Hawthorn and Richmond met at the MCG today in a game that will go some way towards deciding the final eight. The Tigers’ 23-point victory over the Hawks sees them to a 5-4 record – the first time in almost 12 months that they have had a positive win-loss record – and marks the first time since their premiership win in the Covid-shortened 2020 season that they have won three games in a row.

The Hawks, on the other hand, have slumped to their fourth loss in a row – their worst run of losses since May of last year – and now find themselves a minimum of two games out of the eight at the end of round nine.

 

At the seven-minute mark of the second quarter, a Jacob Koschitzke goal saw the Hawks 25-points clear of the Tigers. Koschitzke’s goal capped a run of five consecutive Hawthorn goals, and it looked for all money like Richmond were readying themselves to concede. Despite their backline appearing brittle, the Hawks had controlled the ball in the middle of the ground and ensured that they gave their forwards plenty of opportunities to hit the scoreboard. Then with no bluster or carry-on, nor a whispered word or nod of the head, the Tigers, as they have done so many times in the last half a decade, flicked a switch and kicked 12 of the next 15 goals to all but end the game.

Reader, I have been staring at that sentence for the last couple of minutes and must admit that the phrase ‘flicked a switch’ doesn’t really do the Tigers justice. They changed the momentum of a game 180 degrees through skill and effort; they didn’t turn a light on. Changing momentum like they did is not an automatic, simple thing to do. Only the best teams are capable of achieving it, and even then they can’t do it every time. It requires all players being of the same mindset, working as one for the same goal and not losing their way when confronted with an obstacle.

Ultimately it starts with a few contest wins, and I thought that when the Tigers needed them the most, Toby Nankervis was the one who delivered. If, for a half of football the Tigers were back to their brutal and belligerent best, then it was Nankervis who drove it today. For 60 minutes it felt like the footy was only going one way – out of the centre and into the Tigers forward line – and ‘Nank’ played a big part in this.

When Jack Riewoldt kicked his third nearly nine minutes into the last quarter, I started to think that I might turn the game off and begin writing. The Hawks looked finished, the Tigers looked on top, and I’ve watched enough footy to know how this type of game finishes. But as any true footy fan knows, the game has a funny way of letting you know that anything is possible.

In my notes for the game, after Riewoldt’s goal, I wrote that the next ten minutes would prove to be an important character-building ten minutes for the Hawks. To their credit, they threw everything at the Tigers and kicked four goals in ten minutes, reducing the margin to just ten points, before goals to Jason Castagna and Shai Bolton righted the ship and saw the Tigers home.

I’ve struggled with how to write these reviews – I find my analytical mind works best after about 48 hours – and instead of giving a play-by-play type of review (which I always find a massive bore) I prefer to prepare a few points of interest before a game and concentrate on watching the way that these play out. So, without further ado, here are my four points.

 

  1. The Lewis and Kosi Show

 

Over the first five weeks of the 2022 season, Mitch Lewis appeared to be one of the top two or three young tall forwards ready to tear the competition apart. He was averaging nearly 12 disposals, seven marks and three goals a game – only once had he kicked less than three goals – and with a young Hawks midfield ready to grow alongside him over the next four or five seasons, Lewis looked to be anointed the next great forward to wear the brown and gold. A hamstring injury following the Hawks’ unlikely Easter Monday victory over the Cats has seen him miss the last three weeks, and has proven beyond any doubt how important his presence is to this Hawks team.

I don’t know exactly why Jacob Koschitzke was left out of the Hawks team for the first month of the season – I’m going to assume injury, because it sure shouldn’t be form – but in Lewis’s absence over the last three weeks, he has proved a decent target forward of the ball, kicking nine goals. I owned Koschitzke in Fantasy Football last year (for about six weeks longer than I should have – I’m not very good), so I have watched him reasonably closely and feel like he is the type of forward who is better when he has another genuine tall target to play off. His combination with Lewis today would have certainly made the Tigers’ defence wary and had them playing a lot closer to their opponent than normal.

