“The Hawthorn Way” is a catchcry bandied around by many but understood by very few.
When considering which iconic figures from the past might embody the definition of “The Hawthorn Way”, names such as Dr. Sandy Ferguson, John Kennedy Snr, Ron Cook and Don Scott come to mind. A more recent inclusion to this list of Hawthorn icons is Alastair Clarkson, based on how he facilitated the Hawks’ renaissance after joining the club in 2005. The genius coach has expertly married the past, present and future in an evolving incarnation of this catchphrase. He successfully linked the “one for all and all for one” theme from our song to the modern day marketing slogan of “Always Hawthorn”. The sum of all the parts at the football club and the contributions of all concerned represented a mosaic for all to pay homage to and great success followed.
Clarkson’s speeches about Hawthorn’s success remind us of the often unnoticed work that goes on behind the scenes, away from the spotlight. The example of the worker who likes to go unnoticed instantly comes to mind, one who routinely clocks on early and stays back late and though always being consistently excellent never seeks any thanks or acclaim. When considering the on-field talent, these are the types of players who strive to exceed their role, rather than merely satisfy it. They are prepared to sacrifice themselves to benefit others and solidify the strength of the group. Although their passion for success may burn inside them with a rabid zealotry, they carry themselves with a minimum of fuss, with a silently assured nature which invites a lack of attention and perhaps even the odd debate over whether they are underrated, a question which would be accepted as a moral victory. Hawthorn’s team has included several players of this ilk in recent times and many from its recent dynasty were overlooked for selection in the All Australian team.
Ben McEvoy is one such player who embodies “The Hawthorn Way”, a consummate performer who exudes a self effacing demeanour both on and off the field. His devotion to the cause stood out after contemplating retirement due to back issues after the 2016 season. Despite his personal discomfort, the best interests of the club were paramount and he elected to continue, playing in all 22 games in 2017. The stand out was the rise of his natural leadership skills, which few had previously paid due respect to, particularly in the first half of 2017 where leadership at the club was lacking.
His on-field presence was profound and was the fulcrum of the team’s turnaround during the second half of last season. One can’t overlook how vast his improvement has been since 2017. Last season saw him eclipse his previous hit out average for a season by seven taps, with an average of 25.4 hit outs per game. By improving on his weaker skill sets to fully complement his strongest suits, this took him to an elite standing as a ruckman. He followed a traditional ruck rover career path to fill the team ruck position. He excels in playing an important linking role. This role is highly valued in the modern age of the AFL where traditional midfield roles are lumped under the generic umbrella term of ‘onballers’.
In looking at the second half of 2017, McEvoy operated as the quintessential tall presence in both defence and attack. The game plan shifted after the bye to an 8/4 balance between defence and attack commanded by two zone off defenders to help facilitate the rebound. The attack had a largely defensive accent, centred on rabid small and midsize attackers. Their role was to create second chance goals when the ball was in the forward 50 while at the same time skewing and limiting the rebound. The big ruck was a huge key in this transition from defence. McEvoy’s unyielding tank always offered an option with his ability to get free due to his running off the ball to position. Equally as pivotal was his anchoring as the last man in the forward press, operating as a modern take on the ‘kick behind play’. His impressive tally of 14 goals in 2017 was the result of his high football IQ. He knows how to get lost whilst transitioning into attack during general play and how to drift into the forward 50 to offer an option when operating as part of the forward press.
The 2018 season has so far seen many pundits obsessing over the renaissance of the ruck position. Despite this, the silence over McEvoy’s calibre has been deafening. Media attention has focussed on Brodie Grundy due to his hybrid nature, combining both the traditional ruck role of the past with a more modern take, due to the influence of his tap work coupled with his natural ball winning ability. This follows on from similar acclaim heaped on Patrick Ryder and Max Gawn in previous seasons.
A showdown with Gawn looms on Sunday which is likely to loosen lips over how truly underrated McEvoy is. The main focus will be on his ability to match and better Gawn’s coverage of the ground but his effectiveness in the hit outs will be a greater pointer. His defensive acumen and ability to negate the influence of an astute tap ruckman is likely to come to prominence. It is reminiscent of when Fremantle was a major rival and David Hale had a profound effect on limiting Aaron Sandilands. The key was jumping early into Sandilands to skew his timing and hinder his ability to tap.
The ruck showdown looms large in a clash between two teams staking a claim for a place in the 8 at season’s end. Do not be surprised if McEvoy is a key player in a season defining victory for the Hawks.