Pre-season expectation for these teams was of a young club coming of age and eager to build on their elimination final win in 2022, while the other was widely predicted to anchor the ladder after jettisoning almost all veterans on their list. Yesterday’s result, with just that information at hand was therefore as expected, but the reality is more nuanced.
Both teams entered what was essentially a dead rubber on a beautiful pre-spring day at the MCG in far better form than their respective ladder position would suggest. However, it was the away team, Fremantle with the killer instinct, and disciplined tactics that were far too good for an emerging Hawthorn, who made some curious strategic decisions both before and during the match.
Let’s deep dive into five key stories of the day:
GAME PLAN – MITCHELL vs LONGMUIR
Fremantle bested the Hawks by 12 goals earlier in the season, their forward press creating havoc with Mitchell’s preferred fast ball movement. The return bout saw both teams in good form coming in, but the result was almost the same with the Dockers hard running defensive transition and efficient forward thrusts too disciplined for a Hawthorn side that looked tired after a long campaign.
Longmuir has a unique proposition at his disposal, a vast number of small players who can create goal-scoring opportunities and who are also defensively insatiable.
Hawthorn won the clearances comfortably, 37-24, but Fremantle responded with a 64-45 advantage in tackles, which had the Hawks constantly under pressure and they turned the ball over 67 times to just 56 for the match. Once the Dockers gained possession, they were able to deliver 23 scoring shots, above their season average of 20.9, from just 45 I50s (down from season average of 50.3), at the impressive efficiency of 53.3%.
Mitchell meanwhile had a curious day, the selection of Brandon Ryan who was clearly underdone, the decision to name Meek as sub, Newcombe starting off the field, Maginness not employed to stop Brayshaw or Serong – it had you thinking that winning the game wasn’t the primary objective for the Hawks. He swung some changes in the last term, Sicily and Hardwick deep forward in an attempt to find an avenue to goal but abandoned them quickly when the Dockers scored the first two goals to move out to an unassailable 39-point lead.
MASTER & APPRENTICE
This title is an unashamed reference to the recent Ahsoka S1 premiere episode, referencing the on-field battle in the Hawthorn/Fremantle context between – Brayshaw/Serong vs Newcombe/Day. In an adjacent two-birds-with-one-stone scenario, I know Bob Iger has been tightening the purse strings recently, but surely investing in the AFL’s brightest ‘young’ analysts and writers is money well spent! Plus, we’d really appreciate an uninterrupted and legal stream of all our favourite Star Wars content into Mongrel HQ. (I do fear the boss will call me a Disney shill again after this, but you know what, I said unashamed, and I stand by it. After all money is still green ill-gotten or otherwise).
The established Freo midfield stars, 23- & 22-year-old Andrew Brayshaw & Caleb Serong (likely both – AA after this season), versus the just 22-year-old Jai Newcombe & Will Day who are probably in the conversation for Aa contention at this level in coming seasons. And so it proved that the barely 12-month older dynamic duo from the west were comfortable victors on the day and went a long way towards their teams dominance during the game.
Serong was the standout and should attract the three Brownlow votes on offer, he basically did as he pleased with 32 disposals, a game-high nine clearances five tackles and 29 pressure acts, ably supported by Brayshaw with thirty-three touches of his own, three clearances and eight tackles. Despite their relatively short stature, these two play above their height and weight and are a force to be reckoned with in the decade ahead as they will assume leadership of this club.
Their Hawthorn counterparts were far from disgraced, Day collecting 30 possessions, six clearances and two tackles, and Newcombe contributing 23 touches, two clearances and a tackle. A key difference was the kick-to-handball ratio, with Serong tracking at 50%, Brayshaw at 54%, but Day at just 33%, and Newcombe attending far fewer than his season average 67% of centre bounce attendances. The Hawks usually rely on clear passage for these two to generate fast F50 entries, but they were harassed and blunted yesterday which negated one of the Hawks biggest strengths.
Another illustration of Fremantle’s focus on not allowing the Hawks the time and space to execute their attacking gameplan was shown in experienced stars, Amon, Worpel, Newcombe, Moore, Hardwick, Sicily, and Day contributing a troublesome 41 turnovers collectively. From the supporting cast, James Worpel was again tireless, winning four clearances amongst his 23 disposals and a game-high 31 pressure acts, while Hayden Young for the victors continued his impressive move into more midfield minutes with 22 touches, five clearances, seven tackles and 414m gained – he could well be the big bodied mid to support the two stars as the Dockers reload for 2024.
