Ben Stratton: The ‘Do or the Doer?

There is a lovely irony to the retro 80’s style mullet hairdo gaining attention for evergreen Hawks defender Ben Stratton. It is probably the most publicity Stratton has received during his glittering career and he seems to have even gained a bit of a cult following.

This following shows the skewed nature of the attention paid to players. Stratton has garnered more attention for showing some flash or an aspect of eccentricity than for what he means to the club and Stratton means a great deal to Hawthorn. He has been a pivotal figure throughout his 150 game career with the Hawks, yet is mostly misunderstood by the ‘experts’ covering the game. Their focus seems to be skewed and driven by tabloid mindsets and unfortunately many fans have a similar lack of clarity.

Despite being a cornerstone of the club during the Alastair Clarkson era, there are few people who already revered Stratton prior to his recent brush with cult status. He has, however, been a brick to build everything upon as well as the mortar in between when needed to bind everything together. Those who already recognised his importance paid homage to his expertise as a multi-faceted back man while adoring him for getting any job done with the minimum of fuss.

Unfortunately he rarely receives due acknowledgement for his expertise as the quintessential lock down defender, one who can blanket any type of forward. If you want to be impressed, just think of Eddie Betts, the poster child of the modern age, who is regarded as one of the best small forwards in the game’s history. Then think of his career association with Stratton. Or think back to Stratton’s blanketing job on Jack Darling, a vastly different type of attacker, in the 2015 Grand Final win against the Eagles.

Stratton is also just as efficient as the modern hybrid version of a defender. He reads the play and knows when to run to position to get free to facilitate a rebounding chain. His new hairdo is a stark contradiction to his neat and tidy skills on the field. His sacrificial acts or pivotal one percenters exude a sheer bloody-mindedness to do everything possible to benefit the team.

When crunch time arrives, Stratton is always a beacon. Just think back to the dying stages of the 2012 preliminary final against Adelaide when the game was on a knife’s edge. A rampaging Patrick Dangerfield got the ball and turned towards goal. All the hearts of the Hawk faithful sank as they were certain he would drive a nail into the coffin, reminiscent of the similar heartbreak felt after the 2011 preliminary final. Stratton then arose from a virtual grave to grasp onto Dangerfield, drag him down and seal the victory for the Hawks. It was one of the best tackles in the game’s history although it rarely, if ever, gets aired as an example of how it’s done. The same night, a year later, he took two brave marks going back in traffic to help beat Geelong and in doing so, end the Kennett curse.

There is also great presence and leadership inherent in his style. This is most keenly felt when Stratton is missing from the team through the breakdown of structures and associated game plans. This was never more evident than during the struggles of the team during 2017 when Stratton was missing for large chunks of the season due to a knee injury.

The renaissance of the team in 2018 has been largely driven by his underrated completeness coming to the fore. Any lingering doubts over the team missing the leadership and profound presence of the ‘General’, Luke Hodge have been put to rest. Stratton has stepped up to pick up the slack in marshalling a predominantly inexperienced defence. The Demons game spoke volumes. He was pivotal in keeping the composure of all the defenders around him after Melbourne got off to a fast start. A point made more meritorious with the loss of one of the team’s few experienced backs, James Frawley before quarter time. After Frawley’s withdrawal from the game, Stratton operated more in a zone off role which saw the strangulation of Melbourne’s scoring thereafter. He also facilitated probably the best transition from defence and rebound the team has seen in a good long while.

When considered together, all of these acts are far more deserving of ‘cult status’ than any Chapel Street retro ‘do’.

Ben McEvoy: Getting It Done The Hawthorn Way

“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.

 

 

Will Clarko stick or switch on Gunston?

 

 

Recently on Footy Classified, Craig Hutchinson posed the question of whether an intercept defender was worth over a million dollars a year, with many teams lining up to recruit Jeremy McGovern as a free agent at season’s end. The response was an overwhelming yes from past player Matthew Lloyd and recent retiree Chris Judd, both emphasising the crucial nature of this type of player.

