Hawthorn v North Melbourne – The Four Points

 

If last week’s matchup between North Melbourne and Collingwood was the first iteration of the 2021 ‘Spoonbowl’, then today’s game between Hawthorn and North Melbourne was surely the ‘Spoonbowl 2: Electric Boogaloo’. To paraphrase the great Anthony Hudson, the sequel was most definitely better than the original.

With Liam Shiels’ goal at the 12-minute mark of the second quarter putting the Hawks up by 32 points, North Melbourne supporters must have been getting very worried that this season could be the first winless campaign in VFL/AFL since Fitzroy in 1964. Slowly but surely, however, North’s midfield got on top and, led by a fantastic third-quarter from Luke Davies-Uniacke and a phenomenal second half from Jy Simpkin, over-ran a Hawthorn team lacking composure in key moments, to win their first game for the season, giving their supporters a glimpse, however brief, of what the future may hold.

Let’s call a spade a spade. This game, though exciting at the finish, is not one that you would want to use to convince someone of the greatness of our sport. There were plenty of errors by hand and by foot and plenty of poor decisions made. But none of this should be in the least bit surprising. This is exactly where we thought these two teams would be. Any football supporter with a brain would have picked both these teams to finish bottom three or four this year, so I am not going to spend this review potting players for errors made. Instead, let’s look at the positives. Here are my four points.

 

  1. The Rebuilds

Both Hawthorn and North Melbourne have been open and honest regarding their respective rebuilds. They are both reasonably early in with Hawthorn arguably (despite the result today) being slightly in front. Rebuilds, if done extremely well, take three or four drafts to come full circle – for example, see West Coast from 2008-2010. If they are done poorly, they can take ten or more drafts – for example, see Carlton from 2013 to now. Most teams generally will take five or six drafts to get it right. Over this period, teams will try and bring in about 20-25 young players, with as many as possible can being early picks.

Hawthorn have really only used the last two AFL drafts to stock up with young talent, taking the likes of Will Day, Finn Maginness, Denver Grainger-Barrass, Seamus Mitchell, Connor Downie and Tyler Brockman in the first few rounds. For varying reasons, none of these players played in today’s game though this doesn’t mean that their team lacked for young players who the club hopes will be part of their next premierships run.

Jacob Koschitzke was taken at pick 52 in the 2018 draft, but has taken a few years to develop. It wasn’t until a pre-season game this year (coincidentally against North Melbourne) that he made an impression, kicking six goals in a dominant display. He has played eight games this year for a return of 11 goals, and was reasonably dangerous today, without having an enormous impact. Paired with fellow late pick (from the 2016 draft) Mitchell Lewis, the Hawks look to have found a relatively imposing key forward duo. I don’t think that they will quite reach the heights of Hawks tall forward duos of the past (Franklin and Roughead, Dunstall and Bremerton), but if they can combine for 80 goals a year that could be enough.

Through the backline, the Hawks look to have found a couple of exciting young talents too – one through the draft and one through trade. Changkuoth Jiath was a 2017 Category B draftee and has taken huge leaps forward in his development this year. One late run off half-back today nearly led to a Hawks goal, and watching him, you can’t help but get the impression that there is another level for him to go. What has really impressed me this season is his true football ability – reading the play and taking intercept marks before bouncing his way through the middle of the ground. If you haven’t seen the Hawks play this year, do yourself a favour and park yourself in front of a TV the next time they’re on – you might just see ‘CJ’ do the impossible.

Joining him along half-back is Jack Scrimshaw – a 22-year-old who joined the Hawks via a trade at the end of the 2018 season. I must admit, watching him today I couldn’t help but see comparisons with former Hawk great Grant Birchall. The rounded shoulders, the left boot and the number 14 all make him look a near-clone of the four-time premiership star. Today was just about the best game I have seen him play. He looked composed across half-back when the Hawks needed it, and used the ball quite well by foot. His late goal put the Hawks back in front, and had they won I might have given him best on ground honours. Unfortunately, for both Scrimshaw and the Hawks, they didn’t get the win, but nonetheless he was impressive.

For North Melbourne, they have really only been unequivocally rebuilding since last year, meaning that they only have one draft under their belt, taking Will Phillips, Tom Powell, Charlie Lazarro, Phoenix Spicer and Eddie Ford last year. Both Powell and Lazarro played today, and while they didn’t have enormous influences on the game, they both had their moments. I’ve always felt that for kids playing their first season, what you want to see as supporters are a dozen or so moments that you can point to and say ‘that’s what our recruiters saw in them’. For both Powell and Lazarro, I get the impression that the recruiters loved their attack on the footy and use of the ball under pressure.

