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.

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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?

View from the Outer, JLT, Hawthorn versus Western Bulldogs

Ultimately, this was a preseason game with the main objective to avoid injuries, but here are the observations;

-The Hawks structured by sitting deep in defence with no zone off man in a more traditional 6 on 6 marking set up.

-In transition, they relied on a Pagan Paddock set up into attack with the big forwards leading up high and the smalls flowing through in transition to try to get out the back and in behind on the goal.

-The forward press was prominent with many flooding into the forward 50 to create second-chance goals from the contested stoppages.

-They were consistently killed out of the middle and were shoddy in the around the ground clearance work. Marcus Bontempelli for the Scrays was a class above all in this regard.

-The lack of outside run was once more prominent. They tried to dissect more by hand to bypass the lack of real pace which was divergent from the chipping around and uncontested style of previous glories.

– There was an attempt to maintain a ‘narrow’ field by trying to limit the outside aspect of the game but they often got trapped in the Scrays forward press out of defence and out the back in transition. A real gut runner with pace in Jason Johannisson was prominent with his blitzing two way running in exploiting this aspect.

The individual player summations;

Ben Stratton,- I am being anal but his new hairstyle reminded me of the early 00’s before Clarko when our players were more known for attempting to look good on the ground. I love Stratton but he seems to have brought more into hype in recent times.

Tim O’Brien,- In defence and found out a few times early. He was persisted with during the 2nd half and looked better but taking him away from the leading forward and 2nd ruck role from last year was a curious move. This can be dismissed as maybe tinkering to add strings to players bows as often is the case in scratch games

Shaun Burgoyne– Silk is fine wine who gets better with age. His footy IQ and reading of the play is comparable to any in the modern era

Blake Hardwick– Hardwick was solid in his characteristic small back role.

James Sicily,-He was very clever at times but not as decisive due to not being afforded the free role. It stood out the Scrays playing attacking options on him and going through them. It brought back memories of teams making Gibson accountable and putting work into him. The Scrays didn’t really get fully into Sicily with niggle but this will come in the more serious games.

Ryan Burton-Burton was smart in the contest both in the marking duels and at the fall of the ball on the ground against all forwards.

Isaac Smith– Played more inside, primarily in the square for ball-ups. His coverage of the ground is elite but didn’t really impress.

Liam Shiels-Useful as he always is, but never quite having enough impact that the team needs him to have to reinforce the threat in their midfield.

Ricky Henderson-Non descript

Luke Breust– He was better in the contest and it stood out that his work rate was back. This was sadly lacking in 2017 with him standing out for his many cheapies out the back.

Ryan Schoenmakers– He was great in contests, but not able enough in marking duels where he often had a perfect position but couldn’t seal the deal. It was interesting that he had forays as a second ruck.

Jarman Impey– Great pace but the final product was often lacking but overall a fine first outing

Paul Puopolo– Didn’t offer much and must be in doubt for a place in the team for round 1.

Jarryd Roughead-Played as a high forward zoning back in transition with bursts in mids in the first half. In the second operated deeper forward and looked good in offering a big option.

Jack Gunston-He was so in the James Hird role just drifting free all over.

Ben McEvoy–  It was obvious the coaching panel view him as a crucial part of the upcoming season and looked after him in this match.

Tom Mitchell-He was prolific as always.

Jaeger O’Meara– Good early coverage and resting as a lead up forward and looked much freer in his movements to cover the ground. Great promise for a return to prominence in 2018 and beyond

Marc Pittonet– Lumbering, and it is obvious he is a fair way off

Brendan Whitecross- Played in the guts early and after plugged gaps. He was honest as always but adds to the debate over the many fringe players at the club

Daniel Howe. Very solid and stood out for a passage in the second where he showed the plums to switch back into the centre passage when deep in defence and executed perfectly.

Taylor Duryea– Returned to the backline, and like Whitecross was honest but gave little credence to being a certainty in the 22 for Round 1

Oliver Hanrahan-Good goal in the 2nd and involved himself well in the play

David Mirra– A brief foray in the last.

Harry Morrison– Like Mirra, played in the last when the heat was out of the game.

The keys to Hawthorn’s 2018 success

The Alastair Clarkson era at Hawthorn has predominantly seen pre-season games used as an opportunity to give youngsters a taste of the action and to put adequate conditioning into established incumbents. The team’s success in recent years, with long and arduous finals campaigns culminating in 4 flags, has ultimately dictated the handling of the club’s players in the following year’s pre-season matches.

The lead into the 2018 season is vastly different from that of previous years, with the team having plenty of recovery time after missing out on the finals in 2017. This additional period of rest and recuperation in-between seasons has afforded the club the necessary time to allow some players to be sent for early surgical treatment. It has also provided the club’s think tank the extra time needed to dissect the struggles of 2017 and plan for a revival in 2018.

The first glimpse of a renaissance will be seen on Saturday as the Hawks take on the ‘Scrays’. The associated storylines as a result of this match are likely to be compelling.

1. The team’s structure

The second part of 2017 saw Hawthorn adopt an 8/4 structure between its defence and attack. This was in response to the team struggling with defensive rebound in the early part of 2017. It saw both James Sicily and Jack Gunston employed as zone off backmen to assist the defence and facilitate the team’s rebound. This was largely successful but the trade-off was that the forward line became a shadow of its formidable former self. It missed the presence of Gunston along with predominantly relying on transition goals in a ‘Pagan Paddock’ type forward set up. With the ball trapped in the forward line, due to three of the forwards playing a defensive role, the team relied heavily upon the creation of second chance goals. A well-marshalled forward press, with numbers flooded in to limit oppositions’ rebound, supported this. The season’s early rounds saw the club sliced to ribbons with the rebound and on the associated spread on the outside which compelled this change.