I liked both of their games today. They provided strong targets in the air and when Hawthorn were on top, showed that they could be dominant forwards if given the chance. The big problem for them, and in fact all forwards, was that they are beholden to their midfield group, and for half the game today, the Hawks mids were well and truly beaten. By midway through the third quarter, Hawks coach Sam Mitchell appeared frustrated with the output of current Hawks ruckman Max Lynch, and thrust the responsibility of leading the ruck onto Koschitzke, and it must be said that Koschitzke was the third-best ruckman on the ground (after both Tigers ruckmen.)

Our fearless leader at The Mongrel Punt, HB, writes an article every week about the ‘Get Out Of Jail’ (GOOJ) mark – if you’re not already a member and can’t read his articles, do yourself a favour a sign up, they’re far better than this trash – and central to this kick is having a tall option down the line who teammates feel they can kick to and won’t have the ball come back over their heads. This means that the GOOJ target needs to do one of two things – provide a target and halve a contest, or; take the mark down the line. The combination of Lewis and Koschitzke seem primed to dominate this metric for the next decade.

 

  1. The Hot Tom Lynch

 

To be fair, this title would be funnier if the other Tom Lynch (North Melbourne by way of Adelaide and St Kilda) was playing every week, but I think you get the point.

Over the first six weeks of the season, Richmond (by way of Gold Coast)’s Tom Lynch was fine without setting the world on fire. And to be completely fair, that’s what he’d been for the majority of his career – only twice has he kicked more than 60 goals in a season across 11 completed seasons of football. Further, aside from his first season with the Tigers – 2019 when he kicked 63 goals – he hasn’t kicked more than 40 in year. Leading into this season he averaged a little over two goals a game, which is perfectly acceptable, but for a guy who was taken in the top ten of his draft year, is nigh-on 200cm tall, has great reflexes, a vice-like grip and is brilliant below his knees, it seems like this is a bit below what his potential output could have been.

I hear you Tigers supporters saying that he’s a two-time premiership player, and I also hear you Gold Coast supporters saying he kicked more than 40 goals a year four times in a row for us, but I can’t help but think that, in the AFL multi-verse, there’s a version of Tom Lynch who has won three Coleman Medals and kicked almost 600 goals to this point of his career.

If you need proof of this, let me show you the Tom Lynch of the last three weeks. He has kicked 17 goals – which probably should have been more than 20 if he’d kicked straighter – leads the Coleman medal by multiple goals, is full-forward in the rolling Mongrel Punt All-Australian Team, and is virtually unbeatable inside 50. Lynch must have been licking his lips when he saw James Sicily sidle up next to him, and though Sicily did a more than handy job, Lynch’s four goals gives him the match-up win.

This year feels like he’s playing closer to goal, and we are finally seeing him ascend to his final form – a non-stop, unbeatable, goal-kicking machine.

 

  1. A Flighty Defence

 

I was trying to think of a good pun for a section on the Hawks defence, and this is the best I could come up with – please don’t laugh.

Coming into the game today, the Hawks had given up three scores of more than 100 points in their last five games. Adding today’s match to this statistic makes it four in six at an average of nearly 108 points per game. As a reference, the Hawks conceded more than 100 points five times for the entire season across 2021, averaging 87 points against. So what has changed?

Obviously, they have changed coaches, and it seems like Mitchell is coaching his defenders to play more assertively. The Hawks have also welcomed Sicily back into their backline, and while Sicily is a phenomenal talent, defending man-on-man is not exactly his strong suit. Aside from the points conceded per game, the most worrying trend for the Mitchell and the Hawks defence is their propensity to be scored against heavily and quickly. Three weeks ago, the Swans kicked nine goals in the last quarter, while the Demons kicked six in the third quarter two weeks ago, and Essendon kicked eight in the last quarter seven days ago.

I came into this game wondering if the Hawks would have made any defensive changes to try and stymie these attacking flourishes, and after 12 of 15 goals kicked across the second, third and fourth quarters, it seems whatever changes have been made will take some time to settle in. Certainly early in the game, it seemed the Hawks were willing to set their defence deep and allow their Richmond opponents to move up the ground in order to stop them from getting free on turnover, but as the Hawks began to lose field position, their defenders got caught one-out more and more.

