R6 – Hawthorn v North Melbourne – The Mongrel Review

The bottom-of-the-table clashes offer a unique spectacle for the fans of each team, as both see it as a way to get what may be one of their few wins of the season, and this match was no different. The Kangaroos took on the Hawks in a match that started with a level of optimism but ended much like you’d see on an outback road—a roadkill marsupial being eviscerated by a large bird of prey after coming off second-best with a semi-trailer.

Hawthorn’s 2024 has been short on wins, but they’ve been reasonably competitive in games against Collingwood and Essendon. They went into this match hoping to be able to play four quarters of football against a team that has had similar struggles.

North’s 2024 has been problematic, with their inability to stop a team that gets on a roll causing them no end of problems and resulting in multiple blowouts.

While the Hawks fans wanted a full game of effort, North’s fans just wanted to avoid a quarter where they only went through the motions, and hopefully see something special from the team to honour Nick Larkey’s 100th game.

Only one group of fans got their wish, while the other is left dreading the footy conversations on Monday.


The start

There is something to be said for starting strong, and to their credit, North did just that. Xerri controlled the ruck well, feeding his mids on a platter. The smalls would then run around the back of the contest before looking up and spotting open leads. On the occasions when they lost control of the ball, Charlie Comben was there to regain possession, tallying three intercept marks in the first ten minutes of the game, while Eddie Ford and Jy Simpkin put the Roos ahead by 13 points before Hawthorn put a score on the board.

It didn’t last.

A key difference between the two teams that was immediately apparent was the on-field contributions from their veterans. Jack Gunston kicked the first goal for Hawthorn after sucking opponent Biggie Nyuon into covering Mabior Chol as Jack switched his lead to the back and converted the easy mark and set shot. That play was textbook, but the leadup was far more important, with Gunston gaining possessions on the wing and gut-running back to be an option after multiple marks from teammates holding the play up just long enough.

It was that sheer desire to impact the play that made him so dangerous in this match, and a level of effort that simply wasn’t matched by anyone in the blue and white.


The difference

Hawthorn’s tackle pressure seemed to intimidate the young Kangaroos, as they struggled to find teammates with effective disposals, while the Hawthorn midfield was breaking lines at will, even when deep into North’s attacking zone.

The inability to lock the ball in the forward line was a real issue for North, while Hawthorn’s structure allowed them to have multiple shots at goal from a single drive. From watching the game, much of that comes down to the on-field leadership of James Sicily, who was playing the Luke Hodge role of ensuring teammates held to their structure and knew when to leave their direct opponent, and when to stick to them.

While his numbers in this game weren’t particularly special, his ability to keep his house in order was second-to-none. His teammates trusted his judgement, and he trusted them to get the job done. By contrast, Luke McDonald could say neither. Playing the same role for the Kangaroos, his teammates would frequently have multiple players going for the same intercept, spoil each other, and have no one at the drop of the ball. Whether Luke is not offering the necessary on-field leadership or his teammates simply aren’t listening isn’t clear, but either way it doesn’t look good for a captain when he can’t keep six players running on the same gameplan, let alone the full 22.

The actual turning point of the match was the rally that resulted in Hawthorn scoring nine goals in a row by halfway through the second quarter to put the game effectively to bed. In what has become a worrying trend for North, they were unable to stop a team once they got on a run. You could see their heads drop, and a sense of inevitability about it all.

Round One saw a five-goal burst from GWS put the game out of their reach over each side of the half-time break.  Freo put on a nine-goal run in a similar patch in Round Two. The Blues had six goals straight from midway through the first until early in the second quarter in Round Three, and a similar patch of seven goals from Brisbane likewise won them the match in a canter.

In contrast, Hawthorn’s Round One loss came because of a run of goals late in the match as their young runners faded, and in every other match (except against the Suns last week) they were jumped early but clawed their way back into contention.

So the biggest difference between the teams that I can see is that when Hawthorn has a run of goals scored against them, they have some veteran talent to calm the youngsters and stick to an effective gameplan that will bring them back into a level of competitiveness.

North, however, lacked the ability to work as a cohesive unit, and whenever a team scores a run of goals, they all want to be the one to make the spoil, take the mark or put in the effort, but it leaves no one to take the secondary role. It becomes a group of individuals that aren’t working together, and solving that takes two things North are desperately short on—faith and leadership.


Score reviews

I feel like we, the footy public, have created this rod for our own back here. Every time there was a contentious goal awarded in the past few seasons, the automatic review on the way back to the middle wasn’t put on screen, so there would be hollering and complaints about missing a call. It’s become so loud that goal umpires are now taking the review for decisions that they’re mostly sure about. Not the 50:50 ones, but the 70:30 ones, and you can hear it through the umpire mics: “I’m pretty sure it’s a goal, but just check it wasn’t touched off the boot.” has become a very common phrase.

The result is that everyone sits around with their thumb up their arses while the person in the review box goes through a frame-by-frame review of the footage that looks like it was taken using a Nokia 3310 with a bit of pocket lint covering the lens.

But… it’s what the public have wanted. No mistakes, no consideration of the moment. We expect umpires to get it right every time or face calls to be sacked. So, they review… and review… and review… It costs teams momentum, it takes away from the moment, and while it does cut down on mistakes, it kind of… sucks.

