Before the 2018 season began my prediction for the club was that it would finish in 11th position. As I write this mid-year review, the team currently occupies 10th place on the ladder with a 6 win, 5 loss ledger which sits them a game and percentage outside of the top 8.
The main reason for this outcome is the lack of quality within the best 22 and the absence of depth outside of it. The team’s lack of strong leadership has also been a big concern following the loss of past captain Luke Hodge at the end of 2017. The new leadership group, consisting of Jarryd Roughead as captain and Liam Shiels and Isaac Smith as deputies, came into effect at the start of the 2017 season and for the most part has been underwhelming. The flogging by a winless Lions outfit was damning. It was bad to lose, but to get beaten by nearly 10 goals pointed to a lack of leadership. To put this in context, arguably the standout leader for the club throughout 2018 so far has been a second year player, Blake Hardwick.
All these factors have stood out during the first half of the season. The team had a stellar start to the year with a 5/2 start but struggled up until the bye with a 1/3 return. The fork in the road was the round 8 loss against Sydney. Hawthorn’s main strengths, which had propelled its fine start to the season, were limited in this match and exposed the team’s lack of a valid supporting cast, especially in the team’s engine room, its midfield, which resembled ‘Tom Mitchell and the Maybes.’ This had an impact on the outside with an over reliance on Isaac Smith for crucial line breaking run. Up until this game, Smith had been in All-Australian form with the key to his blitzing display being the support offered to him by Ricky Henderson. Once Henderson’s form dipped, it allowed teams to sit on Smith with the team suffering as a result. This absence of run through the lines was not lost in the coaches box with Daniel Howe being sacrificed, despite being in decent form. His dropping, whilst harsh, saw Jarman Impey assume more of a midfield role in the hope of inserting some burst presence from contested situations, added threat on the outside and spread in transition.
The spluttering nature of the midfield was profound in the attack going from averaging 97.85 points per game in the lead up to the Swans game to only 67 points during and after. The forward 50 entries remained similar but the quality and quickness into the forward 50 was sadly lacking with constant bombing taking place. The decision making and skill execution when entering the forward half was average to dismal. This allowed teams to flood back into defence making it very hard to score and leaving us very vulnerable on the counter.
The other bookmark for the season so far has centred on James Sicily. He has been arguably the team’s greatest weapon throughout the latter parts of 2017 and the start of 2018 in the zone off role, free in defence. This is the same role which saw Josh Gibson garner universal acclaim during the team’s three-peat success. The closing stages of the game against the Swans brought into focus the dual nature of this position, between defence and attack. Sicily excelled in the attacking aspect, where his step to get free in traffic and kicking skills are amongst the most devastating in the AFL. His defensive skills, however, were lacking, highlighting an imbalance in the defence, with the accent more on zoning and guarding space to facilitate the rebound as opposed to old style defending. This saw Jack Gunston return as the 8th defender for the Port game. Reverting to playing two loose players in defence was necessary, but a step back for the club in a transitioning stage as it weakened our forward structure. Moving Gunston, however, reinforced the back line and freed up Sicily to play a more attacking style of defence. Sicily was superb in this game due to the support Gunston offered.
The Remainder of the 2018 Season:
Alastair Clarkson is a vindicated genius and, like last year, the expectation is that the team will be better after the bye. This will be helped by long term stars Grant Birchall and Cyril Rioli returning from injury layoffs. If both of these players can display any of their past glories it will give the team a good chance for a run at the 8 with the draw on paper being relatively kind. Of the remaining 11 games only 3 are against teams currently in the 8.
The concern is the ‘supporting cast’ of players, even if the team’s best 22 take the field. To be a valid finals threat a few need to stand up to be factors, notably in the midfield with the likes of Jaeger O’Meara who has shown glimpses of his calibre. Also, Liam Shiels needs to lift. He is one of the best defensive midfielders in the league but if he can add a more attacking aspect to his game it would be of real meaning to the team’s prospects. The acid is also on Ricky Henderson to run shot gun for Isaac Smith as he did early on. If his form is still lacking the club needs to invest more trust in Harry Morrison by placing him more permanently in the outside role as opposed to the utility entity position he has assumed all season.
The second half would be a perfect opportunity to play Jarryd Roughead more in the midfield. He is very capable in this role and it would add real support to Tom Mitchell in the clinches due to his bulk and dexterity in clearances as well as providing the perfect opportunity for Roughead to lead from the front.
Most of Hawthorn’s fan’s concerns are centred around the team’s attack. On face value this is warranted with their struggle in hitting the scoreboard. I see this more as a by-product of the midfield. If the midfield can get decisive first use followed by quick and precise entry, the attack will awake from its slumber. Players such as Luke Breust, Jack Gunston, Paul Puopolo and Jarryd Roughead are proven attacking commodities who have been stifled due to the absence of quality supply.
In my mind, the top 22 players list is 2-3 quality players short from making a return to the 8 and about 5-6 players shy from once more being a valid premiership threat.
Ones to look for:
Of the players on the outskirts, I view Ollie Hanrahan as the best prospect to be a factor. He has pace, cleverness and knows where to go to win the ball. If not for injury he would have already played at AFL level.
Another potential choice is Conor Nash. He is very raw, but is big, quick and loves to smash a pack.
I stand firm with my preseason view of the team failing to make the 8. A 10-12 finish is likely, due to the aforementioned concerns raised.
The context of this is that the loss of legends and the absence of high draft picks has taken a toll.
Taking into account all of the above, I give the team a B grading for its first half.