Just when you thought it was safe to write off Hawthorn, the talons appear, and the most successful club of the last 50 years refuses once again to go quietly into the night.
Around about Thursday this week I was tuning into the regular combination of Trade Radio, SEN and checking Twitter to see what was going on with player movement, and it seemed at that point as though Hawthorn was a forgotten entity in this trade period. It was like one of those old movies, where the protagonist claims things are quiet… too quiet.
The Hawks hardly rated a mention other than explanations as to how they were unsuccessful in chasing both Tom Lynch and Dylan Shiel. On the back of that, pundits started to spitball that perhaps the time had come where Hawthorn was no longer a “destination club” (God, I hate that phrase, and am pretty down on myself for including it) and that people were seeing that their ageing list was of real concern. Or perhaps Alastair Clarkson didn’t have the same kind of “pull” he once did, and players thought that the Hawks were at a point where decline was inevitable?
Maybe people thought the Hawks were just too old and too slow? They've been there before.
A couple of days later, as we prepare to enter week two of the trade period, deals for both Tom Scully and Chad Wingard appear to be on the table, and word that Jack Scrimshaw is eyeing the Brown and Gold, the Hawks are up to their eyeballs in trade possibilities.
At a time when all the talk was about Wingard to the Western Bulldogs, and Scully to whomever else wanted to put their hand up for him, the Hawthorn name came up seemingly from nowhere. And after a week with what appeared to be a dormant Hawthorn Football Club sitting on their hands, the Hawks may emerge from this trade period as one of the clear winners.
Over the last season, the Hawks demonstrated that they’re far from a spent force at the elite level. Jaeger O'Meara got his body right, and with that he strengthened the midfield. James Sicily became a pillar in the back line, with only injury and a couple of stupid suspensions costing him a spot in the All-Australian team. Ben Stratton stepped up to become a one-man wall across half back at times. Blake Hardwick became a better defender, finishing second behind ball-magnet, Tom Mitchell in the Peter Crimmins medal. And the kids… the kids started looking all right.
The funny thing about the Hawks - they’re in this spot - still in contention - despite not having a pick higher than 19 since 2008. That year, they took Ryan Schoenmakers with pick 16. Let that sink in for a second. The last genuine top 18 pick they had saw them grab Ryan Schoenmakers – a whole decade ago.
They have built this team on spectacularly good trading, and wonderful drafting in the latter stages of the draft.
Looking at the Hawks over the past several years, I am not sure there is any team that does trade week better than them. Check out some of the names they have picked up over the years.
Brian Lake, Shaun Burgoyne, David Hale, Josh Gibson, Jaeger O’Meara, Jarman Impey, Ben McEvoy, Jack Gunston, James Frawley, Ricky Henderson, Tom Mitchell, and Ty Vickery. Ok, I'm obviously kidding on that last one but you get the picture – they don’t miss often. The Hawks’ list manager, Graham Wright, has been able to identify and secure the high-end talent required to keep Hawthorn in the finals picture without the copious amounts of first round picks other teams clamber after.
The Hawks acquire players they know are already performing at AFL level, and they leave the guesswork up to other clubs.
What the Hawks have been able to do defies all current practices in AFL clubs. It’s also contrary to the often unwanted advice from the experts in the media. Statements about “bottoming out” and “rebuilding” are thrown around as often in the media as a Channel 7 special comments man stating “I would’ve thought” like a good, media-trained little monkey. In the AFL Hive-Mind, there seemed to be only one way to build a winner.
But the Hawks are offering a second avenue. Astute drafting in the later rounds has seen Hawthorn able to bolster their list with quality players without having to trade up to do so.
