As today’s game between Richmond and Hawthorn ticked into time-on in the last quarter, I started focusing less on the game itself and more on what I should write in my review. Obviously, I’ll need to address the fact that it’s Alastair Clarkson’s last game in charge of the Hawks, Shaun Burgoyne and David Astbury’s last games as AFL footballers, and a general summation of how the game was won and lost. Pretty simple, really.
When Sydney Stack kicked two goals in quick succession, I was intrigued but largely unmoved – the Hawks still led by 19 points, there were around five minutes to go, and no one had scored too quickly all game. After Jake Aarts butchered a chance to bring the Tigers back to 13 points adrift, I thought ‘that’s it, that was the Tigers last chance, game well and truly over’. But then Lachie Bramble played on from the kick out and ran about 30m without bouncing the ball. The resulting free kick and 50m penalty saw Tom Lynch goal from point-blank range, bringing the margin back to 12 points. ‘Interesting’, I thought, but the Hawks just need to win the next clearance, get it inside 50, and take a minute or so off the clock.
At this point, my wife and one of our friends walked into the room and asked the sort of questions that football illiterate people ask – what’s this?; does Ben Cousins play for either team (I may spend too much time talking to my wife and our friends about Ben Cousins)?; why are the players wearing long socks if they don’t pull them up? After a quick 60 second lecture on the history of the AFL, I sat back down and noticed some little signs that suggested the Tigers sniffed a potential victory. Players throwing their bodies into contests with reckless abandon, taking chances with ball in hand, and when Jack Riewoldt goaled with seconds left on the clock, I found myself sitting on the edge of my seat.
In terms of the premiership race for season 2021, this game doesn’t matter. Regardless of the result, neither team was going to feature in September. The most interesting thing about the game is not even what happening on the field – it’s Clarkson’s last game as Hawks senior coach, a fact that sees his opposing coach, Damien Hardwick, become (if only briefly) the most experienced coach in the competition. Instead, Sam Mitchell, a Hawthorn legend with a list of achievements as long as your arm, will become the coach of Hawthorn, after having spent one season at West Coast as an assistant coach, and then three further seasons as Clarkson’s right hand.
Despite the off-field implications, and the lack of on-field ones, with 30 seconds to go and six points the margin, none of that mattered – there was a football game to win. A Richmond clearance, courtesy of a free kick, found a pack of players about 20m out from the Tigers goal. A knock on from Jack Graham led to a short scrimmage, before Riewoldt soccered the ball towards the goal-line. Shaun Burgoyne, the 38 year-old soon-to-be-retiree in his 407th AFL game, launched his body at the ball in a vain attempt to get a finger on it before the ball crossed the line. A quick trip to the video review team confirmed that Riewoldt’s soccer was a goal, and the match was tied.
Footy can be a funny game sometimes.
Before I get into the game, I just want apologise that I am only providing three points for this game. I like to think that I have built a reputation writing for this site, and I am sorry that I won’t be able to fulfil my normal obligation, but unfortunately, something of a personal matter has come up and I won’t be able to get into the game as I normally would.
- Clarko’s Last Stand
I don’t think I’m the only person in the country who thinks Clarko’s not done coaching. His record speaks for itself, and despite Hawthorn’s absence from finals action the last few years, there are probably ten clubs in the comp who would happily announce him as their senior coach in the next five minutes. But if he does prove us all wrong, and this is his final game as coach, I think it behooves us to take stock of the impact he has had on our game.
He finished as a player following the 1997 season, having spent two years at Melbourne after nine at North Melbourne. Upon retirement, he continued his association with the Melbourne football club, working as their runner for the 1998 season under then-coach Neale Daniher. 1999 found him taking on the role of an assistant coach under Tim Watson at St Kilda, before he moved into the realm of senior coaching, first taking on the role of head coach of VFL side Werribee for their 2000 season, and then moving to South Australia to become head coach of SANFL side Central Districts for seasons 2001 and 2002.
Central Districts joined the senior SANFL ranks in 1964, and had only won their first premiership the year before Clarkson arrived (interestingly, St Kilda had a role in the departure of the first Central Districts premiership winning coach, Peter Jonas (not Tom Jonas’ dad) – he joined Malcolm Blight’s coaching team at the Saints for season 2001). Clarkson would take Central Districts to another premiership in 2001, before another grand final appearance in 2002 saw Central Districts go down to Sturt. Despite the loss, Clarkson would return to AFL ranks as an assistant coach to Mark ‘Choco’ Williams at Port Adelaide for seasons 2003 and 2004, taking control of their midfield unit in ’03 before being handed the reins to the forward line in ’04.