Both sides went in with one established ruckman in their starting 22, Luke Jackson (199cm and 75 games) against Ned Reeves (209cm and 38 games), interesting questions about both are still unanswered with first-line ruckmen on each club’s respective lists. Sean Darcy is an established star ruckman, but in the more traditional style as a tall, lumbering brute, whereas Jackson is athletically gifted and an extra runner in the midfield. Reeves has proven an elite tap ruckman and has finally added some marking around the ground to his repertoire in recent weeks, while Meek possesses more agility. It’s an intriguiing sub-plot to the ongoing development of both teams and how they move forward with two specialist ruckmen on their books who would expect to all play senior football.
A dodgy ankle limited Reeves effectiveness in this game, and Meek was inserted into the action as the activated sub shortly after halftime. Jackson played 82% of game time and attended 67 ruck contests, winning seven to his team’s advantage (from 24 total hitouts), Reeves completed 75% game time, and won eight hitouts to advantage from 39 contests (winning 24 hitouts), while Meek played 38% of the game, and directed 6 of his 13 hit outs to advantage (from 28 contested).
Based on the Hawks getting first use more often, and clearly winning first possessions from stoppages there wasn’t a conclusive winner on the day, as Jackson was more effective once the ball was in general play, collecting 15 touches and four marks, he also looked dangerous going forward but was unable to hit the scoreboard.
The first half numbers were much closer, Jackson winning 15 hitouts compared to Reeves’ 10, while in the second half Jackson won nine, while Reeves and Meek shared 27. The ruck battle was indecisive overall though, with none of those playing through the roles in their teams’ best players and adding some further intrigue to their clubs go forward position.
KEY POSITION AUDITION
Both of these teams have ambitions of success in the short-to-medium term, are the key position pillars in place already? Amiss with forty goals this season is a rising star contender, Lewis a star but there remain question marks about his durability. Who fills in the Blanck’s (what a fun pun this is!)?
Fremantle’s extreme forward efficiency was outlined above, and Jye Amiss was the primary beneficiary scoring 3.1 from his seven disposals, while Josh Treacy was excellent with two goals of his own amongst fifteen disposals, six marks and three clearances in his brief forays into the ruck. Joel Hamling the 2016 premiership Bulldog, who has suffered numerous injury setbacks since that time, was solid with 14 possessions, a game-high seven spoils and eight marks, and still is the right age profile to be a mainstay of this Freo backline. Experienced stars Luke Ryan and Alex Pearce were both solid and enjoyed a pretty easy day with the haphazard forward delivery by the Hawks and the poor output of their tall forwards. The basic composition of their tall stocks is in place for a sustained run at finals.
The Hawks talls produced a mixed bag of results, the young defenders, James Blanck (24 games) and Jai Serong (5 games) acquitted themselves well but may have just lowered their colours due to the return of the Dockers forwards. Blanck a polarising figure to Hawks’ fans had seven touches, three marks, but also counted 4 spoils and four wins from contested one one-on-ones. While Serong in his first real exposure to a key back role in the AFL, didn’t look out of place at all with fifteen disposals, seven marks and five spoils. He’s one to watch for the future as he has the athletic gifts required to succeed in this role. Their forwards on the other hand were a bust, Koschitzke continues his Jekyll & Hyde AFL existence, just six touches, one mark and seven metres gained after kicking the first goal of the game. Brandon Ryan should never have played after being hobbled with illness for the past fortnight, he was only able to contribute one ineffective handball in a painful 38% game time before being thankfully benched. Scrimshaw was an interesting one, forced forward through match ups, he kicked a goal from three set shots, contributed a goal assist and returned a pleasing 19 pressure acts. He looks best 18 every time he plays, but is often first one moved out of position or out of the team altogether.
SURPRISING STARS ON THE DAY
Second gamer, Tom Emmett was influential all day, scoring two goals, including an inspired snap when up against Hawk skipper, James Sicily in the third term. Emmett has an engaging backstory, having beaten a cancer diagnosis and a ruptured Achilles to be drafted as a mature age recruit and finally earn his opportunity in the past fortnight. In addition to his scoreboard contribution, he collected 17 disposals, took five marks, laid three tackles and set up two goals with direct assists. Clubs can improve rapidly when the next tier are hungry for their chance to push the incumbents harder or usurp them, and Emmett’s call up might be the impetus Freo needed to rise up the ladder again.
Rookie Matthew Johnson, the Rd 23 rising star nominee followed up with another good performance, topping twenty disposals, taking five marks and finishing expertly from the 50m line after accepting a handball from Brayshaw in the first term. His continued development could claim a wing position left vacant by Acres last year, and potentially Henry this year.