This endorsement highlights a shift in the modern game’s power base, with defence being the new basis for attack. This was exemplified during Hawthorn’s dynasty of premiership success during 2013-15. All other teams have strived to emulate the pivotal role Josh Gibson played during these years, as an extra defender and zone off man. He was expert at reading the play, usurping attacks through his marking or spoiling and being the team’s crucial first link in the chain, commanding the rebound and transition into attack.

It is crucial to facilitate turnovers in defence in the modern game as well as punish oppositions on the rebound, which is made more important with most teams sitting deep when attacking. These tactics are supported by forward presses which can be ruthlessly effective but are equally exploitable by a quality defensive rebound.

This creates an enthralling conundrum for Hawthorn in their clash against Richmond on Sunday. The Hawks will be without their potentially devastating zone off defender James Sicily, which poses the question: who will assume his pivotal role?

An interesting aspect to this is the success of both Sicily and Jack Gunston as free men in defence during the second half of last year. After genius coach Alastair Clarkson assigned these previous forwards roles as the 7th and 8th men in defence, they were free to try to emulate the success Josh Gibson had in the zone off role. The impact of the duo was immediate and immense.

In 2017, Gunston had 74 intercept possessions at an average of 3.36 per game. Sicily had 90 intercept possessions at an average of 4.74 per game. Over the season their graphs look like this:
There is clearly a massive increase in both players’ performances after the bye (from round 14 onwards). During this time, Gunston had 50 intercept possessions at an average of 5 per game and Sicily had 79, at an average of 7.9 per game.

Alex Rance is the number 1 ranked player in the league for intercept possessions. During 2017, he had 206 intercept possessions and an average of 9.36 per game.

Including Alex Rance in the graph, the entire season looks like this:
However if you only look at the season from round 14 onwards, you get this graph:
In the second half of the season, both players (especially Sicily) held their own against the best in the competition.

This dynamic duo was separated in the early throes of 2018 with Gunston restored to the forward line and Sicily entrusted as the sole zone off defender. In Sicily’s absence, the logical move would be to redeploy Gunston in this pivotal role. The rub is Gunston’s importance to the forward line in the absence of Shaun Burgoyne from the team’s re-jigged attack.

Throughout 2017, Gunston had 110 score involvements, an average of 5 per game. Burgoyne had 134 score involvements at an average of 6.09 per game. Head to head, Gunston and Burgoyne had a similar first half of the season, however the evergreen Burgoyne pulled away in the second half. This coincided with Gunston receiving greater numbers of intercept possessions, indicating spending more time in the back half, where score involvements, although possible, are more difficult.

Hawthorn’s number 1 ranked player for score involvements was Tom Mitchell, whose sheer weight of disposal numbers would mean that many of our scores would have had a Tom Mitchell hand (or foot) in them somewhere. While Gunston averaged 5 score involvements per game and Burgoyne averaged 6.09, Mitchell’s average for his 152 score involvements was 6.9 per game. Incidentally, Jarryd Roughead, through his long stints in the forward line was second, 1 behind Mitchell with 151 Score involvements at 6.86 per game.

Comparing the 2017 seasons of Gunston, Burgoyne, Mitchell and the competition’s number 1 ranked player for the league last year in terms of score involvements, yields the following graph:

While having stars like Martin, who stand out from the pack in terms of stats, Hawthorn may well be content in having several players contributing evenly across the board in this particular facet of the game.

The conundrum of whether to play Gunston as the loose man, commanding the transition from defence or as the quarterback in attack is key for the Hawks.  For me, the choice of playing him in attack wins out, as there is no replacement for what he does, which is made more pertinent given Burgoyne’s absence from the forward line.

