Has men’s tennis become boring?

‘Boring’ is a term that I never thought I would associate with men’s grand slam tennis, but that was my overwhelming reaction to watching this year’s US Open, one that saw Rafael Nadal prevail in a straight sets surgical dissection of South African Kevin Anderson.

The victory was yet another example of the renaissance of tennis’ ageing icons. Incredibly, in recent times Roger Federer and Nadal have split the four grand slams between them. The unexpected success of the beloved duo has set social media ablaze with rejoicing. Amidst this adulation, debate has again raged over who is considered the greatest player of all time with Nadal’s 16 grand slam victories three shy of Federer’s astonishing haul of 19.

Unfortunately this obsession for individual glory has been at the expense of the men’s game as a whole. There was the promise of new talent coming through at the beginning of 2017 with young phenoms Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev touted to lead the charge of ‘generation next’. The rejuvenated Grigor Dimitrov was seen by many as finally living up to his nickname of ‘Baby Fed’. Incendiary Aussie Nick Kyrgios was also viewed as a grand slam threat, if he could only discover the dedication and drive to bring his outrageous skills to fruition.

The hope of any of these players ushering in a new generation has been exposed as a false dawn. Of these, only Thiem and Dimitrov have made it to the semi finals at a grand slam, only to fall short. The Bulgarian was desperately unlucky to lose to Nadal at the Australian Open in a 5 set thriller after failing to convert match points in the decider and Thiem was smashed by Nadal in a 3 set romp at the French Open. A grim precursor for the young Austrian was in the 4th round at the recent US Open, when Thiem had an obviously stricken Juan Martin Del Potro there for the taking but failed to put him away.

It brings to mind the struggles of the previous generation of players that were touted as being the ‘next big things’. Names such as Richard Gasquet, Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and Gael Monfils from France, Kei Nishikori from Japan and Tomas Berdych from the Czech Republic were all viewed as certain stars. These players came so close but failed to live up to their hype. Only Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic from that generation have delivered on the biggest stage.

Excuses for failing to reach the top were valid when Federer and Nadal were at their peak. During this period it was an impossible mission to usurp the two masters for grand slam glory. 2017, however, offered no reason for a youngster not to make a championship run. Federer and Nadal are playing fine tennis but are hardly the invincible players they were in the past. With both players well into their 30’s, it’s almost surreal that Federer is still winning championships at 36. Djokovic has been injured and seems to be lacking the relentless drive that saw him first break the stranglehold of the aforementioned icons and then go on to dominate with 11 majors over a 5 year period and 12 in total. Past winners and perennial threats, Andy Murray and Wawrinka have also been plagued by injury and have missed multiple grand slam events.

The reality is any of these ‘great hopes’ have been exposed as merely hype and this has damaged the appeal of the men’s game. Let us hope a much needed phase of transition is ushered in, led by the name on every pundits lips of late, Canada’s Denis Shapovalov.

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View from the Outer, Week One, Finals

Adelaide versus Greater Western Sydney

The Crows accentuated their billing as flag favourites by smashing an insipid Giants outfit.

They were commanded by ruckman Sam Jacobs in a dominant display where he controlled the taps and was very effective in his around the ground work. Jacobs lorded over his direct rival, Giants’ ruckman Shane Mumford in what turned out to be the decisive dual in the game. This deprived the Giants of Mumford’s crucial purpose as an enforcer that is usually a source of inspiration for his fellow teammates. With his influence being tamed, the Giants stood out for how meek they were in succumbing to the cauldron-like atmosphere of Adelaide Oval.

Adelaide used similar tactics to those used by Geelong against the Giants. They caged their exit out of defence which in turn stifled their lethal defensive rebounders. This pressure caused many decisive turnovers which led to Crows’ goals as well as skewing the Giant’s entries into their forward 50. This facilitated the Crows’ skilled rebounding backmen who sliced the Giants to ribbons in transition on the spread.

Adelaide’s forward line was reminiscent of a murderers row with Eddie Betts having a field day on Heath Shaw. The veteran Giant is a brilliant defensive rebounder however is too exploitable in finals due to him playing too loose. The danger of Betts was enhanced by the unyielding work rate of the other forwards.

The Crows’ defence dominated the Giants vaunted forward line and their midfield, led by Matt Crouch, was superb.

Looking ahead:

Adelaide– It will require a powerful team to beat the Crows for this year’s flag, particularly when you consider that Rory Sloane is set to come back into their team.

