Hawthorn v Gold Coast – The Four Points

 

As the last quarter played out today between Hawthorn and Gold Coast, I felt a wave of deja vu waft over me. The Suns had trailed the Hawks at every major change, but just as the game was starting to wind up, the Suns players took a deep breath, and threw everything they had left at their opponents. Despite their more than admirable fight-back, I couldn’t help but shake a sense of inevitability about the result. We’ve all seen this play out before, right?

The team that were favourites to win this game had underperformed for the first three quarters, yet now, through sheer force of will, are attempting to commit the football version daylight robbery. As the inside-50s, and resulting shots at goal, begin to pile up, the deficit, though, shrinks only by one point at a time.

Minutes tick by, and then the realisation hits you; the trailing team is not going to get this done. The players on the field try haplessly to outdo the forces of fate, but you know it’s not going to be enough. On another day, a player may be able to find a little bit of magic to will their team over the line, but not today. You know, the commentators know, the people in the stands know, heck even the players know (not that they’d ever admit it) that this result has already been determined. It’s been played out before, several times a year, every year that this sport has been in existence.

The Hawks hang on in a thriller, the Suns season is officially over, and the gods of football are once more sated.

Of course, it’s not really fair to say that this game was decided by the gods – the players had a fair role in it too. After a scrappy start to the game, the Hawks looked to be the team that settled first, and with Jai Newcombe providing important run and carry through the middle of the ground, took a lead into the first break despite kicking into the wind. As Jack Gunston kicked his fourth goal for the first half – with his first being his 400th as a Hawks, becoming just the 10th player in the club’s history to reach this mark – the Hawks had managed to skip away to a 27-point lead with little time left on the clock, and everything looked to be working perfectly for the team in brown and gold. They had managed to dominate the clearances – normally a strength of the Suns – with Jaegar O’Meara leading from the front with six clearances of his own, Finn Maginness had shut down Suns midfield star Touk Miller, Emerson Jeka was looking comfortable in a key defensive post, Blake Hardwick had nullified dangerous Suns forward Izak Rankine, and the Hawks were getting good performances from youngsters Josh Ward, Will Day and Connor MacDonald.

The last minute of the half gave us a glimpse of what the second half would have in store. Matt Rowell won a centre clearance, breaking away and kicking long inside 50 to Levi Casboult, whose mark and goal would – in a navy blue jumper – be seen as a sign of the apocalypse. Then with the ball back in the middle, Rowell’s best mate, Noah Anderson, won the centre clearance, banging the ball long inside 50 where it bounced just centimetres short of a leading Ben Ainsworth. The clock ran out, and the Hawks took a 21-point lead into the long break.

As important as the last quarter was, in many ways the Hawks won the game in the third. The Suns were kicking with the wind but managed to only cut the margin by four points. This despite their dominance in contested possession and clearances for the quarter – a real missed opportunity that the men in red and gold should use to light their hunger for a first finals appearance next year as they face the coming off-season. David Swallow led from the front for the Suns, with his 14 disposal quarter including seven contested possessions and three clearances, while for the Hawks, Newcombe, Dylan Moore and the ever-trustworthy Tom Mitchell managed to ensure that the momentum never fully swung in favour of Gold Coast.

The last quarter was, well… see above. The Suns tried everything they possibly could to win, and the Hawks admittedly withstood the sort of frenzied assault that can see a defender’s experience grow exponentially.

 

But that’s enough of a blow-by-blow, let’s get into my four points.

 

  1. Hawthorn’s Defence – Holding Back the Dam Wall

 

For those of you who don’t know, I like to do a lot of research pre-game (and sometimes post-game, which can mean that my reviews are a little later than they should be) in order to get a gauge on what makes each of the teams I am reviewing that week click. I find this can help me to focus on certain aspects of the game, and paint an overall picture of a team, placing their performance in the context of their season, rather than just giving you an account of the game that anyone who watched could do as well, if not better, than I could. And wouldn’t you know it, one of the first things I identified to talk (or I guess write) about was the Hawks defence.

