Sam Mitchell – ‘Forever Hawthorn’

Sam Mitchell announced his impending retirement as an AFL player earlier this week. There are many who feel that he should have ended his stellar career with the Hawks and been chaired off the ground alongside fellow retiring icon Luke Hodge. In this perfect world scenario (at least from a Hawthorn perspective), they would have retired together, both former captains of the club, to assume pedestals as legends in Hawthorn’s Hall of Fame.

Instead, Mitchell’s last game will likely be played way out west, with him donning West Coast Eagles colours. The Hawks’ faithful will get a taste of how heartbroken Footscray fans felt when they watched their legend Doug Hawkins finish his playing career with Fitzroy. Not all fairytales have perfect endings though, especially when dealing with the cold hard reality of sport and Mitchell’s case is no exception.

Alastair Clarkson’s decision to shunt Sam Mitchell and fellow great Jordan Lewis out the door at the end of 2016 outraged most Hawks fans, an angst that flared up in response to the dismal start to the 2017 season. Many, if not most, questioned Clarkson’s wisdom. In retrospect, however, this difficult decision has proven to be spot on. It has ushered in a state of transition by allowing a whole host of ‘Hawklets’ to assume prominent roles within the team, a situation which has no doubt resulted in the teams’ turnaround in fortunes.

If one was a fly on the wall, it would be easy to surmise that Mitchell was a co-conspirator in his own departure by perhaps being able to see events before they unfolded and treading the best path to suit all parties. Whilst the decision to leave feathered his post football tenure by a move into coaching, this was irrelevant for he would have been inundated with coaching offers on retirement. It was more about his parting gift to the Hawks by fully supporting the ‘big picture’ view of the situation.

As a player, he epitomised everything we love about sport.

In his early days Mitchell was dealt a blow by being overlooked in the 2000 National Draft, disregarded for being too short and too slow. It flared his resolve and relentless desire to succeed and he took the path less trodden by joining Box Hill where he imposed his pedigree on the recruiters that had thus far been oblivious to his appeal.

It led to him being drafted to the Hawks in the 2001 draft, interestingly in the picks exchanged with Fremantle that brought Luke Hodge to Hawthorn as the number one pick.

On making his debut in 2002 his stand-out skill was his cleverness. He was a true bastion of purism, with a very similar playing style to former players Bob Skilton and Barry Cable. Mitchell’s evasive skills are a throwback to Skilton’s step, with his uncanny ability to extract the ball out of a phone box sized confined space. Whilst pub debates argued over which foot was his dominant one, his handball skills, like those of Barry Cable, were also precise. Hand and foot talents aside, Mitchell is just as well regarded for his toughness. We will all miss that dismissive, almost arrogant smile he has when opposition players lay cheap shots on him when in a close, tight pack.

Complementing his skills as a player is his ceaseless desire for knowledge; he is a true student of the game. This was evident at the end of 2012 after another dominant season saw him win the Peter Crimmins Medal and in retrospect, the Brownlow Medal. Many others in this predicament would have rested on their laurels. Instead, when Brett Ratten joined the Club as an Assistant Coach, he very publically challenged Mitchell to be better and Mitchell was very welcoming of Ratten’s guidance and sucked the marrow out of his wisdom. The following pre-season saw Mitchell work relentlessly on the outside game Ratten had insisted on him developing as well as focussing on different stoppage setups.

The fruits of Mitchell and Ratten’s labour were seen at the end of 2013 with Mitchell playing a pivotal role in Hawthorn’s win against Geelong in breaking the supposed ‘Kennett Curse’. His outside dominance, primarily rebounding off half back as a sublime quarterback, brought the Cats’ think-tank to tears with befuddlement and angst riddled frustration, so used to having Mitchell under lock and key in past clashes but seemingly having no answer to these new strings added to his bow.

In the Grand Final win against Fremantle, he was equally as definitive. This point seems lost when looking solely at stats from that game as they deem Mitchell to be disappointing but once more the Ratten effect was at play. Everybody knew that the Dockers’ notorious scragger Ryan Crowley would tightly tag Mitchell and this saw Sam assume the role as essentially a midfield decoy by sacrificing his own game to afford other team mates the ability to rise. The positions he took during stoppages during that game were so heady from a defensive sense, blocking and skewing the Fremantle midfielders whilst green lighting the Hawks.

Truly selfless, with everything for the team – this ethos combined with pre-eminent skills and footy smarts epitomises what a legendary career he has had. Take a bow Sam Mitchell, you will be missed and you’ll remain ‘Forever Hawthorn’ to me.

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Shhhhh on Brett Ratten!!!