Greater Western Sydney– The Giants are in trouble with opposition teams now figuring them out. They also have a few passengers on their bus when the heat is at its most intense. Next week at home should see them beat the Eagles, but it is hard to see them getting past a rampant Richmond outfit at a packed MCG, full of rabid Tigers fans, in the preliminary final.

Geelong versus Richmond

This final reminded me of the old boxing adage – work on the body to take an opponent’s mind. The Tigers hit the Cats hard and often in every contest which led to numerous turnovers due to Geelong players being pressured into skill errors by foot.

The other stand out was that Geelong was exposed as being good merely as a home and away team. This loss sealed a 3/9 win and loss record in recent finals which highlights how they come up short against quality teams when the pressure is at its most intense.

As for the Tigers, one cannot come up with enough superlatives. Dustin Martin stole all the headlines for one of the best finals games seen in the modern era. It was certainly up there with Anthony Koutafides’ performance in the 1999 preliminary final when Carlton played Essendon. Trent Cotchin and Alex Rance deserve similar acclaim.

However the victory was more about the evenness throughout Richmond’s 22. Whilst many of the Geelong team were found lacking, the Tigers had 22 red hot goers that all played their role. In defence of Geelong, their prospects were not helped by Joel Selwood obviously playing whilst unfit and Cam Guthrie being injured early in the contest.

The relentless pressure by the Tigers was intense and unyielding which exposed the many weak links in the Cats’ team and exploited them to the hilt.

An interesting aside was the Tigers forward line. It was reminiscent of when Hawthorn made Buddy Franklin a decoy forward which enabled greater scoring avenues. A similar scenario was created by Richmond with Jack Riedwoldt going from being the key forward that the Tigers live or die by to being still a dangerous entity but one that the team no longer has an unhealthy reliance on.

Their defence is also superb, commanded by the stellar Alex Rance and surrounded by a host of defenders who are also very effective in shutting down attacks.

Looking ahead:

Richmond– Through to the preliminary final and a warm favourite to make the grand final.

Geelong– Look like dead men walking, and will be eliminated by a red hot Sydney team next week.

Sydney versus Essendon

There was an air of inevitability about this game which saw a young Essendon team, who had exceeded expectations by making the finals, come up against a finals-hardened Swans outfit. Sydney has been in blitzing form throughout the second half of the season and the game stuck true to the script with the battle-hardened Swans smashing the Dons.

The key was the raft of Sydney midfielders led by Captain Josh Kennedy dominating the contested football stakes. They obliterated the Essendon midfielders in tight, in the process hitting them hard and often and overpowering their senses.

The pressure was relentless and it exposed the Dons’ inexperience. The young team was not able to stand up to the finals intensity and instead cowered in its wake.

Looking forward:

Sydney– It is hard to see how they will stumble against a Cats team on borrowed time next week. This should set up an epic preliminary final in Adelaide against the Crows.

Essendon– The Dons will dust themselves off and challenge again from 2018 onwards. Depending on their trading period, they are a threat for top 4 next year.

Port Adelaide versus West Coast Eagles

The victim mentality galled in the wake of this game, with many attributing Port’s loss to the last second free kick to Luke Shuey- an incorrect decision which set up the match winning goal.

This focus took away from Port Adelaide’s inability to execute adequately in key moments. The stand out was their dreadful goal kicking highlighted by Charlie Dixon kicking 3.6. It was not just their inexplicable kicking for goal but also some dreadful turnovers in key moments.

The focus on Port Adelaide takes away from the very accomplished performance by the Eagles that was full of grit and defiance in the face of being written off before this game. It was a performance commanded by a trio of soon to retire veterans, Sam Mitchell, Matt Priddis and Drew Petrie.

Looking ahead:

Port Adelaide– An off season of soul searching is required in the wake of this unacceptable performance.

West Coast Eagles– Will be facing the Giants “away” in a game that few will give them a hope in. The key will be whether they can back up last night’s momentous performance.

The evolution of Nathan Lyon’s bowling

Playing in Asian conditions, Australian off spinner Nathan Lyon has had a remarkable turnaround this year. It has reminded me of that age old baseball cliché about the difference between ‘hurlers’ and ‘pitchers’. Like a performer embracing the subtleties of their profound craft, Lyon has impressed with his spin bowling in recent times.

He has resembled a wrecking ball in Asia this calendar year, taking 41 wickets at an average of 19.39 with an economy rate of 2.69. These figures seem even more remarkable considering they include a 4 test series against a dominant Indian team playing in home conditions. This is a far cry from his previous struggles in Asia where he has averaged 42.57, with an economy rate of 3.67.

