THE GOOD, BAD AND UGLY – HAWTHORN 2020 SEASON PREVIEW

 

So, we’re making this an annual tradition now – extensive season previews for all 18 teams in this format because… well, people seem to like the Good, Bad, Ugly format for game reviews and I thought why not? Also, I really like Clint Eastwood.

The Hawks are one of the teams in the mix for finals and could really go either way in 2019. Their best is very, very good. The way they played against West Coast and GWS toward the end of the season spoke of a team that had finally found their way.

It was too little, too late.

The Hawks have reloaded. They’ve bid a fond farewell to Jarryd Roughead and welcomed Jon Patton and Sam Frost. After a decade hovering around the top of the ladder, and two seasons in the wilderness recently, they’re ready for another genuine tilt at finals.

Can they do it? Let’s explore with a little bit of the old good, bad and ugly, Mongrel-style.

 

THE GOOD

 

THE RETURN OF THE KING AND RESIDUAL EFFECTS

Tom Mitchell was on top of the world at the conclusion of 2018. His Brownlow Medal capped a brilliant season that saw him accumulate the most disposals in history. His 848 touches is testament to how prolific he was, and but for an injury in the finals, who knows what he could have dragged the Hawks to.

But 2019 started on the lowest possible note, with Mitchell breaking his leg and having to sit out the season. The road back from an injury of this nature is long, and just this morning Mitchell was on radio talking about how he was tracking nicely, but no return date has been carved in stone as yet.

Is that cause to worry, or are the Hawks just being careful as to how they position their most important piece on the board?

Mitchell is more than just 35 touches per game to the Hawks midfield. No, no, no… he is so much more. What he provides for the rest of the midfield is freedom.

Let’s take Jaeger O’Meara as a case study.

In 2019, O’Meara was forced to lift his work rate to compensate for the absence of the reigning Brownlow Medallist. He did an admirable job, but where Mitchell is grunt work and distribution, O’Meara is finesse and class. Where Mitchell gets in and farms it out, O’Meara is much better suited to being the second man in the chain.

To his credit, O’Meara adapted and became more of an inside player. He registered career-high averages in both contested footy and clearances, but the net result saw his disposal efficiency plummet from 72% in 2018 to just 61% in 2019.

Tom Mitchell makes players around him better. Jaeger O’Meara is a weapon irrespective of who he plays with, but he is a more effective weapon when he plays alongside Tom Mitchell.

Mitchell may struggle a  little in 2020. He may look sore and a step slow, but on the other hand he may step back into the middle and look as though he has not missed a beat. Whilst the Hawks would never admit it, they kind of need him to be more like the second option than the first. He is as important to this team as any player is to any other. As important as Cripps to Carlton  and important as Fyfe to Fremantle, Tom Mitchell is the Hawthorn barometer in 2020, and my fingers are crossed that he can get back to his best.

 

SECOND YEAR IN BROWN AND GOLD

Recruiting can be a gamble at the best of times, but recruiting mature players and expecting them to have immediate impact can be likened to buying your first ever Powerball ticket and seriously believing you’re going to win the main prize.

I mean, it’s nice to have confidence, but when someone like Chad Wingard joins the Hawks, and halfway through the season people are lamenting it, I feel like slapping them upside the head. Things take time, adjustments need to be made, and for someone like Wingard, injuries had to be worked through.

Wingard was not the only player to join a new club where the expectations were high in 2019. Jared Polec was the prize signing by North Melbourne for 2019, but in truth, he was probably overshadowed by the man who was ostensibly the steak knives in that deal, Jasper Pittard.

Dylan Shiel had a good year for the Bombers, but he didn’t set the world on fire. It takes time to get used to your new surroundings, forge relationships with new teammates and learn systems that were unfamiliar to you. Your teammates’ running patterns and where they like to get the ball – these are things that only come with experience, yet there was a definite feeling of angst directed at Wingard not coming in and setting the place on fire immediately. Hawks fans needed to cool their jets.

That being said, this season is a different kettle of fish.

Hawk fans would be justified in expecting a significant upswing in the form of Wingard in 2020. He was recruited to land some knockout blows, and spend the majority of 2019 either flicking jabs out there, or sitting in the corner. He is an impact player who, as yet, has not made an impact and the time to stop using his newly-arrived status as a reason is now well and truly over.

There are quite a few reasons Hawthorn should/could/might improve in 2020 and one of the biggest is the form of Chad Wingard. His addition to the forward line failed to pay dividends, but I am willing to play the longer game with him. And by that I mean focus on year two; not get bogged down in year one.

So what is an acceptable return for him?

