On paper this twilight clash at the MCG on an admittedly perfect late Autumn day was not a game the purists had pencilled in as a must see (apart from Damian Barrett I guess who has some type of bloodlust over Hawthorn failing for reasons unknown, and best ignored if truth be told).
This was confirmed by a dismal crowd of only 39,000. Melbourne perched on the second line of favouritism for the premiership, while Hawthorn actively competing for a first wooden spoon since 1965 (before St Kilda won their only flag) was never likely to be the script that lured these two apathetic supporter groups out of the comfort of their leaf-lined inner suburban homes. The first half played out like a carbon replica, albeit reversed from a decade ago where Melbourne was regularly on the receiving end of a Hawthorn thrashing, and this one had the hallmarks of a 100+ point result until the long break.
Melbourne’s depth both across the field and in top-end talent, and trust in their game plan left the Hawks in their wake, as early inaccuracy transitioned to eight straight goals as the Dees moved the ball with lightning speed and efficiency on the counterattack to stun a star-struck Hawks outfit. To Hawthorn’s credit, and perhaps symbolic of developing teams, they fought back valiantly in the third term, piling on five goals in about ten minutes of play to at least give their fans some positives to take out of the evening, but Melbourne hit back hard in the final term to ease out nine goal winners in what was probably overall a sloppy game considering the perfect conditions. Below features a deeper dive into five talking points from the game.
AN INTRIGUING RUCK BATTLE
The loss of the quickly developing Ned Reeves in the ruck who has had reasonable success against Gawn previously was a blow to the Hawks already badly outmatched on paper, but ex-Fremantle recruit Lloyd Meek acquitted himself well throughout against the joint threats of Grundy & Gawn. Meek competed hard throughout, with limited assistance from undersized Jacob Koschitzke, and recorded eight hit outs to advantage from his game-high 20 taps. Pleasingly for Hawks fans who have probably been a little underwhelmed by his season to date, he also contributed 14 disposals, six tackles, 22 pressure acts and a fine goal drifting forward to take a contested mark. Despite neither of the two-headed demon monster featuring in the votes, their combined presence probably took the points overall, Gawn as ever strong around the ball winning six clearances and five marks to go with eighteen touches, and Grundy directing almost 50% of his 18 hit outs to advantage. Both Melbourne rucks also kicked goals in what has become a rich source of avenue to goal in coach Simon Goodwin’s system.
Melbourne entered 2023 with high expectations after falling away badly mid-season on the back of their drought-breaking triumph at Optus Stadium two seasons ago, but to date have not quite hit their straps. Being soundly beaten by Brisbane and Essendon, and only scraping over the line against the Suns and Tigers, admittedly that win looks better in hindsight based on recent results. None of this would be of any great concern to the coaches or playing staff as wins on the board are most important in the first half of the year, allowing flexibility to tinker with the game plan and momentum to launch an assault on a second flag in this era.
The positive sign Melbourne have shown is an ability to maul poor teams, and effectively get the four points with a minimum of fuss, if the AFL season is a marathon, this is a great strategy. Yesterday again showed this capacity and the game was effectively over at the midway point, even though a few pulses would have raised in the early stages of the third term, Melbourne looked slick and mature in moving the ball quickly to their forwards who eventually put the score on the board after a long-range strike from the returning Spargo. The defence looked more assured with their experienced and preferred line up gaining some continuity and held the Hawks to a paltry 36% efficiency I50 with only five marks, both well down on their season average. Meanwhile, they took 21 of their own marks I50, a 50% increase on the season average as 12 players hit the scorecard, with Spargo, Petty and Fritsch all contributing two apiece.
The Hawks have also displayed an inconsistency, perhaps common with young teams, but still varying too widely from competitive to uncompetitive for acceptances. A strong run of games where they probably should have beaten both the Giants and Crows, and then pushed the Bulldogs hard has been scuppered by back-to-back thrashings against the Dockers and now Melbourne. The inability to either score or prevent the opposition scoring for large stretches of the game is most concerning and needs to be addressed. The Hawks allowed the Demons the first eight goals of the game, and then scored five of their seven in a ten-minute burst in the third term. The Hawks were again competitive in the midfield which will be looked at further down this page, matching the vaunted Demon group in clearances and also out tackled them which indicates an improving effort, but were soundly beaten 311-354 in pressure acts and this is a measure that will frustrate fans.