Most have attributed Lyon’s previous struggles to the fact he lacks a ‘doosra’ in his bowling arsenal. But the key has been more due to him getting caught up in the accent on spin rather than the embrace of guile. It is reminiscent of the common mistake visiting quick bowlers used to make on the old style fast and bouncy WACA pitch. Often being colluded by the conditions and bowling too short and going for plenty of runs. While witnessing those who pitched it up having the best success.His previous approach revolved around his characteristic heavy over spin style attacking an off stump, or just outside off stump line. He would try to accentuate his spin by bowling at around 80-85km. These tactics made it too easy for batsmen to rock onto the back foot and turn the spinning ball to the leg side or sweep Lyon’s fuller length balls.

Lyon’s recent success has revolved around a similar line, supported by a subtle upping in speed, which has been made more lethal by him bowling more arm balls. The irony of this change in tactics is that he would have witnessed the Australian batsmen struggling in Asia, falling predominantly to the ball that goes gun barrel straight, rather than the one that spins square.

It stood out in the recent test held in Chittagong where the first 4 wickets in Bangladesh’s first innings fell LBW to Lyon. Each time there was a wicket, the commentators exalted how the batsman was dismissed due to them ‘playing for spin’ rather than straight ones. The seed of doubt it planted in the rest of the batsmen was profound as they knew they must guard against this lethal variation, making Lyon an even more dangerous force when he did spin the ball. The sublime deception that Lyon bowls with reminds this old sage of the great Indian off spinner Erapilli Prasanna with his devastating arm ball delivery. In fact he would bowl with a duo of arm balls, both with no discernible change in action, but one, ever so slightly turning the other way.

With Lyon showing he is a profound student, it is clearly a case of imitation. If he could master the Prasanna variation of the arm ball it would make him even more devastating. For unlike the stand out change in an off spinners’ delivery when bowling the ‘doosra’, this would remain undetectable as most batsmen already show they have no clue at picking Lyon’s straight ball.

From a career stand point it is often lost on onlookers that at 29, Lyon is a virtual babe in spinning parlances. One only has to look at the success that great Sri Lankan left arm spinner Rangana Herath has enjoyed since turning 30, with 353 of his 389 test wickets coming after his 30th birthday. With his recent successes in Asia and after being a respected force in a noted graveyard for off spinners back home, it would not surprise me to see Lyon end his test career with 600 test wickets.

Back to the here and now – Lyon completed the 2nd innings with 6/60 to finish the test with 13 wickets. In fact, his match figures of 13/154 in the recent test were the best figures by any Australian in Asia.

Who will win the 2017 AFL flag?

Spring means the beginning of the AFL finals, which morphs everyone and anyone into an expert on who will make the Grand Final and who will ultimately triumph.

I am part of that throng and here are my thoughts on the eight teams that have a chance at glory this year.

Adelaide Crows

The Crows have the team to win it, aided by having a home advantage through to the Grand Final if they win. They are a breathtaking attacking force. They excel at quick football that is set up by a lethally skilled rebounding defence which culminates into a murderer’s row type attack. If you allow them to get out into space, they are nigh on unbeatable.

The main question mark against them is whether they have the mindset to get it done when it matters most. This was put to the test recently in their finals-like game against the Swans where they failed to win.

Key man – Rory Sloane – A great player, but is in doubt for the first final against GWS after recently having his appendix out. If he is out, it will be a huge blow for the Crows.

Verdict– will win the first week to go directly though to the Preliminary Final but then will be taken out by Sydney.

Geelong Cats

The Cats were impressive in dispatching GWS in the final round. This result was achieved without their inspirational skipper and key play maker Joel Selwood. It alleviated concerns about their over reliance on too few of their players in big games. The depth in their 22 has been enhanced by the likes of Menegola, Guthrie, Parfitt and Buzza stepping up along with recruits such as Zack Tuohy adding to their line up.

Heading into the first week of the finals, their prospects would have been helped if they had a home final at Simonds Stadium but having the game against Richmond scheduled at the MCG could prove decisive.

Key Man: Sam Menegola- A player that always sneaks under opposition radars with his cleverness coming to the fore in key moments.

Verdict: I think the Tigers will beat them in a heart stopper in week one and then the Cats will go out in straight sets to the eventual Premiers, Sydney.

Richmond Tigers

The Tigers could emulate the Bulldogs from last year by ending their 37 year premiership drought. They have a brilliant midfield commanded by Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin. Their forward line is a very dangerous one with many scoring avenues and is also hard working from a defensive stand point. Their defence is arguably the team’s strong point with the peerless Alex Rance viewed by many as being the best player in the game. David Astbury has accentuated the might of Rance by consistently dominating in the key defensive post. The backline is completed by a whole host of no name defenders that rarely receive due praise for how effective they are.

