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.

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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.

Could this player be Hawthorn’s surprise packet?

‘Reinvention’ is the key phrase coming out of Hawthorn lately. The current challenge directed at genius coach Alastair Clarkson is for him to try and rebuild a dynasty at the club that enjoyed a ‘three peat’ of flag success between 2013-15.

Hawthorn’s fall from grace came with a straight sets elimination from the 2016 finals, followed by an even worse performance last year, with the team missing the finals all together. The 2017 season was a tale of two halves. The first half was confronting for all concerned, with the club being consistently smashed. This period saw 4 wins and 8 losses, with an average losing margin of 47.62 points. Many individuals, whose reputations were garnered by their association with one of the best teams the game has ever seen, found themselves lacking. Lauded as heroes during the glory years, last year saw these players exposed as paper tigers during periods of struggle. The second half of the year brought a youth inspired renaissance which culminated in a 6 win, one draw and three loss end to the season. It warmed the cockles of all Hawk fans, heartened by the promise of a new age to help propel the team back up the ladder.

The youth who announced themselves in the second half of 2017 will be key to the team’s prospects in 2018. Players such as Ryan Burton, James Sicily, Blake Hardwick and Daniel Howe are justifiably viewed as being the team’s torchbearers to light up a new age.

One player who is not stealing many headlines, however, is James Cousins. The young midfielder was given a brief taste of senior level football in 2017 by playing three games. He would have played more if not for a season ending shoulder injury. Cousins was picked up in the 2017 rookie draft at pick 46. On the evidence of his brief foray into the big time, this is an outrageous steal. He displayed the qualities of a natural ball winner. He read the play well and positioned himself perfectly in the clinches to win the pill. Despite his lack of size, he excelled as an in and under beast. He also showed real dexterity in tight with the associated clearances, an aspect the team has been dismal at for a long time.

Cousins reminds me of two legendary past players – Sam Mitchell and Chance Bateman. The reference to Mitchell is because Cousins is an old style midfielder. He has the ability to kick with both feet, a skill which was on display during the inspiring win against Sydney last year. In a pivotal moment, he turned onto his non-preferred left foot and snapped a goal. Remember, this is in an age where there is an obsession over low percentage check side kicks due to players being so inept on their non dominant leg. This was an aspect of the youngster’s game to hang one’s hat on.

The ability to find space to operate in is a huge factor in becoming a well regarded midfielder and this is helped by being able to turn on either foot and execute adequately. In an age where more bodies are around the contest to limit quick and effective clearances, this skill makes a big difference. It is easy for a tagger to corral and limit a midfielder if it is known that they only have one trusted side to kick on. The unpredictability of being ambidextrous opens a 360 degree scope to operate in.

Cousins also has the qualities of an outside mid, reminiscent of Chance Bateman. ‘Changa’ was able to win the tough contested ball in the clinches along with scything the lines on the outside. The team has been desperate to replace Bateman’s skill set since his retirement in 2012. Jono O’Rourke was touted as a potential replacement after being picked up in a trade prior to the 2015 season. Unfortunately O’Rourke has not yet lived up to his potential due to his fragile body and his apparent lack of comfort at AFL level. Cousins, with his underrated pace, on the other hand, offers more certainty in this regard.

The prospect of Cousins developing into a multifaceted midfielder is an exciting one for Hawks supporters. The modern game is all about transitioning the ball through the crucial mid part of the ground. Cousins could be an important link between the inside and out. This offers a real ace up the sleeves of Hawthorn’s coaches, with him also being a crucial link between defence and into attack. His big tank offers the prospect of him running to position off the ball and helping the team break the lines whilst on the rebound. In the overlapping traffic he could also lose his opponent when running into attack which would add to the team’s scoring options.

When you factor in Cousin’s above average strength overhead and his ability to kick goals, it is easy to view Cousins as the likely surprise packet for Hawthorn.

Holt’s Heroes – The top 22 players I’ve witnessed playing for Hawthorn

Hot weather always skews one’s senses. Hence, given Melbourne’s recent high temperatures, I thought I would list my choice of the best ever 22 players for Hawthorn based on my 46 years of watching the club.

During this period, Hawthorn has won 12 premierships with many great players. This, in a sense, makes this a futile exercise, that will more likely be remarked upon more for who I leave out, rather than whom I include.