Leading into the 2004 finals series, Clarkson accepted the role as 32nd senior coach of the Hawthorn football club, following the resignation of Peter Schwab. As a result of his ascension to senior coach of the Hawks, Port Adelaide immediately parted ways with Clarkson, barring him from any official duties during their eventual run to the 2004 premiership. Taking on the role of senior coach of the Hawks for season 2005, the 36 year-old Clarkson promised a youth-first approach with a decent emphasis on discipline. His appointment came at the same time as former Hawthorn premiership captain Don Scott launched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to overturn the Hawks board. Clarkson’s hiring as Hawks coach shouldn’t be understated – he was the first senior coach of Hawthorn without prior links to the club since Allan Jeans in 1981.
It’s fair to say that the 2004 draft is responsible for a fair amount of the success of the Hawks in the ensuing dozen or so years. Hawthorn found themselves with picks 2, 5 and 7 (pick 5 was theirs following a helpful ‘priority pick’ system, and then a trade with Collingwood gave them pick 7), and they took the arguably the best three players of any top 10 of any AFL draft – Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Jordan Lewis. Combining these three with the likes of Shane Crawford, Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge (as well as 2005 draftees Xavier Ellis and Grant Birchall, and 2007 draftee Cyril Rioli) gave the Hawks the cattle for their 2008 flag. But it was Clarkson’s coaching mechanisms, i.e ‘Clarko’s cluster’, that saw the Hawks salute that September. It was a mechanism that bore more resemblance to sports like Gridiron and Lacrosse than AFL, but there’s no doubting that it pushed our game forward.
A brief step backwards from premiership glory only saw the Hawks return with a vengeance, as Clarkson’s ‘control the ball’ mantra took hold. An almost manic emphasis on accurate passing and decision-making seemed to form the basis of the Hawks game-plan in this period, and when instituted by players as skilful as Mitchell, Lewis, Hodge, Birchall and Rioli as well new additions like Isaac Smith, Shaun Burgoyne, Josh Gibson and Luke Breust, was a display of football that, as an opposing fan, you couldn’t help but admire. A quartet of grand final appearances, including back-to-back-to-back flags from 2013-2015, assured Hawthorn of a dynasty and Clarkson of legendary status. While the champions he once relied upon have faded into memory, Clarkson’s impact as coach will remain as it should be – the best of his generation.
- The Midfield Battle
Looking at the two sides before today’s game, I thought that the midfield would decide where the game is won and lost. Obvious, right? But there’s a reason why it’s obvious – every game starts there, and it’s maybe the best 50-50 contest we have in our game. But it wasn’t 50-50 today.
The Tigers were missing their entire first-pick midfield – Toby Nankervis, Trent Cotchin, Dustin Martin and Dion Prestia. They were even missing their preferred second ruckman, Ivan Soldo, and handy midfield types in Kane Lambert and Shane Edwards. This meant that, for much of the game, they had to do battle with ruckman like Callum Coleman-Jones (9th AFL game), Ben Miller (1) and Mabior Chol (31), while their rovers were Thomson Dow (7), Riley Collier-Dawkins (9), Will Martyn (3) and Jack Ross (29). To say that this group was inexperienced is about as obvious as saying that New South Wales should have locked down six weeks ago. To put a finer point on it, the Hawks midfield had the likes of Ben McEvoy (244), Jon Ceglar (101), Tom Mitchell (150), Chad Wingard (194) and Jaegar O’Meara (122) as its inhabitants.
Based on this, I thought the Tigers midfield owned the early part of the game. Collier-Dawkins had three centre clearances, and with each one the Tigers seemed to take a significant advantage, knowing that it was one less that the experienced Hawks group could have. The second and third quarters, however, showed that experience does matter, and it was through this period that virtually all of Hawthorn’s important players started to wield their influence. Mitchell would have 25 of his 36 touches through the second and third terms, while O’Meara would have four inside-50’s and four clearances, and Ben McEvoy would take three of his four contested marks, patrolling both defence and attack with equal vigour.
The last quarter, with the Tigers kicking six goals to three (including the last five in a row) saw the Richmond midfield run all over the Hawks. Part of this may have to do with the fact that Jack Graham was moved into the middle of the ground – he had seven last quarter touches, two clearances and four tackles, and most assuredly be the next skipper of this team! Needless to say, that an inexperienced Tigers midfield was able to out-work the Hawks when it mattered is a point that I am certain new Hawks coach Sam Mitchell will hammer home during pre-season.