Key Man- Shaun Grigg – The Tigers have only played one ruckman all season by using Grigg as the second ruck. It is a high risk but high reward ploy which accentuates the Tigers’ speed orientated game style but leaves them susceptible to getting smashed in the ruck and associated clearances. This is a key factor in finals and means that Grigg has to be adequate as a second ruck.

Verdict – Will beat Geelong in the first week to go directly through to the Preliminary Final. They will make the Grand Final but fall to the Sydney Swans.

Greater Western Sydney

This team should be on the verge of a dynasty with their outrageous talent and depth to match.

The worry for the Giants is that oppositions have countered them with new tactics by caging their lethal running rebounders out of defence. The young team has struggled with this in the Home and Away season and it is doubtful whether they can prevail against it in the cauldron of finals.

If they can counter this, they still have the team to win it all. The key will be beating Adelaide in the first week which would set up a home final.

Key Man– Shane Mumford- The big ruck is, in a sense, this team’s godfather. He could pick up the team and carry them on his back if he dominates.

Verdict– Will make the Preliminary Final through the long way around but their dream will end here.

The Sydney Swans

After starting 2017 7-nil, the Swans ended the season firing on all cylinders. They have been there and done that and will have a real fire in their belly to salute once more after coming up short in recent years. Their midfield is full of multi faceted types that can cut you with their attacking instincts as well as suffocate with their defensive acumen. Their defence is very solid and disciplined and well supported by their hard working midfielders. In attack, they used to have an unhealthy reliance on Buddy Franklin in previous seasons. This has, however, been alleviated with the likes of Sam Reid and Tom Papley becoming trusted avenues along with the likes of Isaac Heeney and Gary Rohan who are dangerous when floating forward.

Key Man- Gary Rohan– The only concern is their weakness against teams with real pace. They lack outside runners which will place a great deal of pressure on Gary Rohan.

Verdict– Will win the flag from 5th.

Port Adelaide

The Power are hard to get a grasp on. They have a team on paper that should be a match for anyone, only to be found out when they come up against other rivals in big games.

Despite this, they still have match winners on every line to give hopes of a run deep into September. With All Australian ruckman Patrick Ryder and many other proven performers such as Boak, Gray and Wingard, they are a dangerous sleeper that could take the finals by storm.

Key Man- Charlie Dixon– When the big forward performs, it takes the Power to another level.

Verdict– Will dispense with the Eagles in week one, but their dreams will end in the next round.

Essendon Bombers

Essendon has become this year’s feel good story by making the finals after being penalised last year due to drug suspensions. They are a young team on the rise that are sure to challenge in the next few years.

Verdict: Every fairytale has a big bad meanie in it. The Dons will discover this at the hands of a red hot Swans team that will eliminate them.

West Coast Eagles

In truth, the Eagles were lucky to make the finals.

If Nic Natanui was fit and able, I would list them as a dangerous sleeper team. But, without their difference maker, they lack an X-factor needed in finals. This could be provided by players like Darling or Gaff starring in the midfield.

Also forward, they have an unhealthy reliance on Josh Kennedy for their goals. To have a chance in the finals, they need to find some other avenues to goal.

Verdict -Their luck will run out against Port Adelaide.

Prediction:

Sydney versus Richmond Grand Final with the Swans winning by 4 goals and Isaac Heeney winning the Norm Smith Medal.

Can Australia fight back in Bangladesh?

The Australian cricket team’s first defeat at the hands of Bangladesh left its fans shocked and angry. The majority were expecting an easy win against the ‘minnows’ of the cricketing world. This reaction has been followed by a sense of denial, with the defeat being dismissed as a ‘few bad days at the office’, to be compensated for when the second test starts on Monday.

A team on the rise, it seems apparent that the Bangladesh team has been vastly underrated by the Aussies. Playing in their home conditions, Bangladesh will be very difficult to beat in the second test, especially with the inclusion of star batsman Mominul Haque. A fabulous player in spinning conditions, he will add steel to the team’s fragile top 3.

Looking at the Aussies, it is hard not to view them as the orchestrators of their own demise. Veterans Shaun Marsh and Steve O’Keefe, who have proven themselves in Asian conditions in the past, were omitted from the initial 13 man squad and were sorely missed. When Josh Hazelwood was ruled out of the second test with injury, his place could have been taken by young leg spinner Swepson with his first cap in Chittagong or another paceman, Jackson Bird. Instead the selectors have performed a huge back flip by sending an SOS to Australia for Steven O’Keefe. The move points to the certainty of three spinners being selected to play in Chittagong.