The dashing Hawk, Josh Weddle certainly didn’t lose any friends with another assured performance. His ability to compete in the air and hit the ground ball at speed is an attractive package, and he added four I50s and a goal assist to his 16 disposals and three bounces yesterday. Based on the difficulty of his role and consistency throughout is a smoky for a top 5 Rising Star placing.
And lastly here are five quick observations, in recognition of a potential top 5 Brownlow placing for Caleb Serong:
Family affair – the biggest match in Fremantle and Hawthorn’s history was no doubt the 2013 Grand Final and a clash between brothers Brad and Stephen on that occasion. Yesterday’s match saw some further familial additions to the history, brothers Caleb and Jai Serong faced each other for the first time, and cousins Luke and Brandon Ryan who each took the unusual path to AFL via Maribyrnong Park and then the VFL, before lining up against each other at the MCG. Hawks fans will be hoping their two players can replicate the achievements of their Docker counterparts.
Return of the tagger? – Finn ‘the Finnisher’ Maginness, or ‘the Ice Block’ if you prefer, has certainly attracted plenty of press in the last few weeks due to incredible lockdown jobs on Nick Daicos, Tom Liberatore, Clayton Oliver and Josh Kelly amongst others, but yesterday his coach seemed to get a bit greedy and was largely ineffective. Starting up forward on Luke Ryan, he kept the AA to only 1 kick, before being shifted around to numerous players including short stints on Henry and Serong, but not as tightly as we’d seen in the ensuing rounds.
Liam Henry – if you believe the footy rumour grapevine, top 10 draft pick Henry is on his way out the door from Cockburn, and if yesterday was an audition for potential Victorian suitors, they would’ve been well pleased with what they saw. 15 disposals at 87% and ten pressure acts and was a driving force in the first half from his wing that helped build a match winning lead.
Freo’s small forwards – the flotilla of manic Dockers forward of centre have long been a challenge for Hawthorn to match up, and so it proved again yesterday. Sam Switkowski, often the barometer of the purple haze finished with 28 pressure acts, while Lachie Schultz contributed 27, along with 3 shots on goal, and a combined 13 tackles. Michael Frederick often a member of this fearsome line up, played further afield behind the ball for much of Saturday, but still brought the pain with 15 pressure acts.
Luke Breust – the consistent Hawk forward first came to notice in the corresponding match up way back in round 11, 2011 in just his fourth match. The Hawks wearing a Kokoda-inspired camouflage strip came from 18 points behind at the final break to storm home with an eight-goal to-one to one last term, Breust the sub kicking three and has barely stopped since then. 2023 marks the 12th time from his thirteen seasons he has kicked over 30 goals, the only outlier was the covid shorted 2020. His 47 goals ranks equal fourth for his best return, and on each of the occasions he’s exceeded 47 goals he has been named All Australian. An underrated champion of the game, his devastating, and unstoppable 45-degree angled runs to the middle of the F50 arc before slotting a trademark goal should be heritage listed.
Where to from here: 2024 and the draft
While Hawthorn’s season was bookmarked by awful performances in front of home crowds, there were a lot of promising signs to come out of the year on the whole. Seven wins for the team widely selected to claim the wooden spoon, including the scalps of premiership contenders, Collingwood, Brisbane and St Kilda amongst them, with a genuinely exciting game style show there is potential for success on the horizon. If Damien Hardwick claims that 80% of the Suns premiership side is already on their list, Sam Mitchell would probably be thinking 60% at this point, many positions still require an upgrade, and none moreso than the forward line which is largely incapable of kicking a winning score regularly. Of course, the absence of Mitch Lewis has hurt in the past two weeks and makes a massive difference, however his resilience must be a concern, with his inability to play more than 15 games in a season in his career to date worrisome.
The Hawks will have an opportunity at the top of the draft to add a star to their list though, and would strongly consider their available capital, both players and future picks in adding another high-end pick to address the major holes in their line-up.
The biggest question for Justin Longmuir and his team in the off-season is how do the Dockers push back into finals contention in 2024? Their recent form has been good, with resounding victories against Geelong (at GMHBA), West Coast (by a record margin) and Hawthorn at the MCG, interspersed with narrow losses to premiership contenders, Brisbane and Port Adelaide. It will be a very interesting post-season review for Fremantle as they appear to have all of the pillars in place for a deep run into finals already. With the likely departure of Liam Henry, and the curious case of Sean Darcy, the Dockers may have some moves available to them despite trading their first pick in the upcoming draft to Melbourne for Luke Jackson. I’d think the club will be targeting an additional 5-6 wins in 2024 as a pass mark at this early stage.