There are two likely options for the defence; Ryan Burton or David Mirra. Burton would operate in a silken manner, facilitated by his good reading of the play, stepping in traffic and clever use of the ball. Mirra, however, would be the braver option and was employed in this role in a recent practice match for Box Hill on St Patricks Day. He undertook this role in a similar manner to Josh Gibson, brave and very effective in his intercept marking and spoiling whilst tidy when in possession when aiding in the defensive rebound. Ben Stratton could be another option but he will likely be assigned to mark Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin when they rest forward.

Regardless of which option the coaching staff chooses, success against the Tigers will rely on Gunston being maintained in attack.

View from the Outer, Round 2, Geelong versus Hawthorn

Hawthorn celebrated a morale-boosting victory over their nemesis of recent years, Geelong today in a one point nail biter at the MCG. The Hawks won despite some shambolic umpiring, highlighted by some dreadful decisions and non decisions which favoured Geelong. I am not one who normally bemoans umpires but it was if these twits had posters of Darren Goldspink on their lockers, such was their bias against the Hawks.

Hawthorn overcame this bias, along with the bitter blow of losing Shaun Burgoyne to a hamstring injury at quarter time. The coaching genius of Alastair Clarkson was on display, with his spot on tactics successful at negating Geelong’s revered strengths and exploiting their notable weaknesses.

Much of the media hype leading into this clash revolved around Geelong’s star midfield trio of Gary Ablett Jnr, Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood. Clarkson controlled the trio for most of the game and they only rose to be a factor in the last quarter. Whilst he allowed these players to have uncontested disposals in neutral areas of the ground, he limited them in more attacking areas. The main factor in the victory was the Hawks duo of Tom Mitchell and Ben McEvoy. Both players were decisive four quarter performers, with Mitchell again racking up the stats and McEvoy dominating in the ruck.

Hawthorn’s attack was brutal with its small forwards taking advantage of the inexperienced Geelong defenders. The Hawks’ transition into attack was highlighted by the gut running of Isaac Smith and Ricky Henderson. Geelong’s backmen were pushed wide and continuously stifled by Hawthorn’s ruthless forward press which limited the Cats’ rebound and transition into attack. Showing promise for the rest of the season, Jarryd Roughead was pivotal in the victory after a slow start last week, scoring two key last quarter goals and the match winning point.

Player Ratings:

Tom Mitchell-9.5– The ball magnet had everyone leaving the ground questioning who Ablett Jnr, Dangerfield and Selwood are, with him being the most destructive midfielder on the ground. He must be an early favourite for the Brownlow.

Ben McEvoy-9– Dominated in the ruck and challenged Mitchell for best on ground honours.

Jarman Impey- 8.5– He showed aspects of two of the best and most lauded small forwards in recent times: Chad Wingard (from his time at Port Adelaide) and Cyril Rioli (who he now plays alongside at Hawthorn). Impey was elusive and dangerous anytime he was near the ball and very effective when in possession.

Isaac Smith- 8– Was a key figure with the support he provided to the attack. His transitioning was a huge factor and he finished with 2 goals.

Ricky Henderson-8– A like for like game to Isaac Smith’s performance.

Liam Shiels- 7– Kicked a great goal early in the game, but did very little afterwards from an attacking sense. Having said that, he was relentless throughout as a defensive midfielder with his tackling, pressure acts and blocking for team mates at stoppages.

Jarryd Roughead-7– Ineffective early on, but his mark whilst running back was huge from a confidence standpoint and was a big factor in turning around his game. It led to a key turnover and assisted in a goal soon after and a very good last quarter with two key goals.

Ben Stratton – 7– Played on Dangerfield and Ablett Jnr when they were forward and was typically dynamic as a marker. He was also effective in assuming the Luke Hodge role of marshalling the defence.

Cyril Rioli- 7– His typical pressure acts and cleverness affected the Geelong defenders, limiting their decision making and skill execution.

Jack Gunston-7- Always effective with his cleverness forward.