My chosen team is:

B: Burgoyne, Moore, Ayres

HB: Hodge (c), Langford, Knights

W: Geoff Ablett, Sam Mitchell, Dipper

HF: Buddy, Brereton, Buckenara

F: Dunstall, Hudson, Crimmins

R: Scott, Tuck, Matthews

Int: Platten, Rowlings, Crawford, Mew

BACK LINE

The choice of Shaun Burgoyne might surprise. In my mind he is one of the most complete players I have seen at the club. In the era in which he has played, swingmen have been all the rage and he is amongst the very best. Burgoyne doesn’t play in the typical key positions of both back and forward, but, rather, he can play on any line in both attacking and defensive roles.

The preference of Chris Langford over Chris Mew (once nicknamed “BP – the quiet achiever”) at CHB will most likely raise some eyebrows. Mew is in the Hawks team of the century at CHB and Langford’s reputation at full back was gained only after being shifted there in 1986. I selected Langford in the role due to his iconic duels from that era. The standout was against Carlton’s Stephen Kernahan who had touched up Mew in the 86 second semi only to have the tables turned when Langford was shifted from his customary FB position to CHB for the Grand Final. This game was the first of many epic tussles against Kernahan. My bias for Langford also stems from an incident during the ‘merger match’ against Melbourne in 1996. It was a pivotal time for Hawthorn as the club was being faced with extinction. By selecting Langford for my top 22, I wanted to pay homage to that memorable moment when he raised a Hawthorn jumper up to the crowd after this match. It was an iconic moment in our club’s history.

The rest of my choices are without question:

Kelvin Moore – he was one of the best full backs the game has ever seen. He was elite in his reading of the play and brilliant in the customary one on one duels from that era. He was a great spoiler and was equally adept at out-marking his direct opponent.

Gary Ayres – (aka ‘Conan’) was as tough as teak and huge as an on-field leader. Like Moore, he was a brilliant reader of the play. He was as slow as a wet week but still negated the many small forwards from the era. In a sense, they thought they were the fox, but Ayres was always the foxes tail. He was very capable in the midfield as his dominant display on the wing in the 1986 grand final showed. He won the Norm Smith Medal for his brilliant play on the wing, controlling David Rhys Jones’ influence as well as having a huge impact on the game. Ayres is one of the best big game performers I’ve seen play for the club.

Luke Hodge – Do I have to say anything?

Peter Knights – one of the most talented players I have seen. He was a star during his era at the club and I think if he was playing today he would have been an even bigger star. Knights had such athleticism he could have been cast as a big mid. As a half back he would have redefined the terms ‘intercept marking’ or ‘rebounding from defence’. Let’s all close our eyes and picture the amazing Peter Knights – jumping on a pack to mark, landing like a cat on his feet, then going on a blitzing run which culminates in him booming a goal. Ahhhh the memories.

I considered including many others, such as the aforementioned Chris Mew as well as David Parkin, David ‘Rubber’ O’Halloran (RIP), Josh Gibson, Grant Birchall and even Brent Guerra.

CENTRE LINE

The standout choice here is Geoff Ablett on the wing. During the period I have followed the Hawks, I view him as being hugely underrated. In the 70’s there were many great ‘wingers’. Ablett was the equal of any. His speed was what most focussed on but his skills were much more. He had a booming kick of real accuracy that was decisive in us winning two flags. I loved the ‘Racehorse’, and still have fond memories of his display during our tight loss in the 1974 preliminary final to ‘Norf’. That was one of the best individual finals performances I have seen for Hawthorn and I have seen a truckload.

Both Sam Mitchell and Robert Dipierdomenico require no explanation.

Of the players I left out, in truth, none really challenged. I considered playing Shane Crawford off the wing in place of Ablett but I couldn’t leave out Ablett. Three of those I omitted deserve a mention. The first is Darrin Pritchard who was a brilliant player off the wing in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. The second is Colin Robertson who was hugely underrated in the early 1980’s and lastly, Ben Allan, who I thought was elite. ‘Rocket’ Eade was also a brilliant wingman for the club.

FORWARD LINE

Most would deem picking a forward line for Hawthorn from players from the last 46 years as “mission impossible”.

