As the 2019 season draws closer, it is difficult to get a full grasp on Hawthorn. Whilst the team finishing in the top four to conclude the home and away in 2018 gave promise of a return to prominence, a straight sets exit from the finals portrayed this as a false dawn.
As we take a look at Hawthorn’s prospects in 2019, it is hard not to focus on the season ending broken leg suffered by Tom Mitchell in the preseason which deprives the team of arguably its best and most pivotal player. The failure in the finals was largely due to the absence of genuine A-grade talent outside of Mitchell in the midfield along with the lack of depth and quality of rotations in support. The team being without the reigning Brownlow medalist begs the question of who of the incumbents can step up to pick up his slack. As well as bringing a focus onto the young and inexperienced midfielders to play more prominent roles.
This challenge for the club could not come at a worse time. The new rule changes highlighted by a focus on the new 6/6/6 zones at centre bounces will favour teams with strong midfields. As well as clearance work in the midfield which the club has long been suspect in. The winning of first ball will allow quick and precise delivery into forward lines with one on one duels rather than the modern trend of teams dropping spares behind the ball in support of their defence.
The strategy of a 7, or even 8 man defence has been the basis of the Clarkson success with the club. One highlighted by Josh Gibson and his legendary ‘golden fist’ during the three peat winning teams and recently the daring James Sicily or Ben Stratton in the role. Occasionally with Jack Gunston running shot gun as the second spare man behind the ball. It represented a key to the uncontested game style where they would gladly give oppositions an extra man or men in other areas of the ground and back their skill to prevail in the numbers battle. At their peak, once the Hawks had the pill, it was almost impossible to get it back off them.
The new zones will put the pressure on the defence to adapt to the inevitable one on one contests. Particularly in the key position posts which raises a real worry of the teams depth and quality. James Frawley is still one of the best one on one man markers in the game but his body is fragile. As well as being targeted by oppositions when he has the ball in hand due to his frequent skill errors by foot. After him, Kaiden Brand, David Mirra and Tim O’Brien have been tried as key defenders but have yet to show any real dexterity to inspire faith. It makes one bemoan the trading of Ryan Burton to Port Adelaide as part of the Chad Wingard deal. Burton was seen as mostly a flanker but on the evidence of the impressive victory in Adelaide against the Crows in 2017 where he toweled up Taylor Walker as a key defender. He had the potential to be a very good centre half back.
Whilst the sacrificing (yes, he was pushed out) of Burton wasn’t ideal, it was necessary to ratify a trade with Port Adelaide to bring Chad Wingard to the club. The recruitment of Wingard gives the club a dual All Australian player in his prime who still has upside. He also has a point to prove after a down few years at Port where he has been labeled as ‘lazy’ which makes this member of the peanut gallery think he will light it up as a goal kicking midfielder.
The other two prime recruits in Tom Scully and Jack Scrimshaw are speculative entities who cost little in trade but could reap huge rewards. In particular, Tom Scully from the Giants could be defining. He is recovering from a career threatening injury but if he can get back to full fitness and anywhere near his best he will change the team profoundly. Scully is arguably the best outside force in the game as a ceaseless two way runner who is a prolific goal kicker along with being a very adept defensive midfielder. If he is linked with Isaac Smith on the outside it will represent arguably the most devastating outside tandem in the AFL. The acquirement of Scrimshaw could also be telling. He is like for like as a rebounding defender to Grant Birchall with an equally lethal left foot. If he can live up to his billing as a high draft choice and the aforementioned Birchall returns to fitness and previous glories it gives the club a duo of lethal rebounding flankers. This could also free James Sicily to play forward where he could kick 40+ goals as an old style leading full forward supported by the new zones.
The reign of Luke Hodge as one of the greatest leaders the game was duly lauded during his tenure but has been most felt since he abdicated the role. It came at a time when the club lost prominent on field leaders in Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis. The latter would have arguably been the best replacement for Hodge as captain. Instead Jarryd Roughead was inserted with Isaac Smith and Liam Shiels as his deputies. Whilst the trio needs to be commended for their efforts in the roles, this era at the club will be looked back as a time where the absence of leadership was a key factor.
The new leadership duo of Ben Stratton as captain and Jack Gunston as his vice are inspired choices which will reinforce the clubs long time reputation for great leaders.
Player on the rise- Jarman Impey
The obvious choice here would be to pick Jaeger O’Meara who looks primed to finally live out his billing as a game changing midfielder.
I have gone for Impey who has looked very good as a rebounding small defender. He offers real pace to run through the lines as well as showing great poise in the defensive aspects of the role.
The move is very reminiscent of Collingwood moving Leon Davis into this role which saw him selected to the All Australian team in 2011. Impey is a very similar player to Davis. One hopes he resembles Davis’s success in the role
Pssst Clarko!- TRY CONOR NASH AS A KEY DEFENDER!!!!
The club desperately needs to find a reliable key defender. Nash has size and pace making him an obvious choice. He played the role in his infancy at Box Hill and I would LOVE this to be revisited.
Most pundits have written Hawthorn off on the back of the injury to Tom Mitchell. Whilst I concede Mitchell’s absence will see Hawthorn fall from the heights of last year, I do not think the team will fall out of the 8
The genius of Clarkson in the coaching box always represents the club starting with 3 wins in the bank before a ball has been bounced. Also, the leadership change will have a profound effect as well.