Melbourne presented a very clear message with their selection after just holding on against the Suns last week, dropping youngster Daniel Turner and sending James Jordon to the subs bench, while recalling veteran Michael Hibberd and dangerous Charlie Spargo. Hibberd wasn’t called upon to any large degree but was neat and efficient on the rare occasions the ball found itself in the defensive half. He finished with five spoils, just behind Steven May for the match and he collected seven intercepts as part of his 15 total disposals at 94% in a fine outing. Spargo seemed to ignite the powerful Melbourne engine with a well taken set shot from range midway through the first term that opened the doors for another three goals straight before the quarter-time siren. Spargo was typically opportunistic, and he finished with two goals for the fourth time this season from just 6 games.
Sam Mitchell appeared to have lost some patience after the Fremantle annihilation last Saturday night dropping experienced players Fergus Greene and Jack Scrimshaw. Each are curious cases, Greene was excellent this season until the return of Mitch Lewis, and has struggled to find his role once the alpha forward slotted back in, while Scrimshaw is a mystery, on talent and output prior to 2023 he was a top ten player for the Hawks. A combination of injury, interrupted game time and a change of position are all contributing to him not performing at the level required, the next few weeks will be interesting to watch for the Hawk #14. Ward and McDonald were also left out of the side nominally with a foot issue and illness, both second year players have struggled to recapture the highly promising starts they made in 2022 and will hope to recapture that form in the second half of the year.
Tyler Brockman who has been a shining light up forward will be missed, the victim of the AFL’s MRO lottery and Reeves was also out as outlined above. Replacing them were experienced duo Luke Breust and Changkuoth Jiath, who had vastly different games, but ultimately were both poor. Breust kicked a goal early in the 3rd to kickstart a short-lived Hawthorn charge but was basically unsighted for the rest of the match, CJ started further afield than usual but wasn’t able to capitalise on any opportunities to run and create which are his strengths. His ball handling perhaps due to confidence is at an all-time low, and when he was forced back to cover for Blanck struggled to maintain match ups giving the Dees forwards too much space. James Blanck started well with four spoils after a strong run of form at Box Hill before he was subbed out with a corked quad, Sam Butler was lively up forward and if not for misjudging the pace could have added two more goals to his tally. Cam MacKenzie showed glimpses of his obvious talent, and once he gains some pace and awareness will become a weapon with his elite field kicking, while Koschitzke had an almost game, which unfortunately has been most of his career to date. Dropped marks and missed goals, coupled with desperate efforts and good pressure.
CLASH OF THE TITANS
It’s perhaps a little premature to be expecting the budding Hawthorn midfield to the battle-scarred and feted Demon onball division but based on performances thus far in 2023 their output is not substantially different. That’s not to suggest for a moment that you wouldn’t prefer Melbourne’s hardened superstars, merely complimenting the rapid improvement of the Hawk youngsters. Oliver, Viney and Petracca were typically industrious, bringing their unique combination of brawn, finesse and football IQ to the contest. They shared in 95 possessions, which progressed their team over 1.5km, contributed 29 score involvements and kicked two goals. Viney was excellent with his contested work and tackling a feature, Oliver silky smooth as always, finding time and releasing his teammates into space, however, I felt Petracca was the pick of the litter, his game elevated by a monstrous five goal assists. His possessions held slightly more impact than the other two, but they were all powerful contributors during the game.
The Hawks, meanwhile, were not to be outdone considering the numbers recorded by their demonic counterparts. Winning the centre clearances 12-11 and just falling short of the total clearances at 31-24, another good guide when comparing players who acquire high percentages of contested ball is disposal efficiency. Here the Hawks gained an advantage with emerging star Will Day delivering his 29 touches at 69% and Jai Newcombe achieving a spectacular 85% efficiency while leading his team for I50s, score involvements and hitting the scoreboard again with a fine goal in open play. James Worpel was probably the Hawks best in the early going against the tide and led the game with four centre clearances, while also exceeding his season average for disposals and disposal efficiency. They are still a work in progress but going toe to toe with the best in the business and while defeated could hold their collective heads high.