These two teams last met in the Northern Territory nine games ago. Since that match-up, only once have the Hawks defence given up more than 100 points – in Round 15 against the Western Bulldogs. To put this in context, the Hawks had allowed six scores of more than 100 points in the first 11 weeks of the season, including the Suns in Round 11. When viewed across the whole year, the Hawks’ defence sits in the bottom four, but since Round 12 their average points against puts them well inside the defensive top eight. This is a pretty stunning turnaround, and part of the reason for the change goes to the way that their half-forwards and midfielders defend.

Rather than simply staying with their man to try and stop any overlap run, the Hawks opt to push their numbers towards the ball carrier, forcing a ‘one-on-many’ proposition in the service of trying to create a turn-over. It also forces players to look backwards and sideways, slowing down any opposition thrusts forward and allowing your defence to set up behind the ball. This change has seen their defence go from giving up 97.1 points on average through the first 11 weeks of the season, to less than 79 points through the next nine games (including today) – a more than three-goal-a-game improvement.

Another thing that has changed, and part of the reason for the title of this point, is that the Hawks are turning the ball over less in the last nine weeks. Though they still rank second in the comp for turnovers and third for clangers, those numbers are improved since the mid-season break and have seen their defence placed under far less pressure than they were early in the year. Defenders like Jack Scrimshaw are now able to run out of defence with more freedom, knowing that the likelihood of the ball being turned over and going back the other way is more remote. As if to underline this, the Hawks only gave up 36 inside-50s in the first three-quarters today, and while they did give up 17 in the last term, only one ended with a goal. The return of James Sicily, the growth of Scrimshaw, Changkouth Jiath and Denver Grainger-Barras, and the toughness of Blake Hardwick have all been things that Hawks fans can look forward to seeing more of in the years to come.

For my sins, I am a West Coast supporter. I remember watching the Eagles in the first half of the 2014 season and getting more and more frustrated. But by about halfway through the year, the game plan of their new coach, Adam Simpson, had sunk in and things just kinda clicked for the players. They went on a run through the last half of the year and almost made finals, then took a big leap the next season and made the grand final. Now, I’m not saying that the Hawks will make the big dance next season, but I do reckon that Sam Mitchell’s game plan has started to sink in and is now bearing some fruit. With a good trade period and another good draft, I can certainly see the Hawks pushing up further again next year.

 

  1. Suns Offensive Improvement – Prepare for Future Domination

 

Let’s all try and cast our minds back to the start of this year, shall we? One of the biggest questions in football circles centred around whether Ben King, Gold Coast’s full-forward (and identical twin brother of St Kilda full-forward Max), would return to Victoria at the end of the season. Then came news of two things – and in a classic case of ‘good news/bad news’- it was, well, good news and bad news. Good news – Ben King has re-signed with the Suns for two more years; bad news – he would miss 2022 with an ACL injury. With this, the Suns’ prospects for a first finals appearance since their inception grew more remote.

Not to be deterred, off-season acquisitions Mabior Chol (whose surname my computer tries to auto-correct to ‘cool’, make of that what you will) and Levi Casboult have more than ably stepped up in King’s absence, combining for almost 80 goals for the season. Nevertheless, it’s not ridiculous to have thought that, prior to the season, the Suns offence would take a backwards step based on previous history and the absence of their best forward target.

Let me, once again, throw some stats at you; last year, the Suns scored less than 60 points 11 times – that’s half their games – while they scored more than 100 points only twice. This year, however, the Suns have only twice score less than 60 points while notching up the century five times (plus another five scores in the 90s). This has seen their offence become almost four goals per game more prolific than last year, despite missing their best deep threat. So how has this happened?