A conspiratorial mind might say that the increased score reviews are paving the way for them to implement the sensor-filled ball over the objections of the traditionalists, except I’m not sure the AFL plans things that far in advance.


Young talent

Aside from a chance at a win, supporters of both sides would have been keen to see how the young guys developed, and it’s a bit of a mixed bag.

If we consider young talent as players with less than 30 games, North came into the match with eight players in that bracket.

On the positive side, Harry Sheezel was his usual self with impactful possessions and a fair bit of the ball. He was hunted hard by opponents though, and struggled to get the 1-2 passes that would have allowed them to transition out of defence more effectively. He had a couple of runs in the middle, and there are already calls for him to play there more often.

McKercher was also decent, considering that this was only his sixth game, with some nice low stabs to find teammates.

The rest, well, they need a lot of work. Nyuon played his role as best he could, but was outsmarted far too often by Gunston and Chol. At the other end, Sellers struggled to get near the ball, as well as run leading patterns to draw players away form Larkey. It looked like he tried, but every player on the ground knew it was a bluff. Drury, Duursma and Ford had their moments, but faded out of the game rapidly. A concerning factor it that all three of them only had two tackles between them. They’ll need a lot more hunger for the contest if they’re to have an impact.

Possibly the biggest concern was Charlie Comben. In the opening stanza, he looked very solid as an intercepting tall defender, but with Sellers struggling, he was thrown forward… then into the ruck… then back again… The constant movement seemed to upset his consistency, and he struggled to understand his role, but in this case, I think the fault rests with being asked to do everything on the fly.

For the Hawks, they had six sub-30 gamers in D’Ambrosio, Hustwaite, Mackenzie, Mitchell, Serong and Weddle.

D’Ambrosio, Hustwaite, Mitchell and Serong played their roles as link players more often than not, but unlike North’s younger brigade, averaged a around three tackles a piece, with Mitchell and Serong recording four. Mackenzie had three tackles as well, and was a little unlucky not to have at least one of his shots on goal register a major. If he can clean up his accuracy a little, he’ll be a nice addition to the Hawks forward line.

I’m focusing on the tackles here, as it shows just how willing to fight for the ball this young group is, and it puts them in stark comparison to the bruise-free style preferred by most of North’s similar players.

Josh Weddle is the other younger player, and he’s building an impressive resume as he works his way into his career. He works hard running both ways, is keen to contest the ball or to stay wide to be an option, and isn’t afraid to take a shot on goal when he finds himself in range. He only had twelve touches, but five of those were contested and he disposed of the ball with 75% efficiency, with all but one of those disposals being kicks. While I’m not convinced the kid will be a superstar, he seems to have a good footy brain, is reliable with the ball, and works hard without it. On that basis alone, I’m going on record as saying he’ll have a good, long career, and probably poll a few Brownlow votes in a few seasons.


Ruck battle

A small bright light for North would be the emergence of Tristan Xerri. For most of the day, he battled against Lloyd Meek. both are a similar size, and at similar points in their career. While I think there can be a case made for Meek being a little underrated as a big man, Xerri is just popping up on the radars of the footy public as an above-average tap ruckman.

Meek had a little more help that Xerri, with Chol attending 15 contests, while Comben gave Big X a chop out on seven occasions. The chocolates however go to Xerri, with 44 hit outs to Lloyd’s 24, and ten clearances to two. Most of those clearances came around the ground, and showed just how well Xerri has learned his ruck craft from his time as Goldstein’s heir-apparent.

I’d give Chol the chocolates over Chom (say that five times fast) but neither were really looking to play second ruck, and were really just there to spell their big men.


Next up

North head to Tasmania to play Adelaide in a game that may have a lot of impact on the club in the near future. With Tasmania now likely to have their own team in the comp, many supporters in the Apple Isle are likely to consider jumping ship. There is an old saying that if you change footy teams, ASIO opens a file on you as a potential traitor to the nation, but it’d be hard to argue that a Taswegian supporter isn’t really getting value for money from a North membership at the moment. If this game keeps to that standard, I can’t see many from across the Bass Strait sticking with a team from the mainland that isn’t delivering.

A poor game and a poor crowd will see the already significant pressure increase exponentially, and make retaining or attracting players that much more difficult for North.

Adelaide only have the one win for the season, but have been very competitive in every game so far, and may consider themselves a little unlucky to have lost to Essendon this week. They’ll be fired up and looking to pile on some percentage here.

I wish I could find a reason to tip North here. They need to respond, show some fight and push themselves to achieve something as a group, but I fear it may need a little more time for them to build the faith in each other, considering what we’ve seen this week.

Adelaide by 45.

Hawthorn take on Sydney at the G. With the Swans second on the ladder, they’ve looked like a team that understands that success comes from the contributions of every player, not just their stars. With an exceptional midfield, strong run from the backline, quality forwards and some nice KPPs, they’re quietly building to another finals run this year.

Hawthorn will stick with them through sheer force of will, but once Sydney get some space on the big MCG paddock, I can’t see Hawthorn stopping them.

Sydney by 22.