Liam Shiels was taken pick 34 in 2008. 186 games
Ben Stratton was taken with pick 46 in 2009. 169 games
Paul Puopolo was taken with pick 66 in 2010. 168 games
Brad Hill was taken with pick 33 in 2011. 127 games (95 with Hawthorn)
Luke Breust was a rookie elevation with pick 77 in 2011. 185 games
James Sicily was taken at pick 56 in 2013. 60 games
Daniel Howe was taken pick 31 in 2014. 50 games
Blake Hardwick was taken pick 44 in 2015. 44 games
Harry Morrison was taken at pick 74 in 2016. 22 games.
James Worpel was taken at pick 45 in 2017. 11 games in 2018
All these players are now regular senior players. Breust has gone on to be All-Australian, and Sicily is more than capable of doing the same in the next few years.
It seems the only time Hawthorn has failed to find gold late in the draft was when they opted to take Dayle Garlett. They knew the risk going in, and they took it with pick 38.
If you remove the draft blunder of Garlett, and perhaps the combination of Billy Hartung in the same year and Tim O’Brien in 2012, the Hawks have put on an absolute clinic in terms of how to effectively use later picks. It’s no wonder players like Wingard and Scully have put their hand up to wear brown and gold next season. They see a system that works and want to be a part of it.
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There seems to be two concerns for Hawthorn.
The first is Ryan Burton, who may or may not be part of the trade for Wingard. His first year was spectacular, and whilst he has not improved on those lofty standards in 2018, the potential for him to be a star in this league remains. How he handles having his name thrown into trade discussions may throw him a little. If it does, it will take some work by Clarkson and company to ensure he does not a) remain upset, and b) upset others should he remain with the club. Little things like this can eat at the fabric of a club like a silverfish through my nice shirt I bought last year and only got to wear once. I’m pretty angry about it.
The other concern is whether or not they can arrest a rather alarming finals trend, that has seen them capitulate in their past four finals games. Are they set to be a team that hovers around the top eight, but never really makes any serious noise in the finals? It’s not something you’d think would sit well with the Hawthorn faithful; they’re not really used to being thereabouts without a genuine chance at claiming the flag.
There were many teams that breathed a sigh of relief when the Hawks plummeted down the ladder in 2017, finishing 12th; their lowest finish since the abysmal 2005 campaign.
For mine, the woeful start to 2017 wasn’t due to poor form or a tough schedule – it was all about attitude. Think about it – the Hawks had just watched Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis… well, ‘pushed’ probably isn’t the right word, but ‘guided’ out the door. I can’t see the remaining players feeling upbeat and happy about roughly 900 games of experience being wished well on their future endeavours (Thanks Vince McMahon). Throw in the rapid decline of Josh Gibson, and Hawthorn needed to find their feet again. They were supposed to go off and rebuild, remember?
It took them just over half a season.
From Rounds 14-23, the Hawks went 6-3 with a draw as well. They were one of the better-performed teams of the second half of the year. Change takes a toll on everyone, and even Hawthorn were not immune to the effects of such drastic change in senior leadership.
Once the dust settled, the Hawks were back at it in 2018, and a top four finish resulted.
A cynic would look at the current Hawthorn list and age profile and turn his nose up, waiting for the inevitable fall. Roughead struggled at points in 2018. He turns 32 before the start of the 2019 season. Shaun Burgoyne is currently 35, and Grant Birchall, who couldn’t even get on the park this season, will be 31 in January. They’re the three that cause the most concern, with Puopolo and McEvoy also over 30. However, looking at other teams towards the pointy end of the ladder, it’s not at all uncommon to have a few players over 30 in your best 22.
Josh Kennedy at West Coast is 31 and had an injury-plagued 2018. Mark LeCras is 32, and Shannon Hurn is 31. You don’t hear much about them being too old.
Scott Pendlebury, Lynden Dunn and Travis Varcoe are all the wrong side of 30, yet sit comfortably inside their team’s best 22.
Too old, too slow?
It’s a phrase long term Hawks supporters would be familiar with. I’d suggest the “too old, too slow” line is one they’d would not only accept, but openly embrace. They’ve been too old and too slow in several premiership years.
In those years they were too old, too slow...
... and also too good.
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