Wingard is one of the few forwards who can legitimately insert himself into the midfield and have an impact. Basically, he was a younger version of Robbie Gray at Port, without the consistency, and you can see why Port would be bitterly disappointed with the way his time there panned out.

His All-Australian seasons of 2013/15 saw averages of around 20 touches and two goals per game. Whilst I don’t expect that to happen, particularly given he will share the goal kicking load with Gunston and Breust, 20 touches and 1.5 goals per game is a reasonable return.

Does Chad still have it in him? He has just turned 26 years old – this should be his prime years. The time to perform is now.

Then there is Tom Scully, but I have already written a bit about him below, so I want to save on doubling up. Rest assured, he should be an infinitely better player in 2019 after a season to get his legs back under him. If he performs, the Hawks have a reliable running option who just… Does. Not. Stop.

 

A GENUINE MARKING FORWARD TANDEM

I remember shaking my head at one point last season as I watched the Hawks. The long ball went inside 50 for probably the third time in a minute and this time it was Luke Breust flying for a contested mark. By this stage, it looked as though the Hawks were banging their head up against a brick wall – doing the same thing over and over.

And over and over.

And over and over.

Frustrating, huh? Not nearly as frustrating as watching your team play out the definition of insanity! Anyway, my point, and I do have one, is that with the recruitment of Jonathon Patton, the Hawks now have a legitimate one-two marking punch again up forward. No disrespect intended toward Tim O’Brien, as he really started to show some good signs in 2019, but the Hawks have probably been a little too patient with him. He’ll be handy as a backup, or playing the same role Mitch Brown played for Essendon last season, but the big fellas are now at the table. Time to let them eat.

I’m trying my best to be positive about Patton, but the truth is I am extremely worried about his spot in the side. Those knees… they’re like rusty hinges at this stage, and I am hoping the Hawthorn medical department can get a bit of oil into them to give him every chance to succeed in 2020.

Mitch Lewis started to clunk a few big marks in 2019, and with Patton drawing some heat, should continue to develop nicely. His average of 2.3 contested grabs per game was good enough to slot into equal third in the competition. That’s a better clip than Tom Lynch at Richmond last season, though Lynch played a tonne more games.

With only 14 games under his belt, Lewis started to look like a genuine forward in 2019. With Patton beside him and Gunston and Breust relegated to playing the roles they’re best at, the Hawthorn forward structure is starting to shape up as formidable again.

 

A CHIP ON THE SHOULDER

I’ve always thought there is a case for teams who use the “nobody believes in us” kind of mantra to galvanise the team and get them all on the same page, but there is another, similar motivational tool individuals can use, and I reckon it’s one that James Worpel employs as he goes about his footballing business.

“They didn’t believe in him!”

Worpel was the captain of the Geelong Falcons footy club in the Under 18 competition. Highly regarded as a leader at junior level, it was speculated that he would be picked up by Geelong, as the Cats often opt to draft kids who play locally. They know the area, they know the lifestyle… it’s an easier adjustment for them.

The Cats, however, decided to go with Lachie Fogarty with their first pick, then they picked up Tim Kelly with their next, before snatching Charlie Constable  up with their third pick. Worpel was still on the board, but not for long.

Hawthorn swooped in at pick 45. Worpel was a Hawk.

I often wondered what the driver was for Joel Selwood against the Hawks. He always seemed to rise to another level whenever the teams clashed, and inevitably, I’d wonder about one of the big “what ifs?” in football. What if Hawthorn opted to take Joel Selwood at pick six in 2006?

The Hawks took Mitch Thorp, and the rest is history. Part of me wonders whether Selwood made a bit of a pact with himself along the lines of “they don’t believe in me” when the Hawks overlooked him. He made them pay, several times over.

Could Worpel be cut from a similar cloth?

In his three games to date against the Cats, Worpel is averaging 23.66 touches. Maybe there is more than a little F-U about Worpel. Maybe he wants to punish Geelong for overlooking him – three times!

And maybe, if that is the case… maybe I just like him all the more. A player that cares enough to take things personally is a player I can get behind. All hail James Worpel – 2019 best and fairest, and a bloke who plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder.

 

MENTORING IN THE BACKLINE

The Hawks are making a habit of poaching players from two clubs. They love pilfering Port Adelaide (Burgoyne, Impey, Wingard) and they are starting to get a bit of a fetish for acquiring Melbourne defenders as well, firstly lifting James Frawley and now doing the same with Sam Frost.

The Frost/Frawley combination will be interesting to watch as the season ticks over. Already the Hawks possess some wonderful talent in defence, with Stratton, Hardwick and Sicily all high-calibre defenders, but they have always been just a little short at that second key position slot. The acquisition of Frost alleviates that worry just a bit.