If given the chance again, I wonder if the Hawks coaching staff would choose to match-up the way they did. Before the game, I thought that Sam Frost would stand Riewoldt, Denver Grainger-Barras would man Lynch and Sicily would take the space in front of Lynch. The decision to match Sicily and Lynch was certainly interesting, but I wonder if it made the Hawks’ defence more predictable than it needed to be.

 

  1. A Re-Structure on the Run

 

This Tigers team is nothing if not adaptable. Before the start of the season, Damien Hardwick forecast his intent to play Daniel Rioli across the half-back line. When the season started, we saw Noah Balta and Liam Baker moved into the forward line. With Dustin Martin on leave and Trent Cotchin injured a couple of weeks ago, Hardwick threw the magnets around again. moving Balta and Baker back behind the ball, and moved his best half-back flanker, Jayden Short, into the middle of the ground.

All of these movements would make you think that this is a transition year for the Tigers, and it still might be, but I can tell you, as a fan of a team at the bottom of the ladder, it is a hell of a lot better transitioning as a top-eight team than a bottom four team. With as many as nine rounds of data to look at, even the Tigers’ harshest judges would be hard-pressed to suggest any of these moves were failures. Rioli is an adept ball user and looks at home across half-back, Balta and Baker are much better suited to roles behind the ball, and Short’s move into the middle of the ground has been perfectly timed with an uptick in both form and fitness.

Looking across the ins and outs of both teams gives a good impression of where they are at – the Hawks managed their Brownlow medal winning midfielder Tom Mitchell out of the game and omitted triple premiership player Liam Shiels, while the Tigers welcomed back triple premiership players Dion Prestia and Nick Vlastuin. As was said multiple times in the call of today’s game, this was probably the strongest defensive lineup the Tigers can muster, and for a full 60 minutes they put up a wall more impenetrable than the one that kept the rabbits out of China.

Will this re-structure of the team see the Tigers win the premiership this year? No, definitely not, but it could keep them in contention for the next three or four years.

 

Stray Thoughts

 

  • For anyone interested, today was the twentieth consecutive time that Hawthorn and Richmond have met at the MCG, dating back to their only match-up in the 2007 season.
  • I liked the use of Will Day through the middle and on the wing for the Hawks. He looks like he’s a super talent, and the more experience you get into him in his first four or five years will be fully franked by the end of his career.
  • I haven’t said enough about the guy I’m giving full votes to, so just let me say that Toby Nankervis was absolutely fantastic today. Anyone who questions his capacity to lead this team has rocks in their head – this was a leader’s game that delivered a clutch performance when his teammates needed it most.
  • I’m going to keep going on Nankervis – this was a game that a bad team would have lost by ten or twelve goals, but Nankervis, almost through sheer force of will, turned the result by winning balls out of the middle.
  • Also, his goal was incredible. His pirouette belongs to the Bolshoi Ballet more than the Richmond Tigers. I can’t speak highly enough of his game.
  • Ivan Soldo was great too and will be getting one of my votes. The Tigers rucks just destroyed Max Lynch, and it was only when Koschitzke went into the ruck did the game start to get back on an even keel.
  • Speaking of dominant performances, just a standard MCG special from Dusty. 20 touches and three goals – the only reason it doesn’t warrant much comment is because of how many times it’s happened!
  • The umpires looked to be throwing the ball up in the middle of the ground almost all day today – maybe they should do that more often?
  • A bit of a two-face effort from Chad Wingard in his 200th game today. Unfortunately, that’s something that’s starting to define his career.
  • I wonder how important the injury to Jack Gunston was on the quarter-time siren? I don’t think it would have decided the game, but then again the Hawks got back to within two goals with a couple of minutes to go – could he have been the difference?
  • The Hawks seem like they desperately need either Ben McEvoy or Ned Reeves back in the ruck.

 

Next Steps

 

The Tigers remain at the MCG to host the Bombers for Dreamtime at the ‘G’, while the Hawks venture to their second home on the Apple Isle to host Brisbane in a gamer they have to win to keep in touch with the eight.

 

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