In my mind this task is not all that difficult, with 5 certainties. The only selection that might raise eyebrows is selecting Peter Crimmins for the pocket. In my opinion, Crimmins’ tragic passing to cancer steals the focus from just how great he was as a player. He was brilliant as a rover and deadly dangerous when being rested in the forward line.

Of the rest: Peter Hudson and Jason Dunstall require no explanation for they are amongst the great full forwards the game has seen. I have no doubt Hudson would have kicked 200 in a season and 2,500 throughout his career if his knee hadn’t crumbled in the round 2 game against Melbourne in 1972.

The half forward line of Buddy Franklin, Dermott Brereton and Gary Buckenara would be arguably the best of all time. The only change I might have made would be to include Gary Ablett Senior in place of Buddy, due to the 6 games he played for the club in 1982.

There were no other players I gave serious consideration to for the forward line. A few deserve mention, such as Michael ‘Gladys’ Moncrieff, ‘Big Al’ Martello, ‘Bomber’ Hendrie, Bob Keddie, Cyril Rioli, and Darren Jarman. One name I would like to highlight is Mark Williams. I thought he was elite in a struggling team for most of his career. If he played more in the Hawk glory years he would have been lauded universally. His issues with knees also stifled his abilities. If not for this, he would have been a very fine outside midfield player with real pace and skill by foot, similar to Michael Long.

Of the recent bunch, I think Jack Gunston is the pick. He is truly an elite player with a style similar to James Hird. He could end his career and be as lauded for his on-field deeds.

RUCKS

Scott, Tuck, Matthews – One of the finest following divisions in the games’ history.

If I was to pick another ruckman, Greg Dear would be my choice. I thought he was a better player than he was ever given credit for.

Paul Salmon got in the Hawthorn team of the century but his past ties with Essendon eliminated him from consideration

INTERCHANGE

This was the toughest selection of all.

I had to choose Shane Crawford and John Platten. Many will ‘arc up’ about Platts not being selected in the 22. Whilst he is a truly great player, he wouldn’t get into my top 22 ahead of Lethal or Crimmo. Barry Rowlings’ selection will shock many. In fact many of the new breed of Hawk fans wouldn’t even know of his name. I rate him that highly that I even considered him before Sam Mitchell in the guts. As a midfielder he was before his time. He had great foot and hand skills and with a real tank who could run all day. His toughness was underrated. When his knee crumbled in 1978 and the Hawks thought he was cooked, allowing him to leave to Richmond, I seriously cried. He went on to be the Tigers’ captain and a member of their Hall of Fame.

With one last spot remaining on the pine, there were about 20 names racing through my head. I thought of Russell Greene, Cyril Rioli, Darren Jarman, Grant Birchall, Bob Keddie, Colin Robertson, Terry Wallace, Jordon Lewis, Jarryd Roughead and many more.

Though I left him out of the backline, it was a case of asking “which of your kids do you love the most?”, hence, Chris Mew is my last choice for the final 22.

Cyril Rioli – is he the most important player for Hawthorn in 2018?

The epic Hollywood classic “Jaws” comes to my mind when I think of Hawks star Cyril Rioli.

On the field his instinctual predatory nature has his potential prey feeling like they are on tenterhooks. He doesn’t need to be close by for his opponents to feel sweat on their brows as he circles and threatens to strike from anywhere, more often than not leaving them in his wake. He doesn’t have to be directly involved to be ‘involved’. His free spirited nature provides that certain x-factor that is rare in our game. When he is in possession, his exploits often leave us wide eyed and aghast in awe.

Cyril Rioli has been a stand-out amongst the great Hawthorn players of the last decade. His watershed moment came during the 2008 Grand Final where, as an 18 year old youth, he showed off his freakish abilities. During a pivotal stage of the match he found himself on the wing, up against three much bigger opposition players and through sheer desperation he outplayed all three opponents, rendering them ineffective. His second efforts that day provided goosebumps to all who bore witness. His team mates rose in the face of his inspirational performance. To rub salt into the wounds of his fallen prey, a free kick to Rioli ensued. This passage of play was, for many, the tipping point when they switched from thinking the seemingly invincible Geelong juggernaut would win, to believing the Hawks were about to pull off a miraculous upset, to rival any from Grand finals past.