Well, through the first half of the year, the Suns probably benefitted from their lack of a number-one target. Chol was promising but still largely unproven, Casboult was Casboult and their other options – Izak Rankine and Ben Ainsworth – were small and similarly unproven. With two games to go, I think we’d all have to admit that Chol has now proven himself, Casboult has shown he’s got enough left in the tank for one more year, and Rankine and Ainsworth are dangerous options almost befitting their draft position. Adding King to this mix makes it an unenviable proposition for any defence to try and stop.

Unfortunately today, only Ainsworth was able to exert any real impact on the game, gathering 17 disposals to go with six marks, five tackles and a goal. Rankine was completely shut out of the game by Hardwick, Casboult kicked one goal, but only managed four possessions for the day, and most egregiously Chol missed three shots from his eight touches, including one a set-shot from 20m out straight in front in the last term that he planted into the goal post. If there’s ever been one game this season where the Suns have missed their King, it was today.

 

  1. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

 

Regular readers of my writing will know that I love the movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It’s the perfect mix of comedy, drama, western and action and if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favour and give it a look – you won’t be disappointed. Last weekend was my birthday, and given that my wife had never seen the film before, I figured I’d take a chance and show her a movie to be one of the greatest I’ve seen, and friends, it’s still incredible! So incredible, in fact, that I haven’t really been able to shake it loose from my brain for the last week. It’s seeped into everything I’ve done and said to the point that when I was preparing for this game, I couldn’t help but think of Matt Rowell and Noah Anderson as the AFL’s equivalent of Butch and Sundance. For those of you who haven’t seen the film, there will be some spoilers ahead, so please watch the film first.

I don’t think that I’m the only person who thought that the AFL gifted Gold Coast pick two in the 2019 draft because the prohibitive number one pick and the largely consensus number two pick were best friends. It seemed like a calculated manoeuvre by head office to try and inspire both excitement in the Suns and would lead to a good chance of retention for top talent going forward. When Rowell burst out of the blocks – with three best-on-ground performances in his first four games – it looked like we were on the verge of seeing some kind of terminator version of Chris Judd. Unfortunately, injuries have laid the young phenom low over the last couple of seasons, and he’s had to watch as his best mate, Anderson, has taken the reins and carved out an impressive first 50 or so games for himself.

Nevertheless, I can’t help but think that every time that Rowell and Anderson turn up to training session together (I assume they travel everywhere together), Rowell says something like “Y’know, Noah, every time I see Metricon Stadium again, it’s like seeing it fresh, for the first time… and whenever that happens I ask myself the same question: how can I be so damn stupid to keep coming back here?” But now that I think of it, maybe that quote is better attributed to the rest of us footy fans who remember how good Rowell was in his first few games and keep watching him every week, thinking ‘maybe this week, maybe we’ll see what we first saw then’.

Maybe though, Rowell is like Butch Cassidy in the worst way – someone who promises easy times somewhere else, and that somewhere else keeps moving further and further away. And maybe Noah Anderson is like Sundance in the worst way, a sidekick willing to follow their leader as far as he will take him, even if it means certain death. If we’re honest, only Anderson would make the top-five of a re-draft of 2019, and even then it’s line-ball between him, Fremantle’s Caleb Serong and GWS’s Tom Green (I have Luke Jackson, Sam De Koning, Chad Warner and Kysiah Pickett as the top four).

Today’s performances do nothing to swing this, either. Anderson had 26 touches, including 10 contested possessions, but had six clangers and turned the ball over directly four times while Matt Rowell had 15 possessions – admittedly also eight tackles and five clearances – but contributed five clangers and four turnovers. They both have long futures ahead of them, and could have great careers if things break a certain way, but when I look at them I can’t help but be reminded of one quote – see below…

“Butch Cassidy: You know, when I was a kid, I always thought I’d grow up to be a hero.

Sundance Kid: Well, it’s too late now.

Butch Cassidy: What’d you say that for? You didn’t have to say something like that.”