Hawthorn’s remarkable turnaround from the depths of despair this season has raised the legend of Alastair Clarkson’s coaching genius to mythical levels.

Being the club’s main orchestrator, such adulation of Clarko is more than justified, however any evaluation of the Hawks’ success would be remiss without reverting back to the end of the 2012 season and the hiring of recently sacked Carlton head coach Brett Ratten. A watershed moment in the club’s history, Ratten has had an immense effect at Hawthorn.

On assuming the Assistant Coaching role, Ratten was charged with the job of looking after the midfield and ‘adding strings to the bows’ of its players. One such example is club legend Sam Mitchell. Ratten emphasised developing Mitchell’s outside game to marry in perfectly with the extractor’s pre-eminence as an in-tight specialist. This saw Mitchell deployed in large phases off half back from 2013 onwards, where he remained the fulcrum of the team whilst alleviating its over reliance on playing him in the midfield. Mitchell played arguably his best game for the club in the iconic 2013 preliminary final against Geelong where he fully utilised his new skills in a pivotal performance primarily off half back.

From a structural sense, Ratten developed a multifaceted nature in the midfield and attack, in the segue he developed between both. It took the form of a marriage between the departments based around a few incumbent key midfield players supported by other players from attack who became part time burst players in the midfield. This would provide a different look to facilitate clearances while befuddling oppositions who found it impossible to mark, for they couldn’t fathom the match ups.

A stand out figure was Jarryd Roughead who was introduced in bursts as a big midfielder. His dexterity in the role had a profound effect, as well as the way he would smash lanes with his mass so that others could excel. This midfield merry-go-round created a sense of chaos with the feared attack taking on a murderers’ row demeanour as it ignited a plethora of options. When you factor in the teams’ outrageous skill by foot to pinpoint passes, it saw cricket scores racked up with players rolling into the forward 50 through transition.

Flip to 2017 and Ratten’s re-invention of the forward line has been huge in the club’s turnaround as he seems to have adhered to the same ethos. The struggles of the forward line had been a main theme of the early season. Its anaemic scoring and lack of defensive might saw oppositions exploiting it to the hilt by killing us on the rebound and associated spread.

This has resulted in Ratten structuring up predominantly a 4 man forward line, highlighted by three marauding defensive forwards and Luke Bruest (likely to include Cyril Rioli when fit) being the attacking accent supported by players in transition feasting on the abundance of scraps. The startling nature in this is the choice of Taylor Duryea, Will Langford and Ryan Schoenmakers in the defensive roles and the renaissance it has afforded their careers.

The choices are heady for the following reasons:

Duryea- Similar to Campbell Brown in his courage and desperation along with being vastly under-rated overhead. He plays big, aiding in spoiling in contested marking situations, then marauds the scraps on the ground;

Langford- Charging bull armed with an Adonis body, he smashes into contests, creating chaos, whilst affording so many second chance goals. He also limits or skews opposition exits out of defence. If he could add polish to his goal kicking, he would rocket to amongst the best 20 players in the AFL.

Schoenmakers- Played his best game for the club in his defensive marking role on Harry Taylor in last years’ finals. He is disciplined in the shut down aspect of play then pivotal with his skill by foot which sets up other forwards. He is also a very accurate kick, rarely missing when he has a shot on goal.

Ben McEvoy completes the structure. In a modern take of a ruckman playing ‘a kick behind play’, he floats behind the forward press between the forward 50 arc and wing, solidifying it with his brilliant contested marking. He also accentuates the attacking aspect when picking his moments to float into the forward 50.

Since adhering to the re-jigged set up after the mid season break, the turnaround has been startling as seen in a comparison of figures which represent almost a 3 goal improvement:

First 12 games – 4 wins -8 losses, 947 points scored at an average of 78.9 per game

Subsequent 6 games-4 wins,1 draw,1 loss, 568 points scored at an average of 94.66 per game

Selfishly, I hope the opposition think tanks’ curious aversion to giving Brett Ratten another chance as a senior coach continues, for his effect on Hawthorn’s prospects has been profound.

View from the Outer, Round 19, Hawthorn versus Sydney Swans

Anyone doubting the calibre of Alastair Clarkson’s coaching genius need only review the two victories this season against the Sydney Swans.

The stand out of Clarko’s coaching last night was his re-invention of tactics and personnel from the clash three months prior. Clarkson masterminded a lack of predictable structure for his team last night which skewed the Swans’ senses and composure. The chaos this incited, together with the rabid nature of those who hit the Swans’ bodies hard created a sense of unsettled confusion.