Melbourne is blessed with probably the best captain in the competition in Max Gawn. He is ably assisted by mature and successful deputies across every line, this is shown time and time again when momentum sways during a match, such as midway through the first when Melbourne’s inaccuracy threatened to open the door for the opposition, or during a withering run of five goals in the third term. The ability of a team to take a breath on the run and re-establish their game plan under duress is the hallmark of a great side. Melbourne while not overly challenged in this game, used their experience to great effect in taking the blows and then capitalising on the Hawks’ numerous mistakes. Good decision-making and execution were probably the two biggest contributing factors to the resounding victory.
Hawthorn is obviously at the other end of the premiership window timeline, and this is reflected in their leadership at present. Sicily so outstanding last year is struggling in the main role, his numbers look fine in isolation but a deeper look shows he is less sure of himself in marking contests, when to peel off, and certainly with ball in hand. His 96% efficiency flattered him as many kicks were long release options not to the benefit of his side. Dylan Moore the vice-captain is enduring the first real form slump of his career, perhaps as a result of teams putting in more work to quell his influence. His rise was built on dogged hard work and that seems to have plateaued in recent times. Luke Breust has really struggled with the haphazard and static delivery forward and ageing legs, while Sam Frost is both the best and worst of footballers, often in the same contest. Mitch Lewis and Jarman Impey have elevated in recent weeks after returning from injuries, but the gap in influence from the leaders of these two clubs was glaring yesterday.
And in recognition of Christian Petracca’s outrageous handful of goal assists here are five quick ones to finish:
It’s been a bit concerning a team with so much youth hasn’t claimed a rising star nomination to date. There was definitely a step in the right direction though with last season’s first round draftees, Josh Weddle and Cam McKenzie both scoring their first AFL goals back-to-back, amongst some other impressive passages. You can see a likeness with MacKenzie and his coach who also wore 28 with a mop of blond hair early in his career. Seamus Mitchell is the player who deserves the plaudits though, his 27-disposal game was full of class and assuredness, as he belied his youth and off-season delisting to be one of the best Hawks and is a strong chance for nomination after a few good weeks in a row.
I think everyone wants to know what is going on with Chad? A brutal injury against the Giants notwithstanding, he has been well below par all season. He is as far from his AA years as ever and I’m not sure he can remain in the AFL side at present. Indicative of his afternoon was one moment of brilliance where he used sleight of hand to extricate himself with ball from a pack only to send the resultant shot on goal out on the full from 15m straight in front. Only three pressure acts, a game low is a damning statistic, and the long sleeves perhaps are instructive of some short cuts he is currently taking.
Harrison Petty up forward
In the early going Petty was the clear standout tall forward for either side, his contested marking a feature as he slotted two goals. However, an untimely foot injury saw him subbed off and in doubt for future weeks. Ben Brown and Tom McDonald will watch on with great interest as they attempt to earn their place back in this line up.
With players of the ilk of Melksham, Brown, Smith and plenty of other youngsters like Howes and Woewodin pushing their names forward at Casey the Demons find themselves in a very strong position to make a realistic run at the 2023 flag.
Was great to hear home grown talent Rob ‘Millsy’ Mills, star of Australian Idol, Neighbours, One night in Paris, and recently & Juliet provide the halftime entertainment, a prominent Hawks fan, no doubt his performance spurred the Brown & Gold to a better third term.
Next week the Hawks host West Coast at UTAS in the cringeworthy ‘Harley Reid Cup’, based on recent form of these two cellar dwellers the AFL may cancel it altogether, or shift it to an 8am timeslot during the week. Melbourne travel to Adelaide Oval to play the streaking Port who are on a six-game winning streak, this should prove a great test for both under the Friday night lights.