 

  1. The Young Hawks

Before the game started today. I had a few minutes spare so thought I would have a look and see if I could mark down all the players who were drafted from 2019 onwards for the Hawks. You know how many? There are seven – Will Day, Finn Maginness, Denver Grainger-Barras, Josh Ward, Sam Butler, Connor MacDonald and Jai Serong – this doesn’t even include mid-season draftees Jai Newcombe and James Blanck who suited up for the Hawks today. All told, that’s eight players (Blanck was the unused sub today) who are 22 years old and under who played roles in the Hawks’ victory.

Day is someone I’ve been watching keenly since he was first drafted – his speed off the half-back line and precision by foot has been something to behold. Today he was relatively impressive again, gathering 20 disposals, including 12 intercept possessions. He was joined in the back half by Grainger-Barras who projects to be a good defender but has yet to truly nail down a position. Another pre-season in the gym, and a few more months under the tutelage of Sam Mitchell, might just bring the best out in him. MacDonald, Butler and Serong, too I thought were quiet, though I would argue their age precludes them from harsh judgement. Serong took an impressive mark across half-forward and looks an intriguing prospect as a third, and potentially second, tall target for the Hawks.

The two youngsters I really want to talk about are Josh Ward and Finn Maginness. Ward in particular is an exciting prospect – he had 20 touches today with eight contested possessions, three goal assists, four clearances and four inside-50s. In a lot of ways, he reminds me of more contested version of Andrew Gaff – he has the same forward-slant running style, is left-foot dominant, not a long kick, but is generally accurate. Maginness, meanwhile, is quickly carving out for himself a career as a full-time hassler (that’s hassler, not hustler). Again today he did a superb job, holding the Suns best midfielder, Miller, to 21 disposals and just 82m gained – that’s less than four metres gained per disposal.

There’s an oft-repeated joke in fantasy football circles about promising midfielders who are forced to tag – you don’t want to do too good of a job, lest you be asked to do it again (admittedly, it’s not the height of humour). Maginness, though, has done such a good job for a number of weeks that the best midfielder facing them must lose a bit of sleep the night before, knowing they’re going to be in for an extremely tough contest the next day.

Stray Shots


Ben McEvoy celebrated his 250th game in style today with a goal in the first quarter and a running bounce out of defence in the second. How often has he done that, I hear you ask? Well, this was just the fifth time in his career, and only his second in Hawks colours.

How do Hawks fans feel about Harry Morrison’s move to half-back? I often felt that he was a bit anonymous on the wing and thought he was a bit more engaged today – maybe a good move?

Elijah Hollands is an extremely talented player and the Suns need to do everything they can to hold onto him. Some whispers around have him moving back to Victoria at the end of this season.

Alex Davies is bloody strong – I hope to see him in the midfield for the Suns for the next decade, because he looks a really good prospect.

I’m still wondering what sort of player Jack Lukosius is going to be. Last season, I think I put the blame for his lack of development on the Suns’ management, but now I put the blame on him. He’s been on a list for four years now, and if by the end of last year he still hasn’t nailed down a definite position, then it’s on him.

I like the look of Mac Andrew as a footballer. He reminds me of a young Alirr Alirr, and if the Suns can hold onto him they might have a really good defensive prospect on their hands.

What does Jai Newcombe project to be? I don’t think he’s the type you want to be your best midfielder, but if he’s your third or fourth best you’ve got a bloody good group going. Maybe he’s the Hawks Jack Viney?

Always interesting to see a player lose their mind for a few seconds, like Jarman Impey did in the third term.

I wonder if the Suns might regret not throwing Rankine in the middle to start the last quarter. Seemed to me like they could have done with a bit of x-factor, and there might not be a more x-factor player than him?

Classic McEvoy to go off and get his head bandaged before coming back on and taking a big-time defensive mark. He might go down as one of the top-ten most underrated players of his generation.

A true stray thought – how many times would you have had two teams play each other in the same season – as true home and away games – not in their home states?

 

Next Steps

The Hawks return to Victoria and take on the Tigers at the MCG next Sunday, while the Suns return home to host the Cats at Metricon on Saturday afternoon.

 

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