The aside is the potential for Pat Cummins to be expected to carry the pace burden supported by the likely inclusion of Hilton Cartwright. This move will accentuate the ‘bits and pieces’ demeanour of the team as Cartwright is a fine batting prospect but a medium pace bowler in name alone. His uninspiring Sheffield Shield average of 44.68 underlines this. He should replace Glenn Maxwell at 6.

Maxwell is a a similar all rounder in name alone with his bowling abilities easily replicated by Steven Smith bowling leg spin. But, Usman Khawaja is likely to be axed after another clueless showing against spin.

I anticipate the 11 players to be selected will be as follows;

Renshaw, Warner, Smith, Handscombe, Cartwright, Maxwell, Wade, Agar, Cummins, O’Keefe, Lyon

The maverick Maxwell has once more proven that he lacks the temperament for test cricket. An example of this was his dismissal in the second innings with his first ball after lunch an ill advised cut shot. The shot highlighted the poor decision making that was so evident in all the batting. With the ball spinning and variable bounce, playing with a straight bat was of paramount importance and the cut shot in such conditions needed to be shelved. This seemed lost on all the batsmen with 4 of them falling to the shot during the second innings.

In looking to a fight back in the second test it is hard to fathom any success for Australia as a result of their batting. They have the lowest batting average (26.69) of any team visiting Asia in the last decade. To put this in context, even Zimbabwe has performed better with the bat. Shaun Marsh was certainly missed in the team’s batting line-up and the bottom line is that all the batsmen, on differing levels, lack the necessary skill and temperament in the conditions.

Another key factor for the Aussies is Matthew Wade behind the stumps. Australia lost by 20 runs in the first test with the butter fingered wicket keeper conceding 30 byes. If the team is to rise in the second test, he needs to go. His accompanying batting average of 21.25 since being recalled in 2016 offers no justification for his retention in the 11. Fans may suggest Peter Handscombe as a replacement, but this would merely relive the shambolic Wayne Phillips experience from the 1980’s. The fact that there is no other keeper to replace Wade, however, will save him.

Luckily for Aussie cricket fans, footy finals are currently in full swing which will help divert their attention because the team is likely to again be humbled in the second test which will complete a series clean sweep.

2017: Hawks Scorecard

Hawthorn’s 2017 season was a tale of two halves. After a poor start, the Hawks seemed to find their feet and taste some success in the later rounds, especially against some of the top teams in the competition. In fact, if you based the ladder only on matches played since the split rounds, Hawthorn would be in 6th place which bodes well for next year and beyond.

Here’s my take on player rankings for the season just ended:

2) Jarryd Roughead – 7/10

Roughy warmed all of our hearts when he returned from his battle with cancer. He has played in every game this year but unfortunately has not reached his previous heights, however after nearly 18 months out of the game this is to be expected. Clarko has employed him more as a big outside midfielder with bursts in the forward half. He ended the year on a high, kicking 5 goals in Luke Hodge’s farewell game.

In his first year as Captain, he has been a willing leader, but has not fully left his mark on the team. This has stood out at times and the team has suffered due to a lack of on-field direction.

3) Tom Mitchell – 9.5/10

The midfielder has been superb in all respects since joining the Hawks in a trade from Sydney at the end of 2016. He has dominated with his ball winning abilities.

He has, on occasion, attracted criticism for chalking up ‘meaningless possessions’ with many pointing to him waxing across half back. This criticism, whilst harsh, has some merit. But countering this argument is the glimpse of the future he showed between rounds 12-17 where he took on a more attacking mindset, kicking 7 goals.

He will win the Peter Crimmins Medal in a landslide and is a dark horse for the Brownlow Medal.

4) Billy Hartung – 4/10

The speedy winger has so many qualities that the team needs – primarily his line breaking speed. But these qualities are negated by his flawed decision making and haphazard skills. He was showing signs of improvement in the latter parts of the season by taking the game on more, only to have his flaws rear their ugly head at key times.

It seems apparent that his name will be available in trade discussions.

5) Ryan Burton – 8.5/10

Burton has been outstanding as a cultured key defender and was rarely beaten in any games this season. He is lethal when rebounding out of defence where his pristine skills and high grade decision making come to the fore.

He should win the Rising Star Award and from 2018 onwards should excel as a silken midfielder.

6) Josh Gibson- (no grading)

After 166 legendary games with the Hawks, sadly Gibson will depart the club at season’s end.