Paul Puopolo- 6– Played his role as a very effective defensive forward.

Blake Hardwick- 6– He adequately played his role as a small defender.

Jaeger O’Meara – 6– Was only OK in the midfield and failed to be a factor late when the game was under threat.

Daniel Howe- 6– Very like Shiels’ game as a very effective defensive midfielder but his skill execution let him down. He kicked a key goal late in the game.

Taylor Duryea- 5.5– He played as a rebounding backman and improved on last week. He was prominent on the rebound and transitioning into attack in the third quarter.

Ryan Burton-5– Played as a backman and was rather disappointing, considering many thought he would rise to stardom in 2018 and beyond after being robbed of the Norwich Rising Star award last year.

Kaiden Brand –5– Played well on Hawkins and held him, supported by the players up the field limiting the big Cats players’ opportunities.

Tim O’Brien- 4– Played on Menzel in defence and was ok but got shifted to attack late when Menzel started to become a factor.

Luke Breust- 4– Needed to do more than he did.

James Sicily-3– Undisciplined play early on, with a key 50 metre penalty paid against him and a few key errors throughout. The young starlet will dust himself off and rise to prominence again

Ryan Shoenmakers –2– Did he play? There was a possible sighting of him during the third quarter when his hesitation cost the Hawks a goal when he should have gone straight away.

Shaun Burgoyne –(no rating due to injury)- Played as a deep forward early on but did his hammy before quarter time.

Today was a good confidence booster for the young Hawks team heading into next week’s game against the reigning premiers. Let’s hope Shaun Burgoyne’s hamstring injury isn’t too serious.

View from the Outer, Round 1, Hawthorn versus Collingwood

“Efficient” is the perfect word to describe Hawthorn’s disposal of a rather dismal Collingwood outfit. The Hawks played disciplined football with the strength of their structures and their rabid pressure the highlights of the 34 point win.

The Hawks’ defence was solidified by returning incumbents James Frawley and Ben Stratton, who were the fulcrums for everything. At times the Pies found it impossible to break through and score. The Hawks were then brilliant in transition. Frawley was impassable at full back, locking down on the Pies’ big forwards and Stratton was very capable at filling the Luke Hodge role in defence as a marshal. He organised the defensive aspect while facilitating the rebound with his adept positioning of the individual defenders. James Sicily was once more very impressive in the zone off role as the free man in defence, where his reading of play and intercept marking was a standout.

It made the transition so effective, allowing the forward line to be very impressive. The re-jigged forward line was built around the footy smarts of Shaun Burgoyne and Jack Gunston. Both were pivotal in cleverly setting everything up and were well supported by all the other forwards playing their roles. It was pleasing to see Paul Puopolo go back to his hunger for the crucial one percenters as opposed to his dabbling with the sexiness of flying for speccies.

The only concern regarding the forward line was the absence of a contested marking option but it rarely became a factor with how the attack was structured and the reliance on the transitional nature of scoring.

In the midfield, the Hawks’ faithful got their first glimpse of the dynamic duo of Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara. Mitchell ran around free, racking up an astounding 54 disposals, breaking the VFL/AFL record. Mitchell carried many other players on his back by involving them in the play and O’Meara dazzled early with his ball winning and provided several glimpses of his genius from the past.

Player Ratings

Best on Ground: Tom Mitchell-9.94 (Bradmanesque) – The worst case of leather poisoning in the game’s history with an outrageous 54 disposals, which is an AFL/VFL record.

2nd best, Shaun Burgoyne-9– He was instrumental early on with his goals and all round footy smarts and was a fire starter all match in the forward half.

3rd best, Ben Stratton-8.5– Was excellent. He anchored deep and was back to his reliable self as one of the game’s best defenders. He also organised the defensive structures as a defacto general.

Jack Gunston-8- So clever forward with everything he did being so decisive.