The Hawks have had the opportunity to throw Tim O’Brien down back to plug holes, and there has been a bit of speculation that Big Boy McEvoy might drift back at times in 2020, but the permanency of Frawley and Frost should provide some stability in the lockdown roles, allowing McEvoy to float in and clunk intercept marks should he find himself spending time in defence.

Frost brings something that has long left Frawley’s game… if it was ever a part of it – a burst of speed. However, what he possesses in speed, he somewhat lacks in decision-making, and often finds himself running into a bit of trouble, or putting the foot down coming out of defensive 50, looking up and finding himself completely and utterly confused by what he is confronted with.

At one point last season, I saw him put his head down, tuck the ball under his arm and take off from the backline, only to run 40 metres, realise he had nowhere to go and turn around and kick backwards. Hopefully composure is a skill that can be imparted easily.

The signing of Frost is an important one for Hawthorn, as they sure up the number one key defensive spot post-Frawley when the time comes for him to hang them up, but in the meantime, they should combine to make an imposing defensive duo.

 

A KICK IN THE PANTS

Do you think the trade rumours might have planted a boot in Isaac Smith’s backside, to the point where he realises that cruising around, accumulating your 22 touches per game and not having all that much impact no longer cuts the mustard as a mature leader at the club?

Smith has been basically the same player since the end of the 2013 season. From 2014 onwards, he has averaged between 21.83 and 23.24 touches per game. Every year, the Hawks get basically the same production out of Smith.

This can be looked at as a huge positive if you choose to see it that way. He’s consistent, right? That’s what you want from your players. I suppose so, but as Hodge, Mitchell, Rioli, Lewis and others that were the backbone of the three-peat were moving along to other clubs or made their way into retirement, the Hawks were screaming out for someone to step up and go to the next level. Either Smith has selective hearing, or he has been incapable of making the next step. Which is it?

Smith remained at the same level – never giving any less, but never offering any more.

With the Hawks considering options around him before, and perhaps during the trade period, it would not surprise me at all if this were a Clarkson ploy to see just what he can extract from his wingman in 2020. There was apparently interest from the Western Bulldogs, which could be seen as flattering from Smith’s point of view, or reason for concern. The Hawks would be hoping it is the latter.

How Smith reacts to the suggestion he could have been playing elsewhere this year will be very interesting to see. A motivated, slightly annoyed Isaac Smith is a weapon the Hawks may not yet have had use of. It would be a handy one to deploy on one wing, with Tom Scully running on the other.

 

NO WAY THEY’RE THAT BAD AGAIN

In 2018, the Hawthorn forward line possessed two All-Australian players. In 2018, the Hawks made the finals, and rested in the top four prior to collapsing and going out in straight sets. In 2018, Jack Gunston and Luke Breust combined for 105 goals as they powered the Hawthorn forward structure.

And then 2019 happened.

Between Gunston and Breust in 2019, the amount of goals kicked totalled just 60. If we are looking for a barometer for the entire Hawthorn side in 2019, look no further than these two. They kicked multiple goals in the same game on just two occasions in 2019 as they struggled to find the form that was so readily available 12 months earlier. As the Hawks struggled to find overhead targets, they were often called upon to play taller than they are, and that benefitted no one.

In 2019, the pair combined for 14 games where one of them kicked multiple goals. In 2018, that number was 30.

Look, the numbers don’t lie – the potentially lethal forward combination of Breust and Gunston failed to stand up in 2019. Whilst this is by no means indicative of the way they’ll play again (I bloody hope not, anyway), recapturing form from 2018 may be easier said than done.

These two are vital the Hawthorn’s success. Breust has two seasons in the last ?? where he has kicked under 40 goals. They coincide with the Hawks missing the finals. Gunston has two seasons in the last eight years where he has kicked under 30 goals – same result.

Given that, the equation is simple, right? If Gunston and Breust kick 40+ each, the Hawks will be playing footy in September. Now… to make it happen.

 

THE SICILY FACTOR

There are not many players who’ll be in both the good and bad categories, but then again, there are not many players in the caper like James Sicily, are there?

Sic is a throwback to the eighties, when players were allowed, and even encouraged to express themselves on the field. If you’re ever confused as to what sort of mood Sicily is in, just watch him for a few seconds – you’ll soon have no doubt as to how he’s feeling. Part of me adores this bloke =- the passion combined with the ability is the sort of combination that few players possess, and in the modern AFL, where players seem almost programmed to do and say as they’re told, he is a breath of fresh air.