In the aftermath, Rioli’s reputation was sealed as a truly unique player who can, in a moment of sublime magic, flip any contest on its ear. He is the quintessential freak who can see events unfold way ahead of all others with his reading of the play. His ability is akin to a snooker player who can see 6 or 7 shots ahead to facilitate a dazzling clearance.

His career has often attracted criticism for being ‘flashy’; for being the figurative cream when many dictate that he should be the cake. On face value this criticism has merit, however this shows little respect to the effect he has when not in direct play. The aforementioned reference to ‘Jaws’ is revisited here when you consider the deferred pressure he imposes on opposition players and how he completely muddles their senses and associated decision making. The ‘flashy’ jibe is fully negated by the fact that in just a few moments of magic, Rioli can make all the difference.

The effect of this on his team mates is profound. It is no coincidence that the team’s fall from grace throughout 2017, which culminated in them missing out on playing finals, was a season which saw Rioli play only 7 games. He was severely limited in those 7 games after enduring a knock to his knee during the round one match against Essendon. This unfortunately deprived him of his game changing pace and associated elusiveness. Hawthorn’s much vaunted forward line felt the brunt of his absence. The front half that had struck fear into opposition think tanks during its glory years became largely dysfunctional. Highlighting the depth of its struggles, the team averaged only 84.72 points per game in 2017, a stark contrast to the 114.68 points per game it averaged during its halcyon days of 2013.

Whilst many of Hawthorn’s list enjoyed star billing during their flag winning days, last season highlighted their shortcomings, with many of these players found wanting. The absence of Rioli and the pressure he takes off them was key. Rioli’s pure genius offers perfect shielding to the less skilled forwards due to opposition defenders gravitating to him. This not only applies to his direct marker, but other defenders zoning off in support, which in turn allows others to operate with less attention.

As a largely disapointing season drew to a close for Hawthorn, Rioli, already on the shelf due to his on-field injury, was impacted by adversity off the field. His father suffered issues with his heart which resulted in the club granting the star compassionate leave. His absence from the club has been lengthy, stretching into the New Year and much of early pre-season training. This has sent Hawks forums into meltdown with fans wondering when he will return, if ever, along with what shape he will be in when he eventually does.

You can understand the hysteria given the importance that Rioli represents to a team in transition. He could be the difference between the club making the 8 or not or, if everything clicks, perhaps even a top 4 contender. The revival of the forward line will largely define the team’s fate. Rioli will be a huge factor in this, whether stationed as a full time forward or during his bursts in the midfield where he can conjure up goal assists from seemingly nothing.

The salvo in the concern over Rioli’s prospects in 2018 is the fact he is the epitome of a natural footballer. He is one of those rare players who could miss a pre-season yet still have the ability to impact. He is a veteran with many preseasons under his belt, meaning he has a strong base of residual fitness to draw from. He is likely to start the season slowly but come home like a freight train. On top of this, the patience shown by the club has a greater meaning. In dealing with this matter they have exuded their motto of being ‘The Family Club’ and this ethos will not be lost on either Rioli or the rest of the group.

The time spent with his father in this time of need will strengthen his resolve and steel his focus. The Rioli family is almost synonymous with football, their proud family heritage linked to the sport for decades through Cyril’s uncle Maurice who dazzled for Richmond in the early 1980’s, Dean, Daniel, Michael Long and other family members. I can imagine Cyril’s father whispering in his ear, urging him to be a definitive factor in the Hawks’ rise up the ladder.

Fear not, fellow Hawk fans, I have no doubt that Rioli’s star will dazzle once more in 2018.

8 predictions for Hawthorn in 2018

Image result for hawthorn fc
It’s January 4th, I’m bored and hanging out for the football season to start. I thought I would peer into my crystal ball and make a few predictions for Hawthorn in 2018.

1) Conor Glass will be referred to as the next Dane Rampe
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Trends in the game have moved away from traditional forward set ups. Where teams would once play two or sometimes three big forwards, now set ups are based on having one big, mobile forward complemented by defensive-minded smalls with the role of creating second chance goals. These small forwards also apply defensive pressure which stifles the opposition’s ability to rebound. A logical response would be to play someone more mobile in the second key defensive role; a player who shows real pace on the rebound, much in the manner that Sydney has done with Dane Rampe. Glass showed dexterity in contested duels in the match against Carlton late last year when pitted against the much bigger Charlie Curnow. Add this to his jet propelled pace and underrated foot skills and he would be ideal.