Only Kaiden Brand anchoring as the key back was a mainstay position throughout the match, with the rest rolling through defence, midfield and attack. The trio of James Sicily, Jack Gunston and Luke Hodge alternating as the loose players in defence were pivotal in slapping down the Swans’ forward entries, then quarter-backing the Hawks rebound into attack.

Sicily was superb, particularly in the later parts of the match. He helped halt the Swans’ charge with his stifling acts and then kick-started attacks with his delightful step in traffic and scything foot skills.

Early on the forward line resembled a famed Peter Hudson leading bluff, starting a dummy lead to misdirect defenders up and out then diverting back and through on goal. A four man attacking set up emulated Huddo’s famed ruse where the Swans defence was led up high when the Hawks were in possession, allowing goals out the back through Hawks players flowing through. When the Swans’ defence held deep it stifled the Hawks’ early scoring ascendency. In response, Hawks players rotated through the attack in a merry-go-round like manner with Shaun Burgoyne pivotal when moved forward.

Throughout the match, the second chances created by the Hawks’ horde of ravenous defensive forwards incited a siege mentality with the Swans constantly trapped in the Hawks’ forward 50. Will Langford is not only a bull but a charging one that creates carnage for opposition defences and fresh chances for his team. When the Swans did manage to get the ball out of their defence, they were only afforded exit points out wide. This led to laboured and skewed forward 50 entries, characterised by constant bombs into their forward line that were expertly picked off by Sicily & Co.

The Hawks’ midfield was superb, once more highlighting their recent ascendency in contested football. The midfield battle consisted of head to head duals that never stayed consistent. The lack of predictable player match ups threw the Swans’ pre-game planning out the window. Everyone expected Clarko to keep Daniel Howe in the tagging role he has starred in recently, but instead he freed Howe which deprived Sydney of the ‘target’ they so covet going into games. Howe, picked off one late by landing a ribbing tickling tackle on Buddy that was sadistic delight. Liam Shiels and Isaac Smith started predominantly on the back of the square which further confused the Swans’ midfield match ups, with both players being pivotal in the stirring win.

Lording over the midfield in a dominant display was Ben McEvoy, who destroyed the Swans’ rucks by blowing them up with his tank around the ground and burying them with his contested marking. Tom Mitchell will win the Peter Crimmins Medal by a mile this year, but the big hearted ruckman has been immense for most of this season with his efforts and underrated leadership of a young group in transition.

Should I mention finals?

Finals are unlikely, but the possibility is still there. The MCG is certain to be bursting at the seams next week when the Hawks take on the Tigers in what will be a huge clash.

Breaking through the AFL media’s glass ceiling

In 2015, Jessica Mendoza became the first female to appear as an analyst on ESPN’s coverage of Major League Baseball culminating in her being added as a full member of its broadcasting team for its marquee Sunday night coverage at the end of 2016.

This move was viewed as groundbreaking and courageous, given she was a female in what had historically been an ‘all boys club’, however her credentials as a silver and gold winner in softball at the highest level meant Mendoza had the profound sporting knowledge to vindicate this decision.

Her addition revived the coverage which had been lacking since the beloved duo of Jon Miller and Joe Morgan departed the broadcasting team in 2010 after 21 years. Her well timed insights and the instant chemistry she forged with fellow broadcasters Dan Shulman and, in particular fellow newcomer, Aaron Boone made it, once more, must-watch viewing.

It made me think of the AFL and wonder whether a female would ever become a full time part of its coverage. Kelli Underwood made a brief foray into the commentary box during Channel Ten’s coverage of the games during 2009/10 but sadly the reception was more about her gender, rather than her merits and insights. The same misogynistic vein ran true when she appeared briefly alongside Rex Hunt in a 3AW call years earlier with it universally scoffed as a ‘publicity stunt’

There seems to be a cultural impasse in the AFL media with women viewed as the ultimate outsiders. A pimply 20 year old male who can barely string a sentence together will garner greater respect on his media debut than a woman, despite her sporting credentials, because “she has never played the game, so what would she know?” Women have a place and voice in AFL media coverage, but it is conditional. They are given access to a certain point but never into the inner sanctum and if they ever dare to smash through into it, or are granted access by a liberal minded person, they are unfairly ridiculed or ruthlessly undermined and cut down.

The aforementioned Underwood highlights this, but think of a real trailblazer in this male oriented domain, Caroline Wilson. She is one of the most astute and thought provoking people covering the game however is granted scant respect and often draws outrageous abuse towards her. These “Caro-crusaders” justify their hysterical vitriol on the basis that Wilson often rattles the establishment and on account of her ‘plain Jane’ looks.