My tribute;

7) Ben McEvoy – 9/10

McEvoy has been great in the ruck, playing this role in a Jim Stynes ruck/rover style. He is very dangerous when floating forward with his elite contested marking and straight kicking for goal. Aside from the retiring Hodge, he has been the team’s best on-field leader this season.

If not for Mitchell, he would be our B&F winner and should have been included in the All Australian squad of 40.

8)Taylor Duryea – 6/10

Dumped after struggling in defence early in the season where he always seemed to lack awareness of what was around him, he was re-invented as a defensive forward after the mid-season break where his efforts have been very admirable.

9) Shaun Burgoyne – 9/10

The man known as ‘Silk’ seems to get better with age and this season saw him put on some vintage displays in the midfield. His sublime game against Sydney was a stand out.

Call me insane, but I think he is a rough chance of playing 400 games.

10) Jaeger O’Meara – 5/10

The big name recruit’s first year at the club has been largely frustrating. He has struggled with the legacy of major knee issues. This stood out in the early part of the season where he was reticent to kick and seemed more intent on handballing. He was shelved by the club after round 7.

After returning for Box Hill, he looked brilliant and his dazzling foot skills were on display with him kicking three goals. This saw him returned to the senior team for the last two games of the season.

He was very impressive in the last game of the season which augurs well for his Hawthorn career to be fully kick started from 2018 onwards.

11) Brendan Whitecross – 5/10

Whitecross is a skilled, versatile and smart footballer with natural leadership qualities, but after failing to seal a place in the best 22 it seems apparent he will leave the club in a trade.

12) James Frawley – 4/10

The irrational criticism Frawley attracts from our fan base always astounds me. He is highly capable as a spoiling defender against big “monster” players and he has the pace to match more elusive types.

He was disappointing this year prior to succumbing to a rather odd injury (turf toe) after round 8 but will be the team’s key back in 2018 and beyond.

13) Jono O’Rourke – (no rating)

After a pre-season where he was a standout, his season was ruined by injury. It will be interesting if he is retained by the club with many going past him in the pecking order during his absence. I would retain him next year out of respect for his potential as an inside midfielder with ability on the outside.

14) Grant Birchall – 7/10

Injury ruined his season with the evergreen defender only playing 5 games. In those games he showed how pivotal he is to the team with his composure and sublime skills. A natural leader, Birchall should perhaps have been made Captain this year, rather than Roughead.

15) Luke Hodge ( no rating)

Thank you Luke Hodge!

16) Isaac Smith – 5/10

After the previous two seasons where he was in the reckoning for the All Australian team, Smith was very disappointing this year. There are rumours he has been hindered by a nagging hip complaint and it is clear that he has suffered without the support of Bradley Hill. Oppositions have locked down on him rather than being torn between which of the lethal duo to mark.

He was elevated this season to the role of Vice Captain of the team however has proven to be rather lacklustre as an on-field leader.

17) Daniel Howe – 8/10

After being inserted into the midfield, Howe has been a huge key in the team’s turnaround. He has played as a defensive force, negating some of the biggest names in the game and has also provided shielding for other midfielders due to his hulking frame.

18) Jonathon Ceglar (no rating)

Out all season after a knee reconstruction.

19) Jack Gunston – 8/10

In a season where many team mates have had their reputations diminish in a struggling team, Gunston has shown he belongs in the elite echelon of the AFL. After being switched to a ‘sweeper’ role across half back, he has dominated.

20) Dallas Willsmore – 4/10

Willsmore made his debut this season and played 2 games, but he failed to make a real presence and it appears he will be delisted.

21) James Sicily – 8/10

The incendiary nature of Sicily is a bit like capturing ‘lightning in a bottle’. If you can harness his abilities, he is startling with his skill and x-factor. The downside is his attitude which unfortunately negates all his positive qualities and has a negative effect on the team.

He could be a true star as a definitive rebounding defender alongside his capabilities as a deadly dangerous forward.

22) Luke Breust – 4/10

There is no doubt Breust is a brilliant small forward with his career record of 304 goals from 161 games paying due testimony to his might. But he has been largely disappointing in 2017 with his work rate dropping dramatically and standing out for relying on cheap goals out the back.

In looking forward, it raises the question whether he represents greater value in being retained by the club or floated as trade bait.

The obvious deal would be to trade Breust to GWS in exchange for Lachie Whitfield which would alleviate the team’s pace issues on the outside.

23) Tim O’Brien – 6/10

2017 has been a break out year for the young key position player. He has excited with his one grab marking and long straight kicking at goal, which yielded 19 goals for the season. The challenge going forward is replacing his teasing nature with greater consistency. Most view the need for greater bulk on his slight frame but I think he should focus more on his running ability.