2) Leadership will be the difference between playing finals and missing finals
Image result for luke hodge the general
The last two years have seen major changes at the club, particularly with the loss of on-field leaders. The absence of Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis was a huge factor in 2017. This coincided with a change in captaincy from the ‘General’ Luke Hodge to Jarryd Roughead (who was returning from an 18 month layoff due to a cancer battle) and the appointment of Isaac Smith and Liam Shiels as Vice Captains. The new leadership group was largely uninspiring throughout 2017 and at times was found lacking. It stood out that Hodge was still the prominent leadership figure on the ground. Now that he has left, his absence will now place a huge focus on the nominated leaders at the club as well as the youth who will be exposed to more pressure without Hodge’s shielding and guidance.

3) Grant Birchall will remind us all of his importance
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It is hard not to see a striking resemblance between Grant Birchall and the immortal Michael Tuck. Both are ‘evergreen’ performers who never play a bad game and who have a huge effect on their team mates through the pressure they take off them and their immense leadership qualities. Birchall’s absence for large parts of last year brought back memories of the effect Tuck’s absence had on the ‘85 season where he missed many games due to a detached retina. In fact, the club missed a real opportunity by not appointing Birchall as captain after Hodge relinquished the role. I have no doubt he would have also emulated Tuck in this regard.

4) James Sicily will struggle with the extra attention from oppositions
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Sicily put a real target on his back in 2017. He was a stand out in playing the role of loose man in defence with his high skills in intercept marking, finding space in traffic and kicking. It was no coincidence that the turnaround in the team’s fortunes coincided with him being played in the role that legend Josh Gibson was so prominent in before he was injured. Sicily was aided in this defensive role by Jack Gunston, who rode shot gun as the second loose man in defence. Playing Gunston in defence is unlikely to continue in 2018 due to the effect it had on the team’s fortunes in attack, which will likely bring greater focus on Sicily. The loss of Hodge’s organisational skills and calming influence in defence also looms large, particularly with questions over Sicily’s temperament which was there for all to see when he was marked tight and niggled late in the season against Carlton. These losses will be offset by the return of experienced defenders Grant Birchall, James Frawley and Ben Stratton, returning after missing large chunks of 2017. A huge season lies ahead for the new number 6 for Hawthorn and how he fares will be a large factor in how the team goes.

5) Kieran Lovell will be the club’s rising star in 2018

I love this young midfielder. His recruitment is in keeping with the club’s focus on natural footballers. Lovell just knows where to go to get the footy and is very capable in possession. His ability in tight complements his outside potential due to his pace. He is just what the midfield, that was at times lacking throughout 2017, needs. He can kick a goal as well!

6) Media headlines will focus on Jaeger O’Meara
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If I close my eyes I can picture the press headlines now. The first half of the season will have the press questioning Hawthorn’s wisdom in procuring O’Meara from the Suns in the costly trade deal that saw them offload draft picks to other clubs. Perhaps these news articles will compare O’Meara to players of the past who were heavily recruited at a high cost and struggled to live up to their price tag, such as John Pitura (recruited from South Melbourne to Richmond in 1975). The latter part of season 2018, however should see the headlines sprouting something like, “The second coming of Jaeger O’Meara” as I can see O’Meara starting the season slowly, but finishing it strong. He will no doubt rise to become one of the best in the AFL.

7) Speed will kill
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The club’s lack of speed on the outside was key to its struggles in 2017. The loss of Brad Hill after 2016 was a huge factor in this with the club investing faith in Billy Hartung to pick up the slack. The fact that Hartung is no longer at the club shows how well this went! The recruitment of Jarman Impey from Port Adelaide will help – but is it enough? I would suggest no, and it will be decisive in the club missing the finals once more in 2018.

8) Tom Lynch will announce that he wants to leave the Gold Coast Suns to join Hawthorn
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The rub here is Lynch is a restricted free agent after 2018. This allows the Gold Coast to match any contract offered to him from a rival club and force them into trading for him. You know they will do this for losing him is unfathomable and will be the final nail in the club’s coffin. Also, every club will want Lynch meaning the price tag will be HUGE. He would be the perfect fit for the Hawks but who would the Suns be willing to take in return and just as importantly, who would we be willing to offer?