Jaeger O’Meara-7.5-Very good early with his ball winning, burst speed and spread, but faded late.

James Sicily-7.5- Really effective once more in the zone off role as the free man in defence with his reading of play and intercept marking a stand out.

Luke Breust-7.5- Always dangerous due to his high IQ as an instinctive small forward and ended up with 4 goals.

Paul Puopolo-7.5- Not as flashy as in the recent past, but back to playing in a style that is reminiscent of his best, when he was one of the top defensive forwards in the game.

James Frawley-7- The old style key backman was typically efficient. The only downside of his game was his kicking, the ball often being slow to get to team mates. It was accurate but not piercing, allowing possible turnovers.

Ben McEvoy-7- Big hearted as always in the ruck.

Isaac Smith-7- Typical display with his relentless running and drifting in transition to be dangerous forward.

Tim O’Brien-6- Played as a key defender on Reid and started slowly but got better as the game went on. From a structural sense this allowed Ryan Burton to be played more off the flank in a rebounding role.

Blake Hardwick-6- Competently played his role in defence.

Ryan Burton-6- Played more as a rebounding flanker with O’Brien taking his key back role from last year. Sadly injured in 2nd quarter.

Ricky Henderson-6- Played outside and was great drifting forward in transition where he kicked two goals.

Cyril Rioli-5- Looked under done, but his presence always created panic.

Jarryd Roughead-4- Played a fairly average game but failed to grab the marking opportunities he had playing forward.

Jarman Impey-4-He seemed nervous in his first game but got better after half time.

Liam Shiels-4- Largely quiet in his customary role as a defensive midfielder.

Daniel Howe-4-His kicking was pretty average in his role in the midfield.

Taylor Duryea-2- Played as a utility/defence and was largely ineffective. Duryea seems to lack the spatial awareness of what is directly around him which leads to errors.

Ryan Schoenmakers-2- Played largely forward and despite kicking one goal, was ineffective.

There’s a lot to like about this new look Hawthorn team. Bring on the Cats on Easter Monday!

Memo to Clarko: Roll out the ‘Paddock’ for the Pies

Throughout Alastair Clarkson’s tenure as Hawthorn coach he has embraced the ‘Pagan’s Paddock’ tactic in various stages and in various forms. This came to fame during Wayne Carey’s era at North Melbourne in the late 1990’s where the coach of the time, Denis Pagan would clear out the attacking forward 50 to give the man known as ‘The King’ sole ownership to wreak havoc.

The season opener for the Hawks against Collingwood next Saturday night is the perfect opportunity for Clarkson to revisit this. Although the Pies often win plenty of possessions, they rarely use them to advantage and worse, they frequently butcher them. This gives rise to a new sentiment, that sometimes having the opposition in possession can actually be an advantage, due to the likelihood of them turning it over and getting killed on the rebound. The Hawks can exploit Collingwood’s weakness in this regard, by structuring to apply pressure on the Pies’ forward line when their midfielders win possession.

I would choose the following 22 players and structure:

B: James Frawley, Ben Stratton

Free: James Sicily

HB: Ryan Burton, Conor Glass, Blake Hardwick, Shaun Burgoyne,

W: Isaac Smith, Tom Mitchell, Liam Shiels

HF: Jarman Impey, Jack Gunston, Luke Breust, Paul Puopolo

FF: Cyril Rioli

R: Ben McEvoy, Jarryd Roughead, Jaeger O’Meara

Int: Daniel Howe, James Cousins, Kieran Lovell, Tim O’Brien.

The Defence

This is 7 players strong, highlighted by a free man and anchored by two markers in lock down roles; James Frawley on the tallest forward and Ben Stratton matched up on the most dangerous small or midsized attacker. James Sicily should float in the crucial zone off role to support the two lock down defenders with spoiling and intercept marking as well as commanding the rebound, acting as the first link in the chain. The other 4 defenders should sit high in defence between the 50 arc and centre square, responsible for their direct forward but getting on their bikes when the team is in possession, to set the rebound alight and to punish the Pies in transition.