O’Brien should load up on Nick Riedwoldt videos and mirror his running style of key forward play where he ground opponents into the turf.

24) Ben Stratton – 4/10

The elite marking defender was very average until being lost to a season ending injury.

25) Ryan Schoenmakers – 6/10

Schoenmakers has been brilliant in the role as a defensive forward where he limited his man and punished them with his laser like goal kicking. He is very good in transitioning into attack where his almost elite foot skills are impressive. It has seen the Club reward him with a new contract for 2018.

The aside is he struggles in a more structured role such as a key back, but in an age all about ‘roles’ he is very capable.

26) Liam Shiels – 6/10

After a lacklustre start to the season, the team’s new Vice Captain improved in the latter stages. It coincided with the move of Howe into the midfield to assume Shiels’ defensive role which allowed him shielding and more freedom.

As with the rest of the new leadership group Shiels was rather average.

27) Ty Vickery – 0/10

The big key forward has been hugely disappointing after joining the club from Richmond. Let us hope he can fight back with a better showing in 2018.

28) Paul Puopolo – 5/10

Between 2013-15, the defensive forward was one of the most respected players due to his inspiring 1%’s. Standing out this year was that he seemed intent on trying to contend for mark of the year by constantly flying for marks rather than focussing on what made him so valued in prior seasons. By doing this it fractured the team’s structure in the forward line by facilitating opposition rebounds due to depriving the team of his defensive presence when the ball hits the ground.

Puopolo has been a great servant of the club, but I think he will be traded to another club.

29) Will Langford – 6/10

Langford is a case of “maybe”. When cast in a defensive forward role in the latter parts of the season he was been brilliant with his pressure and relentless harrying which caused many second chance goals. The downside was his inability to kick straight for goal which diminished his effectiveness. His skill issues by foot put a huge question mark against his name when going forward and this issue could be very difficult to rectify.

30) Kaiden Brand – 6/10

Brand has been great in the key defensive role marking the big forwards. The challenge for him going forward is his versatility against other forwards. This was highlighted against Richmond where he was all at sea when marking the more agile Josh Caddy.

31) Ricky Henderson – 7/10

The recruit from the Crows started the year slowly with his killer turnovers seeing him dropped. In the latter part of the season he was very good and his running off the ball was a stand out. He managed to create opportunities for team mates with the space he opened up as well as profiting from this himself.

32) Jack Fitzpatrick (no rating)

Fitzpatrick only played one game before succumbing to concussion which saw him retire.

33) Cyril Rioli – 5/10

A largely disappointing year for the star small forward with him well below his best before being outed for the season with injury after round 8. He will rise again in 2018 and offer the forward line the structure that is was so lacking for most of this season.

34) Kurt Heatherley – 5/10

After playing 4 games this year and being dropped twice, it is doubtful that he will be at the Club next year. I think this will be a mistake with Heatherley capable on big forwards and more elusive types due to his pace. He could even be a very able big wingman.

35) Harry Morrison – 8/10

The Godson of Ken Judge had a brilliant debut in the last game against the Western Bulldogs with Hawk fans touting him as being a star from next year onwards. The reality is the Club gave him a taste and he will likely be predominantly at Box Hill next year with the club shielding him in his infancy so as to not burn him out. His time will come, from 2019 onwards.

36) Kieran Lovell – (no rating)

This youngster was set for a break out year in the midfield with his natural ball winning abilities and pace allowing him to burst out of congestion. He is a natural footballer with very good skills and a real eye for goal.

37) Blake Hardwick – 8/10

The youngster has been superb as a rebounding defender. He resembles Brent Guerra with his combination of toughness and elite skill.

39) Mitchell Lewis (no rating)

Young draftee in his first year at the club serving an apprenticeship at Box Hill.

40) Kade Stewart – 4/10

Stewart played 4 games to add to his three from last year but mainly seemed to struggle with the pace of the AFL.

41) Oliver Hanrahan (no rating)

First year rookie plying his trade at Box Hill.

42) Teia Miles – 5/10

The youngster made his debut this season playing 4 games all up. Looked out of his depth in his first stint but showed some good signs later in the season, kicking two goals against Richmond. This was a fine individual performance in a game that the team was very average in.

43) Marc Pittonet (no rating)

A young ruckman developing his trade at Box Hill with him not adding to his 3 career games this year. He shows real potential as a tap ruckman but has a lot of work to do on his around the ground coverage and work.