Is the key to Ashes victory in the selection of the wicket keepers?

Australia’s wicket keeping woes going into the first Ashes test could be summed up by the cliché phrase ‘pick your poison.’

Should there be a show of faith in the underwhelming ability and all round incompetence of incumbent Matthew Wade or should we revert back to the man he replaced, Peter Nevill? Nevill is a player that has the skills with bat and gloves to be a very fine test performer but has been largely frustrating in the 17 games in which he has donned the Baggy Green. A batting average of 22.28 coupled with some foibles behind the stumps defines his performances. Nevill showed this in the first round of the Sheffield Shield. Most saw the Ashes position as his for the taking in the wake of Wade’s profound struggles only for Nevill to once more struggle with bat and stand out for a keeping howler.

Another option is investing in young South Australian Alex Carey who is a throwback to the past with his delightful glove work that is truly elite. Much of the aversion to investing in Carey is concerns over his batting. The potential in his batting is well touted but he is yet to perform to this potential in the Sheffield Shield where he only averages 24.54. This will be an irrelevant point if the selectors stay true to their controversial ‘horses for courses’ selection policy. The dominance of the Australian top five batsmen in home conditions where they all average near or well above 60 negates the reliance on the keeper to be a major factor with the blade. Hilton Cartwright, who is likely to be at 6 in the line up will add to the batting dominance of the team giving further weight to the inclusion of Carey. Cartwright has been dominating with bat at Sheffield Shield level with an average of 50.80. When you couple this with the noted weaknesses in the English batting and with the strength of the Australian bowling line up, the support for an astute gloveman would fit well within a ‘horses for courses’ policy.
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The batting ills of the English team raise an interesting prospect when looking at their keeping position. Jonny Bairstow is the current incumbent and is respected as one of the strongest parts of their line up. Much of the focus is on his batting because it gives such depth and versatility to the line up. The ability of Bairstow to shift through the gears from defensive gritty knocks to attacking counters would make him perfectly suited to be a permanent number 4 in the line up. To make this happen however, would be dependent on Bairstow giving up the gloves. The demands of being a wicketkeeper along with taking on greater responsibility by batting in the top order would be too much. It would also rely on English Captain Joe Root moving back to number three from the number four position he currently occupies. This move however would be seen internally as the ‘tail wagging the dog’ in the current English set up, as shown by Joe Root being averse to batting at three along with Bairstow following suit when it is suggested he give up the gloves.

Keeping things as they are though is not the optimal batting configuration of the team. This configuration is a prospective top 5 for the Ashes of Cook, Stoneham, Root, Bairstow and Stokes and would represent both class and solidity. The presence of Stokes is in question but there is little doubt that the cynics are right and his brush with the law will be made to ‘go away’ by the powers that be, allowing him to be part of England’s Ashes defence. This prospective top 5 would be a better choice than investing in speculative entities like James Vince, Gary Ballance and Dawid Malan. This line up could be further solidified at 6 if either young batting prodigy Dan Lawrence or Liam Livingstone are added to the Ashes squad from the English Lions Team.

The potential effect on the English batting is supported statistically by the recent example of the Sri Lankan great Kumar Sangakkara. He averaged 40.48 with bat as a full time keeper compared to 66.78 as a specialist batsman. Brendan McCullum from New Zealand also showed improved output in his batting going from averaging 34.18 when keeping to 42.94 as a specialist batsman. Both saw a distinct improvement in their batting when freed of the mental and physical demands of keeping.

The presence of Ben Foakes in the squad not only supports the move but begs the question of why it hasn’t been done already. Foakes was recently referred to as the ‘best wicketkeeper in the world’ by English great Alec Stewart. It seems absurd not to fully utilise this. The inclusion of Foakes would provide the same added support to the English bowling attack as has been touched on when touting Alex Carey for a role in the Australian team. Foakes’ glovework would turn half chances into dismissals with his profound skills. His batting is also of a high calibre as shown by his average in English County cricket of 41.84. The move would add further depth to the batting while facilitating Bairstow to be the answer to the batting ills in England’s top 5.
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A simple re-jigging of the English line up could greatly enhance their chances of retaining the cherished urn.