year. In a pivotal moment, he turned onto his non-preferred left foot and snapped a goal. Remember, this is in an age where there is an obsession over low percentage check side kicks due to players being so inept on their non dominant leg. This was an aspect of the youngster’s game to hang one’s hat on.
The ability to find space to operate in is a huge factor in becoming a well regarded midfielder and this is helped by being able to turn on either foot and execute adequately. In an age where more bodies are around the contest to limit quick and effective clearances, this skill makes a big difference. It is easy for a tagger to corral and limit a midfielder if it is known that they only have one trusted side to kick on. The unpredictability of being ambidextrous opens a 360 degree scope to operate in.
Cousins also has the qualities of an outside mid, reminiscent of Chance Bateman. ‘Changa’ was able to win the tough contested ball in the clinches along with scything the lines on the outside. The team has been desperate to replace Bateman’s skill set since his retirement in 2012. Jono O’Rourke was touted as a potential replacement after being picked up in a trade prior to the 2015 season. Unfortunately O’Rourke has not yet lived up to his potential due to his fragile body and his apparent lack of comfort at AFL level. Cousins, with his underrated pace, on the other hand, offers more certainty in this regard.
The prospect of Cousins developing into a multifaceted midfielder is an exciting one for Hawks supporters. The modern game is all about transitioning the ball through the crucial mid part of the ground. Cousins could be an important link between the inside and out. This offers a real ace up the sleeves of Hawthorn’s coaches, with him also being a crucial link between defence and into attack. His big tank offers the prospect of him running to position off the ball and helping the team break the lines whilst on the rebound. In the overlapping traffic he could also lose his opponent when running into attack which would add to the team’s scoring options.
When you factor in Cousin’s above average strength overhead and his ability to kick goals, it is easy to view Cousins as the likely surprise packet for Hawthorn.