In high-pressure games like today’s, young players can often go missing, being scared of making mistakes and costing their team a win. When it mattered most, I didn’t see either Powell or Lazarro shirk a contest. Powell, despite only having ten touches for the day, had three clearances, five inside-50s and three score involvements, showing that he packs a big punch.

Tarryn Thomas, North Melbourne’s next generation academy prospect from the 2018 draft, had arguably his best game for the club today. He collected 18 touches, kicked a goal and had eight score involvements, staying involved in the game for longer than he ever has. Some of his run and carry was breath-taking, and his kick to Goldstein for the first North goal of the game was exquisite. While always having promise, North supporters would hope that today’s game is a sign that Thomas will go from ‘potential star’ to ‘genuine star’.

Neither of these teams will be competing for finals any time soon, however, they will be hoping that the players mentioned above will play an important role when they next do.

 

  1. What About the Other Youth?

Trust me, fair reader, I was getting to that. If it’s not obvious enough already, the major reason I put my hand up to review this game is because I wanted to see how the young players on both sides went. The Hawks have quite a few young players (23 years of age and under), though I worry that some might be a bit anonymous. I don’t exactly know what I mean by that other than that I wouldn’t be able to pick James Cousins, Harry Morrison or Oliver Hanrahan out of a line-up if my life depended on it. Looking up their profiles now, I am genuinely shocked that they are either 22 or 23 years old, and that Morrison has played more than fifty games.

After today’s game, I certainly won’t be forgetting James Cousins – I thought he was great. He had 23 touches, kicked two goals and had eight score involvements, working as hard as possible to try and get his team over the line. Playing primarily across half-forward, it looked to me as though he was used by Clarkson to try and quell the influence of both Aaron Hall and Jack Ziebell. Hall probably got away from him towards the end of the game, using his pace to break the lines on more than one occasion, but Ziebell was certainly down on his normal impact. If he can keep hitting the scoreboard, I reckon he could grow to be a good defensive foil for other Hawthorn half-forwards like Luke Breust.

At half-time today, the Hawks led by 22 points and were looking reasonably comfortable. North needed something special in the second half if they were going to put up a fight, and that something special came from exactly the two men they would have hoped most would provide it – Luke Davies-Uniacke and Jy Simpkin. Davies-Uniacke (or LDU) has been the epitome of a slow-burn prospect. He is in his fourth year in the comp (having been drafted at pick 4 in 2017), and has played nearly forty games.

By most people’s estimation, the training wheels should be coming off very soon. He has all the weapons you would want in a blue-chip midfielder; pace, strength, acceleration and composure under pressure, but he has never completely put it all together. Even today, it wasn’t a four-quarter performance, but rather a dominant third quarter that warrants him being mentioned. But what a third quarter it was! LDU had ten touches, six contested, and kicked a goal, dragging his team back into a game that threatened to be their ninth loss on the trot thirty minutes earlier. By three quarter time, the Roos were well and truly back in the game, trailing by just one point.

LDU didn’t do it alone, of course – he had quite a bit of help from teammate Jy Simpkin. At half-time, I thought Simpkin was having a ‘nearly’ game. He had got a lot of the ball, but seemed to be butchering the ball by both hand and foot, and I was worried that that would continue. I needn’t have worried. Simpkin would have the type of second half that, if he played for a team like Collingwood or Richmond, would have folk songs written about it. Don’t believe me? Well, try this on for size. Simpkin gathered 20 touches, ten of which were contested, and had four tackles. In the second half. When his team needed it the most. If last season was one where Simpkin showed he could swim with the big boys, todays second half showed he can dominate them. At just 23 years old, I look forward to watching him do just that for the next eight or so years.

 

  1. Midfield Battle

So, I’ve spoken about the players for North who I thought lifted when it mattered, but how about the Hawthorn mids? There’s a lot of talent in that midfield group, but I thought North shaded them today. Tom Mitchell was his usual self for the Hawks, gathering 28 touches, but he only had two clearances and seemed to struggle winning the ball out of contests. James Worpel, meanwhile, had only 16 touches, continuing his patchy form in season 2021. He had six tackles which indicates a good intent but also an inability to consistently win contests. Ben McEvoy did what he has always done battling manfully in the ruck opposed to Todd Goldstein, winning a team-high four clearances to go with 26 hit-outs and three score involvements.

Ultimately for the Hawks, the player I was most disappointed with was Jaegar O’Meara. The last time the Hawks were at UTAS stadium, I thought O’Meara was best on ground, leading Hawthorn to a rousing comeback victory over Adelaide (ironically they came back from a 32 point deficit to win that day). Today, however, while he did gather 22 touches, his impact was minimal. He seemed to be missing his usual spark and when they Hawks really needed him to lift (basically the entire last quarter) he seemed heavy in the legs. He missed the game last week, so perhaps he might have needed a week back to find his touch, but for a player of his talent and importance to the team, I was left underwhelmed.