And at other times, he is like a case of morning breath.

For this section, we’ll concentrate on the fresh air.

Sicily is a pure footballer. His overhead ability, and habit of getting in the right place at the right time are instinctive. You can refine it, but you simply cannot teach it. If he finds himself matched up against a player who is not quite as good at reading the play, Sicily will have a day out.

We saw this evidenced in his domination of Mason Cox in 2019. We’ve seen what Cox is capable of when he is allowed a clean run at the footy – it cost Richmond a chance at their own three-peat – but Sicily was having none of it when he lined up against the American.

Cox is as far from a natural footballer as anyone in the league. He is a late-comer to the game, and when Sicily saw his name on the whiteboard next to his, he had to have been licking his lips. The Hawk defender dipped into his bag of tricks using subtle nudges, deft bodywork and a just a touch here and there at the right moments to keep Cox from having an impact. It was the footballer against the athlete, and the footballer won.

Easily.

Sicily ended the game with 28 touches, the lazy 14 marks (five contested) and seven rebound 50 disposals. He kept the Hawks on track and took Cox out of the game. The big man finished with six touches and no scoreboard impact. It was a lesson in how to effectively shut him down.

He was sixth in rebound 50s for the year, third in intercepts and ninth in marks as he had his best season to date, and much of the Hawks’ 2020 success will revolve around how Sicily controls the play from half back.

But then there’s the bad James Sicily…

 

THE BAD

 

THE SICILY FACTOR

So, we had the positives of James Sicily above, and now we start to look at the negatives.

Despite ranking highly in intercepts, metres gained and rebound 50s, James Sicily did not make the All-Australian team. Playing a very similar role to Geelong’s Tom Stewart, Sicily made the squad of 40, but failed to make the team.

Stewart lined up at half back for the second straight season.

So, what is it about Sicily that selectors baulked at when they were putting the team together in 2019? His form warranted serious consideration, but in the end, the All-Australian half back line was devoid of brown and gold.

Want to speculate as to why?

If you are not a Hawthorn supporter, my guess is that James Sicily would be an extremely difficult player to like. He is demonstrative, loud, hot-headed and comes across as obnoxious, but that doesn’t mean he’s a shit bloke, does it?

It doesn’t mean he’s not.

Every season I look at the Hawks’ list and wonder how Sicily will cost them, and in what way. In the 2019 season, his inability to control his emotions went a long way to costing the Hawks the game against the Western Bulldogs, where the Dogs came from the clouds in the last quarter to pinch the win. He was throwing his weight around and cost the Hawks precious goals in that early season game.

Hawthorn finished a game outside the eight in 2019. A win over the Bulldogs early in the season would’ve been pretty handy in the wash up, huh?

In terms of football ability, Sicily is a bit of a freak. It’s just those silly little unnecessary actions that cost him, and the team. I have to admit, I really like when he walks a fine line between aggression and over-aggression, but I often find myself cursing him when he doesn’t just step over that line, but long jumps over it and lands himself, and the team in a poor situation as a result.

 

THE UGLY

 

TIME IS NOT ON THEIR SIDE

Hawthorn is four years removed from their last premiership, have missed the finals in two of the last three seasons, AND have the third oldest average age of players in the competition. How does that sit with you?

The Hawks are now, and seemingly always gunning for a win-now team. It has been over a decade since they’ve been well and truly out of the finals picture, and having reloaded again this off-season, will be looking to be in the frame again as September football beckons.

They have had their critics over the years, citing their “top-up” style of list management as unsustainable, but looking at the names they’ve poached from other clubs – Mitchell, Wingard, Burgoyne, Scully, Impey, McEvoy, O’Meara, Frawley, Frost, Patton, Gunston, Henderson, Scrimshaw – the Hawks see what they want and go after it, piecing together what they hope will be the nucleus of their next premiership assault in the process.

But does that strategy ultimately lead to collapse?

Look, EVERY strategy will eventually lead to collapse. Geelong have been up for ever as well, and eventually they’ll fall down the ladder. It is nigh-on impossible to remain “up” forever (I’m trying to convince Joe Ganino of this, yet he claims he has some chemical aid to make it possible).

I believe the Hawks have what it takes to contend if things go their way, but then again, there are a dozen teams in that boat. Actually, some of them will contend even if things don’t go their way, and even Melbourne could contend if they get a great run at the year and reverse their 2019 form.

AFL form is a strange thing, and whilst, as a Hawthorn supporter, I cross my fingers that this top-up strategy is enough to secure another flag (it has been four years, damn it… I’m not used to this!) I think it’ll end in tears – probably not this year, but in 2-3 years from now.

 

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