I was torn over whether to play Burgoyne in attack, where he was very impressive against the Blues in the last JLT game. The other standout from that game was that the predominantly young defence lacked marshalling from a wise head, which makes me think it is wiser to use Burgoyne in this role at half back.

The Midfield

Playing Jarryd Roughead in the ruck rover position will no doubt raise some eyebrows. My reasoning behind this choice is to capitalise on his size to help facilitate clearances for his smaller team mates as well as utilise his own dexterity in winning the ball in the clinches. He can also be rotated in the midfield and float high in attack.

The temptation is to assign a defensive role to Howe in the midfield. In most games against Collingwood, Clarkson sits someone on Steele Sidebottom, but I would be more inclined to mark Scott Pendlebury, who is the most dangerous entity in the Pies’ engine room. I would resist this and instead go head to head in the midfield by backing the likes of Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara to hold sway whilst using Howe as part of the rotations off the bench. The naming of young midfielders James Cousins and Kieran Lovell, who was prolific in Box Hill’s practice match at Casey Fields against the Casey Demons on Saturday, pays respect to the Pies’ noted midfield strength by reinforcing the rotations.

The Forward Line

The 5 man forward setup is inextricably linked with the defence due to the half forward line operating in high roles to flood into defence when the opposition is attacking and then aid in transition. Jack Gunston is highly capable in a roaming role into defence and at linking in transition, where he gets lost floating into attack. Impey is a blitzing presence that can break through the likely defensive press with his pace. Both Puopolo and Breust are clever at getting out the back and in close to goal in the ‘Paddock’ structure.

I would sit Rioli deep in the ‘Paddock’.

The forward attacking setup is predominantly small to negate the Pies’ strength in the key defensive posts, such as Collingwood’s Jeremy Howe, who is a strong player, noted for his skill at intercept marking and limiting of opposition attacks. If the Hawks play to the tactics inherent in this structure, it negates the effect of defenders such as Howe, for they have no matchups as well as being stifled by the ensuing chaos.

Lastly, I would select Tim O’Brien in the 22 as the second ruck and as a contested marking threat when forward.

Jarman Impey: Can he rise to A-grade status?

There is little debate over Alastair Clarkson’s standing in the game as a vindicated genius. He is almost universally viewed as one of the best coaches in the game’s history. There are many aspects which set him apart from other coaches. One of his strongest talents is his ability to identify certain attributes of opposition players, target them with a role in mind and turn them into stars.

This was exemplified by his recruitment of Brent Guerra, who had been a frustrating player at two different clubs prior to joining Hawthorn where he excelled in a key role as a defensive rebounder off half back. Likewise, the transformation of Josh Gibson after his recruitment from North Melbourne was immense. The big-hearted, undersized back man became a key component in the Hawks’ juggernaut. He was named All Australian and won two Peter Crimmins medals in premiership years after being cast in the zone off role, free in defence. Another player Clarkson recruited from North Melbourne was David Hale. He became another important player in Alastair Clarkson’s game plan as a very clever 2nd ruck and resting forward and despite being relatively underwhelming at the Kangaroos, he became well regarded for having a huge impact in big games during his career at Hawthorn.

If the following quotes are anything to go on, it seems Clarkson has similar intentions for Jarman Impey, who the Hawks recently acquired in a trade from Port Adelaide.

“We recognise he’s got some significant strength around his speed and raw power and we want to see that in the forward line, midfield and when we need it, in the back end.’

“If he gets that exposure, confidence in himself, belief and impact in the manner we’d like, then he can become an A-grade player for us.”