For the Tigers, I think they can take a lot of confidence from the fact that a second-fiddle midfield performed admirably against an experienced group, and know that despite being towards the northern end of the ladder for the last four years, their youth is damn good.
- The Retirees
Let me apologise to anyone who feels I haven’t spoken enough about the entirety of the game today. As I said earlier, I just feel like the most interesting thing to come out of today is the off-field story-lines, and for both teams, none of those storylines are bigger than what they are saying goodbye to. Let me address something before I start – I have decided not to use any passive verbs (or active verbs for that matter) to describe the players below. My reasoning is that they all transcend them.
For the Tigers, they say goodbye to David Astbury and Bachar Houli. Six premierships, nearly four hundred games between them, but only one All-Australian selection (Houli in the 2019 team). If this doesn’t describe the Tigers dynasty from 2017-2020 perfectly, then I don’t know what does. The everlasting impact of this team will be that they were a group that was bigger than the sum of its parts. Yes, they had an elite forward line spearheaded by Jack Riewoldt (and later joined by Tom Lynch), and yes, they had a defence that made it harder to score than a roomful of nuns (thanks Alex Rance, Dylan Grimes – or Grimey, as he prefers), and of course they had Trent Cotchin and Shane Edwards and Kane Lambert, and… oh yeah, this guy ‘Dusty’.
But I reckon if you asked any Tigers supporter, any real Tigers supporter, if they would have won those three flags without Astbury and Houli, their answer would be ‘no’. Astbury and Houli are the types of players that you love supporting. They don’t seek headlines, they don’t attract much press, but they do their job, week in and week out, without any fuss. Their name won’t be missed by any casual fan next year, as they don’t stand out on the team sheet, but those of us who know things, those of us who care about football, will miss them greatly.
I left writing about Shaun Burgoyne to last because I couldn’t think of a way to put into words what his impact on football has been. The first time I started trying to write about football was after I had graduated high-school – 2007. This was a very good season for Port Adelaide, as they finished the season with a 15-7 record, and won two finals on their way to a second grand final in four years. Unfortunately, they lost that game by 119 points, but hey, you gotta be in it to win it, right? Anyway, my point is that during 2007 (and well into 2008) I remember writing several pieces that argued Shaun Burgoyne was the best player in the comp and represented exactly what all teams needed.
I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but let’s just say I have as good an eye for talent as Clarko (obviously I am joking, or am I?). Port would trade Burgoyne to the Hawks at the end of 2008, believing that he had less than no time left in his knees. It was a slight miscalculation. Burgoyne would play 250 games for the Hawks (including today) and win three more premierships. In return for Burgoyne, the Power would get Jay Nash, Andrew Moore, and Jasper Pittard, three players who would play a combined total of 189 games for Port Adelaide.
Footy can be a funny game sometimes.
- I did a little bit of research before the game today and found that Clarko, as a coach, has a losing record against only two sides – Geelong (not surprising, considering the ‘Kennett curse’ and Port Adelaide).
- Interestingly, the only one of his apprentices that he has a positive record against is Brendon Bolton.
- I’ve liked Liam Baker’s move up forward for the Tigers, but I wonder how much longer it will be used for. Sydney Stack looked good forward in the last quarter, and Baker is a really good kick out of the back half. He may find himself on the half back line again soon.
- If Todd Goldstein is not the most underrated ruckman in the comp, then Ben McEvoy has to be. The bloke has won two premierships as a ruckman, and has a proven ability to float back and forward depending on what is required and at 32 years of age, approaching 250 games, and as captain of the Hawks, he has a record that almost any other player could only envy.
- I liked the game of Tyler Brockman today. As a youngster in his first season, his ability to make something out of nothing was special and bodes well for a Hawks forward line that looks pretty vanilla.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Nick Vlaustin sighted by the MRO this week. His hit on Ollie Hanrahan, which somehow didn’t attract a 50m penalty, looked deliberate and high.
- In addition to liking McEvoy in the ruck, I thought his time spent at Centre Half-Forward was promising in so far as he looked a decent stop-gap option while the likes of Mitchell Lewis and Jacob Koschitzke develop.
- Chad Wingard playing through the middle of the ground is an interesting move by the Hawks, but I think that they will be at their best when he can play as a permanent forward.
- Kyle Hartigan has been a good pick-up for the Hawks, but I think they would be well placed to put in a call to Daniel Talia’s agent.
- The Hawks midfield seems to have found form as the season started to wind down – Tom Phillips, Tom Mitchell, Chad Wingard and Jaegar O’Meara have all hit their best form in the last six weeks of the season. If they start season 2022 in this manner, their year could look very different.