1a. Will the club adopt a more traditional set up with 6 backs and forwards in 2018?

The greater likelihood is a 7/5 set up between defence and attack with James Sicily cast more in the Josh Gibson zone-off role that was so prominent during the club’s glory years. As part of a re-jigged 7 man backline, I can see them rotating him with Grant Birchall and Jack Gunston in a roundabout between marking and zoning off as free men to limit oppositions’ marking the free man in defence.

The 5 man forward set up will be heavily reliant on Cyril Rioli returning to his former glory. He is the complete package, in a predatory sense, between playing both an attacking and defensive role. Rioli’s return to fitness will provide shielding to Luke Breust, who was largely disappointing throughout 2017, and will allow him to once again be the attacking threat he has been in the past. Tim O’Brien and Jarryd Roughead will most likely rotate in the midfield. Roughead can use his big frame to win clearances and smash open lanes for his fellow mids to operate in and I can see O’Brien playing well in the 2nd ruck role which he showed real potential in during 2017.

The choice of defensive forwards will be intriguing. Paul Puopolo is perhaps the obvious choice but his struggles in recent seasons must have his position in doubt. Jarman Impey needs to earn his stripes but if he lights it up in the 2 JLT games he is likely to usurp Puopolo. Ryan Schoenmakers, despite all his detractors, is very capable at playing in the defensive forward role, where he limits the oppositions’ dangerous rebounding big backmen and punishes their lack of respect with his ‘dead eye dick’ kicking for goal.

2. The Gunston role

As previously alluded to, Jack Gunston is a brilliant forward who is so difficult to match on because of his tank and his multi faceted nature. He can play as a marking forward and as a dangerous midsized type, capable both on the ground and at kicking goals in transition. His move to the backline in the latter parts of 2017 to run shot gun for the developing James Sicily highlighted his high footy IQ. He was definitive in this role with his impressive ability to read the play, usurp opposition attacks and then set the team alight in transition. The class and versatility he showed was very reminiscent of James Hird in his prime. Like Hird, Gunston could even play in the midfield, such is his eclectic class.

2a. Now that Hodge has left, should Gunston be the new general of the defence, in a quarterback role, or resume his role as the forward lines’ focal point?

Alastair Clarkson has always maintained that defence is the ultimate means of attack which means we will likely see Gunston retain his 2017 role as a rotating zone-off extra in defence. Regardless of his position, Gunston looms as Hawthorn’s most crucial player.

3. The ruck set up

The combination of Ben McEvoy as the main ruck supported by Tim O’Brien in the second ruck role worked well in 2017. The return to fitness of Jonathan Ceglar, along with Tim O’Brien not fully cementing his place in the 22 makes this department an interesting point of discussion.

It is unlikely the club will play two genuine rucks as this would leave the team open to exploitation in the crucial mid part of the ground. If O’Brien finally delivers on his obvious potential, McEvoy will be free to continue on as arguably the games most effective ruck. His around the ground play is of such a high calibre, it brings back memories of Jim Stynes. McEvoy also plays a crucial role in the team’s structure with his ability to reinforce the team’s forward press by adopting a modern adaptation of ‘a kick behind play’ by stationing himself behind the press. He expertly limits the oppositions’ exit points and supports the team’s scoring by choosing the perfect moment to offer a goal scoring option in the forward 50.

Whether this strength in the team is maintained will depend a lot on O’Brien keeping up his end of the bargain. If he doesn’t, he will most likely be dropped and there will be pressure on the Hawks to find another versatile player who can play in the second ruck role.

4. The teams’ exploitable soft underbelly

The top end talent of the club is comparable to any in the AFL. The Hawks’ struggles in the latter parts of 2016 and early parts of 2017 were largely due to the drop off in their middle and lower ranked players. The evenness in the competition means that a consistency of talent amongst a team’s 22 players can be the difference between playing or missing out on finals.

If I had to single out one key factor to Hawthorn’s revival in 2018, it would be its youngsters. The team’s less experienced players must rise to the challenge and cement their place in the top 22. There are too many fringe players who are given their chance to shine, yet fail to impress. These types are drains rather than sprinklers for the teams’ prospects.

The likes of Ryan Burton, James Sicily, Daniel Howe and Blake Hardwick have already reinforced the quality of the Hawks’ outfit, but success in 2018 is dependent on the performance of players such as James Cousins, Kieran Lovell, Conor Glass, Conor Nash and Harry Morrison. Do not discount Kurt Heatherley from surprising us all in the upcoming games in a new role that the genius Clarko has planned for him.

5. Quick Q&A:

• Will we see the best of Jaeger O’Meara?

If O’Meara remains injury free he will finish top five in the club’s Best & Fairest and be ranked in the AFL’s top 20.

• Where will Ryan Burton play and will this be his first step to being amongst the best in the AFL?

The answer is anywhere and everywhere; he is a silken version of Nat Fyfe.

• Will the team once more struggle with outside run and how has it been addressed between seasons?

I have huge doubts over this and as I watched Adam Saad’s initial impressive display in this regard for Essendon I wondered again why we didn’t pursue him in a trade.

• How will the team cope without the presence and leadership of Hodge?

A lot will depend on Birchall’s return to full fitness. If he does, he could assume the void left by Hodge.

• How rabid will the cult following of David Mirra become?

I’m predicting the fervour over Mirra to be Matt Spangher-like.