The latter part of the first quote hints at a reluctance towards using Impey in the back half and instead indicates Clarkson’s intention to fully utilise him in the crucial middle part of the ground. His jet heels could be potentially devastating, in bursts, as an attacking force, in breaking the lines through the forward presses from oppositions, to aid in transition into attack. This would be similar to the role played by Cyril Rioli throughout his glittering career, as a burst presence in the midfield to complement his forward role. Rioli would then use his precocious ‘x-factor’ to help facilitate the rebound from defence into attack (see attached video below) and it is hoped that Impey would follow suit. It was no coincidence that the absence of Rioli for large parts of 2017, not just as a forward, but in this crucial midfield role, was key in the demise of Hawthorn’s once vaunted forward line. This deprived the team of this ‘x-factor’ element and the corresponding unpredictability of its forward half entries. It was little wonder the Hawks recruited Impey. I am sure, also, that he would be able to offer support to Rioli after his recent injury concerns and his father’s ill health.

As with all preconceived roles, they are only made valid when others facilitate them by performing their own duties. Conor Glass could fill one such role if he could seal a position off half back where the temptation would be to use Impey due to his pace and line breaking ability. With the inclusion of Blake Hardwick as a small defender and James Sicily in the same zone off role that garnered universal acclaim for Josh Gibson, the team’s defensive rebound would be reinforced, after being a notable weakness early in the 2017 season. These players should aid Conor Glass in succeeding in the half back role. Hardwick is a skilled rebounder with long decisive kicking and whilst Sicily is a more cavalier defender, he has the elite foot skills and associated daring to nail many scything kicks that remind me of Matthew Suckling. Glass, with the blitzing pace he offers and courage to take on the game, would be the final puzzle piece needed to make the defensive rebound lethal due to its eclectic nature.

If the club implemented the above plan, this would allow Impey to be used in a more offensive manner. This could then give Impey the chance to rise to A-grade status, as boldly predicted by Alastair Clarkson.

Roughead’s captaincy: Shades of the Friar

One of my earliest introductions to Hawthorn’s ‘family club’ culture was back in the late 1970’s at a primary school in Dandenong West. A young kid, wearing a long sleeved jumper and holding a football, was standing in the middle of the school playground, oblivious to the other children enjoying their lunch break around him, transfixed by a plumber who was working in the nearby school hall. The plumber completed his task and came out, smiled at the kid and offered him a handshake. The boy passed his football to the plumber, together with a biro and asked him to sign it and his jumper which adorned the number 17. That boy was my son and that plumber was Michael Tuck.

It soon dawned on the other children who this man was and it wasn’t long before ‘Tucky’ was leading a fast growing mass of kids to the school oval where he played kick to kick, gave tips and happily signed autographs for everyone. When the bell sounded to end lunch, all the kids pleaded, “Kick a torp, Tucky, kick a torp…” The man known as ‘Friar’ duly obliged, seeing the Ross Faulkner traverse the whole oval and nearly lob into the ‘fish and greasy’ shop across the road.

Such acts as this one embodied Tucky’s endearing charm and led him to become one of the game’s most beloved figures on and off the field, with a legendary career that included over 400 games and an amazing 7 premierships (4 of these as captain).

Almost 30 years on and Jarryd Roughead – another sincere and shy country lad landed at the same club. The similarities between Roughead and Tuck do not end with their personas. Tuck rose to prominence, becoming one of the best players in the game. He began as a tough and skilled ruck rover in the mid 1970’s and then showed his talent and calibre as a player by operating in many roles, including as a very effective undersized centre half forward during the early 1980’s. In his later years Tuck was a proactive midfield tagger and a very clever rebounder off half back.