44) Conor Glass – 8/10

The Irishman has been outstanding after being elevated off the rookie list. His stand out strength is as a speedy defensive rebounder with very good foot skills. After watching him against Carlton, he also showed he has real potential as an under-sized second key defender.

He could emulate Sydney’s Dane Rampe’s ascent in the game after being cast in this role.

45) Conor Nash (no rating)

Young rookie from Ireland who has played mostly for the Box Hill development squad. Was very decent in the Box Hill seniors in the last game of the season as a forward.

46) James Cousins – 7/10

This rookie was elevated during the season, playing 3 games. He impressed with his natural ball winning ability and the fact that he has the ability to kick with both feet. This ability stands out in an age where so many resort to low percentage check side kicks as they are so one sided.

View from the Outer, Round 23, Hawthorn versus Western Bulldogs

Last night was all about sending off our immortal ‘General’, Luke Hodge, in the appropriate fashion. The Hawks players rose to the occasion to honour their legendary teammate in a display that encompassed all the skill, grit, intensity and passion that was a fitting testimony to the beloved icon.

In the dying minutes of the game Hodge was almost channeling Josh Gibson with a superb spoiling attempt that helped steady the Hawks when the Bulldogs were threatening to take the lead. As the seconds ticked down on the game it was hard not to get caught up in the emotion of knowing we would never again get to feel that all too familiar ‘chicken skin’ when witnessing the class and completeness of Hodge. It made me think of other heart wrenching moments I’ve experienced in following the Club since coming here from Derry, Ireland in 1971:

-The hushed grief of a packed Glenferrie Oval back in 1972 after seeing Peter Hudson carried off the ground after blowing out his knee;

– Peter Crimmins ripping all our brown & gold hearts out with his cancer fight and untimely death in 1976;

-Lethal getting carried off during the 1985 Grand Final after us getting smashed by the hated ‘filth’, Essendon;

-Not being afforded the opportunity to say ‘goodbye’ to the much beloved Michael Tuck after the Club disgracefully refused to allow him to carry on playing in 1992 despite his desire and capability to do so. Instead they replaced him with Austin McCrabb from Geelong in a move that for me represented an end to the true essence of Hawthorn’s ‘Family Club’ motto;

– The battle against extinction in 1996, with the associated thoughts of what could have been;

– The sad departure of Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis at the end of 2016;

Watching the game last night, I was reminded of another heartbreak, that of the untimely passing of premiership player and past Hawthorn coach Ken Judge in 2016, however I drew comfort from watching Judge’s God-son Harry Morrison absolutely shine in his first game for the Club which would no doubt have had Judge smiling down on him from on high.

This fabulous debut by Morrison placed an exclamation mark on the youth-inspired turn around the Club has experienced this season. After the first few matches of 2017 many were celebrating the end of the great Hawks era and rejoicing in the likelihood of Hawthorn having a prolonged period as cellar dwellers due to the perception that the Club had an absence of talented youth. I must confess to being one of the many doubters, but I’ve never been so happy to be proven wrong.

The re-invented defence this year has been a stand out. The backline was a vulnerable element for the Hawks this year with many of their defensive players missing due to injury, however James Sicily’s move to defence has proven a successful one and despite an embarrassing display last week, last night he was completely switched on and proved that when his head is right, he exudes star potential. Another player who has played in a different role this season is Jack Gunston who has enhanced his elite standing in the game since being moved off half back.

Last night, players such as Hardwick, Howe, O’Brien, Glass and Brand all showed glimpses of being the cornerstones of the next Hawks dynasty. Add in the absent Ryan Burton, who should be the unanimous winner of the Rising Star Award and Kieran Lovell who when fully fit will be a midfield gun and Hawthorn’s future looks bright.

With defensive mainstays James Frawley, Ben Stratton and Grant Birchall set to return in 2018 it not only sets up a brilliant defensive line-up, but also gives the coaching team the opportunity to utilise the aforementioned youngsters in other areas around the ground. Last night’s game highlighted a return to Jarryd Roughead starring as a key forward with him kicking 5 goals. Ben McEvoy was immense once more in the ruck and Isaac Smith was back to his form from 2015/16, where his pace and associated line breaking ability had him in All Australian reckoning.

Jaeger O’Meara also looked fabulous last night. With a solid pre-season next year, he will be primed to live out his destiny as a star of the AFL.

On behalf of all Hawthorn supporters, words cannot adequately express the level of appreciation I feel for Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson for everything they have given us. They depart our Club as superstars, but will forever be in the hearts and memories of all who have had the privilege of witnessing all their great games for Hawthorn.