The overwhelming success of the inaugural women’s competition, the AFLW, brought the place of women in the game into focus, particularly from a TV commentary sense. The result was plenty of lip service being paid, underpinned by more female faces appearing on coverages and shows. Such inclusion, however was always on the periphery – as they were seen essentially as ‘barrel girls’, which highlights the conditional nature of their role. A woman working in such a role must always ensure she adapts to being ‘one of the boys’, whilst still adopting a gentle and ladylike manner. She must never correct any male colleagues, offer an original thought that she doesn’t credit a male for and under no circumstances must she ever appear in public in any state less than Brownlow-carpet-ready.

One of the main homes of AFL television coverage, Channel 7 has remained defiant to the inclusion of women, exemplified by their choice of Brian Taylor as the replacement for long time icon Dennis Cometti. Their Friday night coverage, which features the likes of Wayne Carey has the air of a real ‘boys club’. In choosing Taylor, the state of play was perfectly laid bare. Taylor is an incendiary figure with an almost offensive egotistical demeanour, renowned for often providing ill advised views. Despite this and him being older, fatter and uglier, he is male and has played the game, so he is deemed the perfect choice for the most prominent calling position in the game.

In short, the ‘neanderthals’ need culling before the path can be paved well, and while the likes of Taylor, Carey, Sam Newman and Dermott Brereton remain the stalwarts of AFL representation, there will be no room for female commentary that will be greeted with any respect.

Does the 2017 flag rest in Max Gawn’s hands?

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In the traditions of Aussie Rules football there is an almost mythical air attached to ruckmen. The biggest kids in the yard, their imposing natures define them as game changers.

It has always left me in stunned awe how lumbering giants could hover several feet off the ground whilst under considerable physical duress from another giant, or several, but still manage to remain in perfect sync with a team mate and flick the football backwards into their lap, all whilst running at full pace. Such is the sublime artistry of their craft, not only do they use their sheer mass to hold sway in contested marking but they can use their right or left hand to tap the ball in a 360 degree gamut, evoking a fear of the unknown with each and every tap.

The role of ruckmen has been redefined in the modern age. There is still a heavy emphasis on the contested elements of play, but the dexterity in taps has become more and more an afterthought. The main focus now is on breaking even in the taps, with ruckmen cast in more of a ruck roving role as they represent a crucial link in transitional play.

Dean Cox, who played as ruckman for the West Coast Eagles in the early to mid 2000’s became a prototype, lauded for his reputation as ‘the fifth mid’ in that strong team. He changed the way ruckmen play the modern game by marrying his intimidating stature with his athleticism, racking up the kilometres as a quasi midfielder.

A more recent example of this hybrid kind of player, is Melbourne’s ruckman Max Gawn. With the unprecedented evenness of the 2017 premiership competition, Gawn, the All-Australian ruckman from 2016 looms large, particularly considering his Demons are sitting just outside the top four despite being without their centre pin for most of 2017.

His return game against the Eagles in Perth showed glimpses of his brilliance and this prowess was again on display in their match against Port Adelaide where he outshone his opponent, Patrick Ryder. In doing this, Gawn addressed one of the main doubts about the Demons being genuine flag contenders. The calibre of their mids is often questioned when matched up against other top teams. Jack Viney aside, they lack the star power of their rivals, but this problem is more then compensated for by Gawn, who gives them an arm chair ride with his majestic tap work.

With the example of Ryder being laid waste, it raises the question of who can limit, let alone match Gawn in finals time. Only Collingwood’s Brodie Grundy, also a talented tap technician with similar athletic abilities, can be mentioned in the same stratosphere as Gawn, but barring a Lazarus-like miracle, the Pies will not come up against the Demons in the finals. The likes of Sam Jacobs from the Crows or Shane Mumford from the Giants can impact physically on Gawn, but they cannot match his rucking abilities.

The recent change in the ruck rules, outlawing third men up, left all wide-eyed and further facilitated Gawn’s dominance; a dominance he is yet to fully exploit due to injury. In response to this rule change, many teams have opted to forego two experienced rucks in preference to playing undersized players who can better exert their presence when the ball hits the ground. One can see Gawn taking full advantage of this on a bright Spring day in finals when he is pitted against undersized and ill-equipped opponents and the effect this will have on clearances.

On returning from injury, Gawn used this racing analogy;

“I like to see it [myself] as a good old staying horse, that needs maybe four or five to get up and going.”

In keeping with the racing theme, at season’s end, I think we might be viewing him and the effect he had on his Demons as being similar to Kiwi from the 1983 Melbourne Cup.