A grim afternoon in the West during the 2nd elimination final in 2010 proved to be a catalyst for the glory which followed for Hawthorn. The Hawks were obliterated by the Dockers’ devastating outside duo of Anthony Morabito and Stephen Hill, who sliced to ribbons with their speed and associated gut run. In the aftermath the Hawks were compelled to find similar threats.
The reaction was swift with their selection of Isaac Smith who had been burning it up, in terms of outside run, in the VFL. The Hawks recruited him with their first draft pick in 2010. Smith’s recruitment was all about his potential as a tandem outside runner alongside Clinton Young. This never eventuated, with Young rarely recapturing his blitzing display of the first half of the 2008 grand final where his line breaking and long left foot were stand-outs. The ankle injury he sustained in that game cruelled him thereafter and 2011 saw him cast more as an afterthought rather than a trusted entity. Bradley Hill was then drafted in 2011 and although Young played 20 games throughout 2012, he was only warming the seat for Hill in the team’s top 22. It was obvious the Hawks were still hoping for a Young revival but the club clearly chose to hedge their bets by investing in Hill. If there were any doubts over Young, these were quashed as a result of his unfortunate slip up in the goal square during the latter stages of the 2012 Grand Final loss to Sydney. This sealed his fate and he was shunted off to Collingwood.
It was no coincidence that once the duo of Smith and Hill was formed on the outside, a miraculous three-peat of premiership victories followed. The obvious effect was the pace they offered to break lines and set up many plays. The greater impact was to the structure of the Alastair Clarkson uncontested style of play which was heavily dependent on skilled kicking. Clarkson structured from the back to facilitate the chipping style of play, with Josh Gibson cast in a zone-off role with Sam Mitchell after 2012, who often ran “shot gun” off half back in a rotating pose. Hill and Smith with their pace and unyielding running off the ball created the space for the skill based game plan to rule by allowing teammates to excel in the pockets they opened up. A sublime dissection of oppositions followed where they could never get the ball back off the Hawks juggernaut and were obliterated by the combination of space and skill.
Such was their profound effect that more and more opposition think tanks saw them as key to usurping the Hawks juggernaut. It saw many send defensive markers mostly to Smith but all this achieved was allowing others off the leash, including Hill, who was devastating with the aforementioned qualities including kicking goals in transition. Quite literally, they were Batman and Robin-like: if one was trapped, the other rose to prominence.
Hawthorn’s dynamic duo was unfortunately fractured at the end of 2016. Hill’s homesickness had become evident throughout that year and the club honoured his wish to be traded back to the Dockers to reunite with his brother Stephen at season’s end. This was underrated in the effect on Hawthorn’s prospects with few fully appreciating how crucial Hill was. It was just assumed that Billy Hartung would pick up the slack, a notion which was underselling Hill’s quality and importance as well as overrating Hartung’s potential. Hartung came up way short in even coming close to Hill’s pedigree and the club chose to let him go at the end of 2017, despite it being evident that the club was lacking outside run in an age where it is deemed a crucial factor for any team’s success.
Smith felt the absence of Hill more keenly and went from being a perennial All Australian contender during the club’s glory years to becoming a shadow of his former self, arguably due to lacking the support that Hill offered. Smith is still a barometer of how Hawthorn are faring, to the point that when he plays well, the club rarely loses. To use the aforementioned superhero comparison, though, Hill’s departure has raised the question – who really was Batman in this duo and who was Robin? This question is particularly pertinent considering Hill won the Best and Fairest in his first year at the Dockers and was featured in the All Australian discussion while Smith fell distinctly from prominence. This fall from grace had an ironic twist, as Smith was elevated to a Vice Captain’s role at Hawthorn at the start of the 2017 season, perhaps in honour of his past deeds. Despite this show of faith, he was underwhelming last year and underperformed both on the playing field and as a leader. His two pivotal misses in the dying moments in the games against Geelong in the finals of 2016 and again last year largely defined Smith. It seems that he lacks what’s required in respect to these big key moments, causing me to wonder if he is more a co-star rather than the ‘main man’.
As 2018 looms upon us, the main question is: can Smith regain his past glory?
This is conditional upon a second outside runner, similar to Bradley Hill, to offer a shield for Smith. Without this, oppositions know that he is the only valid outside threat and try to aggressively shut him down. This might be muted if the first glimpse of Smith in the JLT is anything to go on with him cast more inside the square as an old style ruck rover away from his traditional wing or half back role. This was part of a new look structure where there seemed to be a desire to narrow the field to limit the outside. The season is in its infancy but it seems Clarko wants to link both the inside and outside in general play rather than have them as distinct separations in the midfield. All the midfielders are akin to roaming gypsies who are expected to take on multifaceted roles with the traditional positions such as the wing consigned to the annals of history.
As part of this, Smith would assume the role Chance Bateman played when on the ball in being able to win it in tight but more crucially, become a break-away entity from the clearances by relying on his lethal pace to burst from stoppages. Smith could add to this with his long kicking and appetite for goal when on the run along with his tank which would be crucial to segue between defence and into attack, with his ability to find space and break lines to set up play.
The reinventing of Smith’s role could see him rise once more to prominence, thus potentially stimulating the Hawks’ return to finals action.
The query is not can he, but will he?