As the 2018 season draws closer, many pundits are finding it difficult to get a full grasp on Hawthorn. Whilst the first half of the 2017 season was pretty dismal for the Hawks, the team’s 2nd half performance gives rise to hopes of a possible return to the finals.
As we take a look at Hawthorn’s prospects for 2018, I wonder whether the deficiencies from last season have been addressed and remedied. Key issues include their lack of outside run, an absence of dynamic types in the midfield, the diminished nature of leadership in the team magnified by the departure of the ‘General’, Luke Hodge and the soft underbelly in their 22. The club has few out and out A-graders, a problem that looms large when you consider the incumbents from last year’s finals as well as the teams challenging on the outskirts of the top 8. One only has to look at the Western Bulldogs with Marcus Bontempelli’s immense influence or what Max Gawn, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney could offer at the Demons. These types of players garner most of the attention from opposition think tanks, which in turn allows other less prominent players to operate without drawing much attention.
If you look at the Hawks’ best players there are very few you could categorise as being game changers. Most would point to midfielder Tom Mitchell as the Hawks’ best player, however, despite being a prolific ball winner, he lacks the fear factor of an elite A-grade midfielder. Another player who could join the A-list is Jaeger O’Meara, if he can retain the form that once compelled Tim Watson to make the call that “he could be the greatest midfielder ever”. O’Meara offered promise in a few late games last year but the key to his success in 2018 will be his ability to regain the burst speed he exuded before his knee issues arose. James Sicily and Ryan Burton have a lot of potential but their glory days are more likely to be in the not too distant future rather than in the immediate present.
A big worry for the Hawks is their lack of outside speed, with the club lacking players who can break the game open. Whether Isaac Smith can return to the type of form which had him in All Australian contention during the club’s glory years is pivotal. He struggled last year after Bradley Hill left, due to the extra attention paid to him by opposition players. The recruitment of Jarman Impey offers hope, but time will tell whether the ex-Port player can provide that real outside threat. It is hard to place too much faith in Impey as an outside runner, as he lacks the necessary tank to sustain the blitzing outside pace the Hawks desperately need. I see him more as having a ‘burst’ presence in the midfield, similar to that of Cyril Rioli.
On the topic of Rioli, his return to full fitness is a massive key to Hawthorn’s fortunes. His absence last year was noticeable, with the team’s once vaunted forward line a shadow of its murderers’ row type reputation from previous years. Many Hawks players were exposed, without Rioli there to shield and draw the attention of the opposition. The forward line’s vulnerability was magnified in the second half of last season when Alastair Clarkson moved Jack Gunston away to be a roaming winger and run shot gun for James Sicily as a second zone off man in defence.
James Sicily will be another crucial player after a break-out end to 2017 where he excelled in the zone-off role in which Josh Gibson gained universal acclaim. The combination of his intercept marking and scything kicking skills represented a fulcrum for the turnaround in the team’s performance. The main query over Sicily is whether he can cope with the extra attention which is bound to come. The absence of Luke Hodge’s guiding hand is a massive factor along with Jack Gunston’s likely return to the forward line. This puts a huge question mark next to Sicily after witnessing his inability to cope with old style niggling from opposition teams in the latter part of last season. This had a detrimental effect on the team as a whole. Sicily’s explosive reaction provided a blueprint for opposition teams on how to unsettle him and counteract the immense damage he could inflict. If Sicily lives up to his potential and plays in All-Australian candidate form, he could be the fire starter for a real finals charge. If, however, his questionable temperament has him acting as though he just lost all of the toys out of his pram, it could deprive the team of the real dynamic threat it so yearns.
As well as Sicily, there are other speculative types which the team will rely on to take its next step in gaining ascendency. On one level, with Sicily, are players including Ryan Burton, Daniel Howe and Blake Hardwick who each had breakthrough seasons last year. These players would then be supported by the likes of James Cousins, Kieron Lovell, Conor Glass, Conor Nash, Harry Morrison and the often forgotten Jono O’Rourke.
If the Hawks have any chance of returning to the finals it will be imperative that they renew and reinforce the quality in its best 22 and the depth of players on the fringes.
My best 22:
B: Grant Birchall, James Frawley, Ben Stratton
HB: Conor Glass, Ryan Burton, Blake Hardwick
James Sicily (free zone off defender)
C: Isaac Smith, Tom Mitchell, Liam Shiels
HF: Jack Gunston, Jarryd Roughead
F: Jarman Impey, Cyril Rioli, Luke Bruest
Foll: Ben McEvoy, Daniel Howe, Jaeger O’Meara,
Inter: Shaun Burgoyne, Tim O’Brien, James Cousins, Kaiden Brand
Emer: Harry Morrison, Kieron Lovell, Paul Puopolo
I would have the team as a 7/5 split between defence and attack and would cast Sicily in the crucial zone-off role. Here he could stifle attacks with his intercept marking and kick-start the rebound, transitioning into attack. The forward line would be structured with our smaller players within the 50 arc, with the taller players, Gunston and Roughead, operating high to support the defence, aid in transition and attempt to get lost in traffic and then attack.
Some may question the absence of Paul Puopolo, but I view Impey as an upgrade in the multifaceted small forward role after Puopolo fell from grace during the team’s struggles last year.
Tim O’Brien maintains the 2nd ruck role which he showed real acumen in last year but his frustrating inconsistency could see Ryan Schoenmakers assume this position.
The Alastair Clarkson effect:
Clarkson is a vindicated genius who represents arguably 2-3 extra wins a year due to his tactical acumen. We saw this last year when he turned around the team’s dismal first half by investing in the youth and coming up with some savvy moves such as playing Sicily as the free man in defence, Howe as a big midfielder and Tim O’Brien in the second ruck role.
No doubt the master tactician will have more aces up his sleeve in regards to individual players which will hopefully make the Hawks relevant once more. I’m sure he will also reinvent the game plan as this was evidenced in the first glimpses of the JLT game where there was more of a handball focused game as opposed to the uncontested chip and charge blueprint of the team’s glory years.
Prediction – 11th
My heart says Hawthorn will reach the lower rungs of the 8 in 2018, but my head says they should finish at 10 – 12 due to a lack of leadership as a result of Hodge’s departure. The young up and comers would have benefitted greatly from his mentoring and shielding and I feel that with an absence of a similar leader, they will experience growing pains.
The lack of A-grade talent in the midfield and outside run also stand as massive factors in an age where both are considered crucial for success.