Did Buckley's Disrespect of Tom Mitchell cost the Pies?

As Tom Mitchell’s disposal tally against Collingwood ticked past 50 for the second time in 12 months, you could forgive Collingwood supporters for asking why Nathan Buckley was refusing to send a man to stand next to him.

With 29 disposals at half time, Mitchell’s influence was evident. He and Jaeger O’Meara set Hawthorn alight in the opening quarter, and whilst O’Meara tapered off, finishing with 27 for the game, Mitchell continued to collect disposals as though someone was handing them out for free.

He continued on his merry way, breaking the record of 53 held by Greg Williams (1989) and Gary Ablett Junior (2012) to amass 54 disposals, cementing himself as not only the highest individual disposal gatherer in a single game, but also as the only man to ever top the 50-disposal mark twice. That both those totals came against Collingwood is telling.

After their Round 9 clash last year, Nathan Buckley intimated that Mitchell’s disposals weren’t particularly concerning to the Magpies.

“If I said he wasn’t hurting us a lot, would that make sense?” Buckley responded when questioned about Mitchell’s influence after his team’s win against the Hawks in Round 9, 2017. It’s easy to get away with those sorts of comments while you’re winning. In a loss, your tactics are scrutinised in greater depth.

This time around, the Pies were on the receiving end of a loss. Mitchell’s 54 disposals were the highlight for Hawthorn, and something that will be on the lips of every AFL fan as the weekend is analysed.  Buckley was slightly more complimentary following this game.

“He is a good player and he gets his hands on the ball, wins stoppages and is probably one of the cleanest ball handlers in the shoebox,” he said. “He’s proving to be a really good spreader to the next contest.”

It is clear from that positive but mild statement that Buckley doesn’t believe Mitchell makes much of a difference against the Pies. Disposals are one thing, but metres gained are another, and Buckley would rather an in-and-under player like Mitchell get big numbers than a guy like the hard-running, long-kicking Isaac Smith. But Buckley is not the only coach who has allowed a midfielder to run riot simply because he didn’t rate their disposal.

Hawthorn and Alastair Clarkson used to be of a similar opinion about Dane Swan whenever the Brownlow medallist played against them.

From 2009 until 2014, Swan was prolific against the Hawks, but rarely had a player run with him in a tagging role. There’d be a player responsible for him, but that player was expected to hurt Collingwood going the other way – not play a purely negating role.

Swan averaged 34.18 touches per game over that 11 game period. Again, winning allows you to get away with a lot, and the Hawks boasted a winning record of 8-3 during that time. Allowing Swan to get his share of the disposals whilst the Hawks’ stoppers concentrated on other, more damaging players, was overlooked because Hawthorn were winning. Collingwood do not have the same luxury at the moment, being 1-2 in what we will call the Titchell-era at Hawthorn.

In his three games against the Pies since becoming a Hawk, Mitchell averaged a mammoth 46.33 disposals per game. This is simply too many to ignore the next time the Pies come up against Hawthorn. If we assume that Buckley doesn’t rate what Mitchell does with the ball, how much does he then rate the players Mitchell is distributing to? Mitchell might not be gaining significant distance with every touch, but he is enabling his teammates to have crack at doing just that. Those runners and long kickers need someone on the inside to get them the ball. Yes, they’ll run and carry, but Mitchell gives them the opportunity to do so – 54 times this round.

Tom Mitchell vs Collingwood

Mitchell's three games against the Pies as a Hawk

Hawthorn coach, Alastair Clarkson called Mitchell’s incredible game “first class” but stated that he’d much prefer a greater spread of touches across all his midfield.

“He was outstanding in terms of endeavour tonight. If we’re going to become a better midfield I think we need to share the load through that part of the ground. A bloke getting 50 touches doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to win the game.”

His point has validity. Of the eight recorded 50-disposal games, the team containing the player topping the mark has lost three times. It is not a ‘fate accompli’ that your team will get the win. Maybe that’s Buckley’s theory? It worked in Round 9 last season.

A huge cheer went up from Hawthorn fans late in the last quarter as Mitchell collected his 54th disposal of the evening. Less audible was the collective groan from Collingwood supporters. Make no mistake, as much as they may love their club and support their coach, questions were, and are, being asked about the decision not to at least attempt to curtail Mitchell’s brilliance.

Buckley made moves throughout the night. He switched Darcy Moore back to the forward line and reaped immediate rewards, with Moore clunking a strong pack mark and kicking a goal to give the Pies some hope, but it’s the move he didn’t make that is hurting Magpie supporters in the aftermath. Mitchell needed to be stopped. Buckley didn’t even try to slow him down.

The benefit of hindsight is a wonderful thing, and given his time again, you have to wonder whether Bucks will be happy to allow Mitchell to wander around the field without an opponent. If the Pies drop another game to the Hawks, you can be sure their supporters will be questioning his tactics.

The Magpies finished as runner up in 2011 under former coach, Mick Malthouse, but under Buckley, have continually slipped down the ladder, bottoming out at 13th in 2017. Unless both teams make the finals this season, their next encounter will have to wait until 2019. Mark it on your calendar when the fixture is released – another Mitchell 50-disposal game would certainly set the Hawk amongst the Magpies.

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