For North, I thought the rest of their midfield (essentially Goldstein and Ben Cunnington, though others did float through) produced the type of performances that North supporters have been able to bank on for years. Cunnington was a bull when it mattered most, gathering 37 possessions (27 of which were contested), nine intercept possessions and having five score involvements. Unfortunately, no one yet keeps track of ‘don’t argues’, but if I were a betting man I would put the house on a Cunnington-Dustin Martin quinella every weekend of the season! Goldstein gathered 19 touches to go with 28 hit-outs in the battle of the under-rated ruckman, probably taking the points against McEvoy due to his goal in the first quarter and delivering the ball inside 50 five times.

 

  1. Impey and Jiath v. Hall and Ziebell

Both of these teams possess unique weapons off their half-back lines. For Hawthorn’s duo of Jarman Impey and Jiath, it’s all about speed and straight-lines, while for North’s duo of Ziebell and Hall it’s about helping out an often under siege defence, kicking for territory and, at least in Hall’s case, running and carrying as far as will be allowed. Perhaps it’s my natural predilection towards being a fence-sitter, but I thought neither half-back duo took the points today.

The first half of the game with none of the four players really exerting much influence over the game. Hall and Ziebell both had 11 touches, Impey had had nine while Jiath had spent quite a bit of time off the ground and had gathered eight. But with North Melbourne playing a more attacking brand of footy in the second half, seemingly playing on at all costs, the game seemed to switch into one that favoured these four. The run and carry offered by Hall, Impey and Jiath was exciting to watch as a neutral supporter, while Ziebell’s experience and calm under pressure brought a level of composure to the North backline that has been missing in the absence of Robbie Tarrant.

With all the love that Jiath gets, I wonder whether the greater AFL community is sleeping on the season that Impey is putting together. If I was selecting an All-Australian team now, I would need some convincing as to why Impey shouldn’t be selected in my back-line. He’s exactly the type of player I love – he attacks the game, possesses great skills by footy and works just as hard defensively as he does offensively. He’s in career-best form and seems to be delivering on the potential that he had promised for so long. He also seems perfectly suited to play the role of master to Jiath’s apprentice.

Until this year, or even the last few weeks, Hall’s career looked to have stagnated to the point of being delisted. At times he seemed unwilling to work hard to win his own ball, expecting instead to win handball receives. Worst, he looked almost content with where his career was at. I’m not sure what happened over the pre-season, perhaps it’s the impact of a new coach, or a new game plan, or the switch to half-back, but whatever it is, it’s working. Hall is back to being an elite-level AFL player, with his run and carry off half back being central to almost all of North Melbourne’s forays forward in the last quarter. I love seeing a guy realise that he still has time to make the most of his talent, and this is the case with Hall. The cornrows work perfectly too!

 

Stray Shots

 

  • I wonder if Gerard Whateley will launch another AFL 360 inquisition of the umpire’s ‘not 15m’ call for a Tom Campbell mark in the second quarter? The umpire called ‘not 15m’ while the ball was in the air and, despite the ball appearing to travel the better part of 20m, did not pay the mark. What’s that, the faux outrage last time was largely driven by the fact that he is a Geelong supporter and not by any desire to hold umpires to account? Huh, who would have thought that…
  • Is it just me or are end-to-end goals becoming more common the longer the season goes on? It looks like that kick-in from the goal square, with the extra space given to the kicker, is allowing sides to be a bit more attacking from defence.
  • I know that I have spoken quite a bit about rebuilds in this review – and to anyone who thinks it was overkill, I am sorry – but the reason I felt the need to is because I hate the way football media changes their perception of teams after about six rounds. Before the season, if you would have told me that these two teams were last and second-last on the ladder, I’d have been about as surprised as I was finding out Bruce Willis was dead the second time I watched The Sixth Sense (oh, spoiler alert).
  • I really liked the game of Chad Wingard today. They talked about it quite a bit in the TV coverage so I felt that I didn’t need to mention it in much detail in my review,. I reckon the Hawks will want to find another midfielder soon so that Wingard can play forward of the ball all of the time – he is as damaging a player as there is in the comp when it’s his day.

 

Well, that’s about it for me. Once again, I’m sorry if you felt the focus was too much on the youth, but hey, that’s what interested me about the game and if you want to write 3000 words about Hawthorn and North Melbourne that isn’t focussed on that, go nuts! The Hawks have a game they will be wanting to win next week against Carlton at the MCG, while North Melbourne will be playing fierce (at least to North supporters) rivals Essendon at Marvel. Get your marshmallows ready!