Roughead was recruited at number 2 during the 2004 national draft as the quintessential big key forward at Hawthorn. He achieved great success in this role, kicking 529 goals from only 253 games and in 6 of his 13 seasons at the Hawks he has scored an impressive 50 goals or more. He was the king pin of Hawthorn’s forward line due to his multifaceted nature which saw him just as capable of taking big pack marks as excelling at ground level. Before being struck by an achilles injury in 2011, he was also succeeding at playing a 2nd ruck role, which he approached in old style ruck rover manner. I have no doubt that this was the inspiration for playing undersized types as 2nd rucks, which seems to be all the rage in today’s game. After Roughead’s return from injury, Hawthorn’s genius coach Alastair Clarkson employed him more regularly in bursts in the midfield. This move boosted the Hawks’ midfield, with Roughead impressive in both clearances and smashing lanes for his smaller teammates to operate and excel in. He was also deadly dangerous drifting into attack in transition, due to his impressive tank. One only has to watch the later stages of the epic preliminary final in 2015 against Fremantle in Perth to witness Roughead’s immense effect in this role.

The cruel hands of fate also link the two players, with Tuck suffering an eye injury in 1985 with a detached retina and Roughead being diagnosed with melanoma early in 2016.  Both instances ripped at the heartstrings of the faithful, people selfishly feared they would never see these beloved figures on the field again and more selfless thoughts centred around the long term wellbeing of both. Roughead’s plight also brought back the raw emotions of Peter Crimmins’ death from cancer in 1976, an event that devastated all at the time and still lingers in the minds of many old time Hawks fans.

Both Tuck and Roughead prevailed to play again but there was some shadow of doubt surrounding whether they could recapture their former glory, especially considering that both were in their 30’s. The club showed the ultimate faith in both players, giving them the captaincy role; Tuck after Leigh Matthews retired after 1985 and Roughead after Luke Hodge relinquished the role in 2017. Tuck took to this role like a duck to water, supported by many great onfield leaders such as Gary Ayres, Chris Langford, Russell Greene, Jason Dunstall, John Platten, Robert Dipierdomenico, Dermott Brereton amongst others. During Tuck’s 6 year tenure as captain, between 1986 and 1991, the club won 4 flags.
Image result for michael tuck and jarryd roughead hawthorn
With the club being in a period of transition after a long period of glory, the circumstances in the infancy of Roughead’s leadership have not been so kind. Despite Liam Shiels and Isaac Smith being named as Vice Captains, both of these deputies for Roughead were new to this role. This lack of leadership experience was further compounded by club legends Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis leaving the club, denying Roughead and the entire team of their leadership skills and immense onfield support.  Other respected onfield leaders Ben Stratton and Grant Birchall also went missing due to injury for large chunks of 2017.  As we look towards the 2018 season, the departure of Josh Gibson and most importantly, the ‘General’, Luke Hodge will add further pressure to Roughead as the team’s skipper.

This raises the question of whether or not Roughead has it in him to rise to the challenge. This was brought into focus during the 2017 season, as some wondered whether it was wise to entrust him with the captaincy role after nearly 18 months out of the game, especially when things were so in flux. Maybe it would have been better to acclimate him back into the game’s new demands before bestowing the added pressure of leading a team that is in transition whilst lacking the support of many of its leaders. His appointment as captain seems to have had a negative effect on his presence on the field as a player, an issue which looms large for the Hawks’ prospects in the upcoming season.

The irony of this situation is that both problems could be possibly remedied in a ‘kill two birds with one stone’ action. The game has shifted away from a focus on big forwards and embraced smaller, defensive-minded, quick types supported by versatile mid-sized players, exemplified by Jack Riewoldt’s role in the Tigers’ flag last year. This is combined with the reverse in the midfield, with big bodied types all the rage. This scenario offers Hawthorn with the perfect blueprint as they could shift to playing Roughead full time in the guts in a 70/30 rotation between the midfield and forward line to enable him to rise again in prominence as a player as well as impress in his leadership role.

Let’s hope we can soon make another comparison to Michael Tuck with Roughead facing all the challenges set before him to ascend and garner respect as a great captain of the club.

AFL 2018:Hawthorn Season Preview

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.

Isaac Smith: was he Robin to Brad Hill’s Batman?

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?