The Alastair Clarkson era at Hawthorn has predominantly seen pre-season games used as an opportunity to give youngsters a taste of the action and to put adequate conditioning into established incumbents. The team’s success in recent years, with long and arduous finals campaigns culminating in 4 flags, has ultimately dictated the handling of the club’s players in the following year’s pre-season matches.
The lead into the 2018 season is vastly different from that of previous years, with the team having plenty of recovery time after missing out on the finals in 2017. This additional period of rest and recuperation in-between seasons has afforded the club the necessary time to allow some players to be sent for early surgical treatment. It has also provided the club’s think tank the extra time needed to dissect the struggles of 2017 and plan for a revival in 2018.
The first glimpse of a renaissance will be seen on Saturday as the Hawks take on the ‘Scrays’. The associated storylines as a result of this match are likely to be compelling.
1. The team’s structure
The second part of 2017 saw Hawthorn adopt an 8/4 structure between its defence and attack. This was in response to the team struggling with defensive rebound in the early part of 2017. It saw both James Sicily and Jack Gunston employed as zone off backmen to assist the defence and facilitate the team’s rebound. This was largely successful but the trade-off was that the forward line became a shadow of its formidable former self. It missed the presence of Gunston along with predominantly relying on transition goals in a ‘Pagan Paddock’ type forward set up. With the ball trapped in the forward line, due to three of the forwards playing a defensive role, the team relied heavily upon the creation of second chance goals. A well-marshalled forward press, with numbers flooded in to limit oppositions’ rebound, supported this. The season’s early rounds saw the club sliced to ribbons with the rebound and on the associated spread on the outside which compelled this change.
1a. Will the club adopt a more traditional set up with 6 backs and forwards in 2018?
The greater likelihood is a 7/5 set up between defence and attack with James Sicily cast more in the Josh Gibson zone-off role that was so prominent during the club’s glory years. As part of a re-jigged 7 man backline, I can see them rotating him with Grant Birchall and Jack Gunston in a roundabout between marking and zoning off as free men to limit oppositions’ marking the free man in defence.
The 5 man forward set up will be heavily reliant on Cyril Rioli returning to his former glory. He is the complete package, in a predatory sense, between playing both an attacking and defensive role. Rioli’s return to fitness will provide shielding to Luke Breust, who was largely disappointing throughout 2017, and will allow him to once again be the attacking threat he has been in the past. Tim O’Brien and Jarryd Roughead will most likely rotate in the midfield. Roughead can use his big frame to win clearances and smash open lanes for his fellow mids to operate in and I can see O’Brien playing well in the 2nd ruck role which he showed real potential in during 2017.
The choice of defensive forwards will be intriguing. Paul Puopolo is perhaps the obvious choice but his struggles in recent seasons must have his position in doubt. Jarman Impey needs to earn his stripes but if he lights it up in the 2 JLT games he is likely to usurp Puopolo. Ryan Schoenmakers, despite all his detractors, is very capable at playing in the defensive forward role, where he limits the oppositions’ dangerous rebounding big backmen and punishes their lack of respect with his ‘dead eye dick’ kicking for goal.
2. The Gunston role
As previously alluded to, Jack Gunston is a brilliant forward who is so difficult to match on because of his tank and his multi faceted nature. He can play as a marking forward and as a dangerous midsized type, capable both on the ground and at kicking goals in transition. His move to the backline in the latter parts of 2017 to run shot gun for the developing James Sicily highlighted his high footy IQ. He was definitive in this role with his impressive ability to read the play, usurp opposition attacks and then set the team alight in transition. The class and versatility he showed was very reminiscent of James Hird in his prime. Like Hird, Gunston could even play in the midfield, such is his eclectic class.
2a. Now that Hodge has left, should Gunston be the new general of the defence, in a quarterback role, or resume his role as the forward lines’ focal point?
Alastair Clarkson has always maintained that defence is the ultimate means of attack which means we will likely see Gunston retain his 2017 role as a rotating zone-off extra in defence. Regardless of his position, Gunston looms as Hawthorn’s most crucial player.
3. The ruck set up
The combination of Ben McEvoy as the main ruck supported by Tim O’Brien in the second ruck role worked well in 2017. The return to fitness of Jonathan Ceglar, along with Tim O’Brien not fully cementing his place in the 22 makes this department an interesting point of discussion.
It is unlikely the club will play two genuine rucks as this would leave the team open to exploitation in the crucial mid part of the ground. If O’Brien finally delivers on his obvious potential, McEvoy will be free to continue on as arguably the games most effective ruck. His around the ground play is of such a high calibre, it brings back memories of Jim Stynes. McEvoy also plays a crucial role in the team’s structure with his ability to reinforce the team’s forward press by adopting a modern adaptation of ‘a kick behind play’ by stationing himself behind the press. He expertly limits the oppositions’ exit points and supports the team’s scoring by choosing the perfect moment to offer a goal scoring option in the forward 50.
Whether this strength in the team is maintained will depend a lot on O’Brien keeping up his end of the bargain. If he doesn’t, he will most likely be dropped and there will be pressure on the Hawks to find another versatile player who can play in the second ruck role.
4. The teams’ exploitable soft underbelly
The top end talent of the club is comparable to any in the AFL. The Hawks’ struggles in the latter parts of 2016 and early parts of 2017 were largely due to the drop off in their middle and lower ranked players. The evenness in the competition means that a consistency of talent amongst a team’s 22 players can be the difference between playing or missing out on finals.
If I had to single out one key factor to Hawthorn’s revival in 2018, it would be its youngsters. The team’s less experienced players must rise to the challenge and cement their place in the top 22. There are too many fringe players who are given their chance to shine, yet fail to impress. These types are drains rather than sprinklers for the teams’ prospects.
The likes of Ryan Burton, James Sicily, Daniel Howe and Blake Hardwick have already reinforced the quality of the Hawks’ outfit, but success in 2018 is dependent on the performance of players such as James Cousins, Kieran Lovell, Conor Glass, Conor Nash and Harry Morrison. Do not discount Kurt Heatherley from surprising us all in the upcoming games in a new role that the genius Clarko has planned for him.
5. Quick Q&A:
• Will we see the best of Jaeger O’Meara?
If O’Meara remains injury free he will finish top five in the club’s Best & Fairest and be ranked in the AFL’s top 20.
• Where will Ryan Burton play and will this be his first step to being amongst the best in the AFL?
The answer is anywhere and everywhere; he is a silken version of Nat Fyfe.
• Will the team once more struggle with outside run and how has it been addressed between seasons?
I have huge doubts over this and as I watched Adam Saad’s initial impressive display in this regard for Essendon I wondered again why we didn’t pursue him in a trade.
• How will the team cope without the presence and leadership of Hodge?
A lot will depend on Birchall’s return to full fitness. If he does, he could assume the void left by Hodge.
• How rabid will the cult following of David Mirra become?
I’m predicting the fervour over Mirra to be Matt Spangher-like.