Hawthorn v Melbourne - Talking Points

So it’s 4.15 on a Thursday morning. My two-year old has decided that sleep is no longer an option for the remainder of the night/morning, so what better thing to do than to start the preview of the huge Hawks v Dees Semi-Final clash, right?

Actually, I can think of better things to do… like sleep! Kids, huh?

So all the press seems to be about the Demons, and there is a wave of emotion attached to any story regarding this game. Melbourne are this season’s fairy-tale story. They’re the 2016 Bulldogs, or the 2017 Tigers, but are they good enough to go all the way?

There’s long been a theory that teams need to pay their finals dues before cracking the big one. That’s been largely dispelled by the events of the past couple of years, but with one finals win in the last twelve or so years, the Dees may be riding a wave that’s about to crash into the side of a brown and gold cliff, and flow back into the ocean of mediocrity from whenst they came.

Of course, there’s a team full of hard-tackling, uncompromising young men who will be doing their utmost to avoid that scenario.

And just like that, I’ve joined the throng.

Two hundred words into the preview and even I’ve forgotten that there are two teams playing in this game.

The Hawks fell to Richmond by five goals last Thursday, which now seems like a lifetime ago. Easy missed shots early in the game by Breust and Burgoyne may have changed the story of that game, but when they’re missing easy shots like that, and Dustin Martin is threading goals from Akermanis-like angles, you get the feeling the Hawks knew it wasn’t their day.

So here we are – win or go home. Do the Dees continue the fairy tale and continue on their quest to save the premiership cup from the fearsome ogre that is the Richmond Football Club? Or do the Hawks turn the clock back and usher in a new era of success?

Here’s The Mongrel’s talking points for the first of the two big semis.

 

WHO DOES JAMES HARMES TAG?

The logical answer is Tom Mitchell, but there has been plenty of arguments to curb the running power of Isaac Smith, who in truth, has been easier to curtail this season than Mitchell. The umpires are looking for Mitchell being held at stoppages, and it happens to him every week. He’s used to the tag and will still get 25-30 even with Harmes draped all over him. Tagging Mitchell diminishes the effectiveness of his disposals - that’s all you can hope for.

Smith’s run and carry has been vital to the Hawks, who have lost both Brad Hill and Billy Hartung in the last couple of years – both elite runners who are still going the same speed in the fourth as they are the third. They have replaced them with Jarman Impey, but he is a burst runner, and does go missing for long stretches.

Late edit - 6.25pm... Jaeger O'Meara out... this hurts the Hawks immeasurably. They do not bat deep in the midfield, and O'Meara's clearance work will be greatly missed.

The Hawks need to play a selfless game to an extent, and as much as it will rub some people the wrong way, someone needs to sit Harmes on his backside. No one does this sort of thing anymore for fear of suspension, which gives the tagger free rein over ball-winners.

This is finals footy. For the loser there’s no tomorrow. If Harmes is in the face of a Hawk midfielder, the others need to take on the challenge and make Harmes work hard as well. A player is never more susceptible than when he has his eyes on someone else. Harmes will be focused on Mitchell or Smith. Someone needs to divert his attention onto his own welfare for a while.

 

BIG JOB FOR THE BIG BOY

Personally, I am a Brodie Grundy fan, but that does not at all diminish the respect I have for Max Gawn and the way he plays. He has been enormous for the Dees this season, and looms like a spectre over this game.

Ben McEvoy has long been a player who can drift forward and clunk a mark, and he will have to do that in order to keep Gawn accountable. Big Max’s ability to drift back into the hole has been highlighted on half a dozen footy shows over the past few months, and even though everyone is aware of the tactic, it seems no one is combatting it.

The Hawks are in the situation to do that.

Either Schoenmakers, Roughead or McEvoy need to play an intelligent game inside 50. If the Hawks have the ball 80 metres out, one of them needs to sit 40 metres out to counter Gawn’s aerial dominance - he cannot be allowed to mark uncontested in the back half. If they can break-even and cause a stoppage, anything can happen from there, but one thing is for certain – if they simply plant one of the big guys in the goal square and allow Gawn to sit in the hole in front of them, the ball will rebound out too easily.

In the middle, it is hard to prevent Gawn getting first hands to the ball, but it comes down to the vigilance of the Hawthorn mids as to how effective his tap work is. Sydney defended the centre square brilliantly a few weeks ago, applying intense pressure to the Demon mids at every stoppage. As soon as they touched it, they were besieged by an avalanche of tackling pressure. A clean clearance was a rarity, and that’s what Hawthorn need to replicate to stifle the centre square dominance.

The Dees will be up for the fight in the middle. Will the Hawks?

 

COVERING THE LOSS OF STRATTON

Not a lot has been made of this, but the form of Stratton over the second half of 2018 has been phenomenal, and his intercept marking really came to the fore.

The Hawks held Dave Mirra out of the VFL last week in order to make sure he was available for this week, and though Mirra is a workmanlike addition, he is no Ben Stratton. Already without Grant Birchall for the entirety of the season, the Hawks are now forced to scramble in the backline, at exactly the time of year they need to be settled.

Tom McDonald is an absolute handful – great overhead and no slouch in the running stakes either. He is too much for James Frawley to handle, and the Hawks will have to try everything they can to free up James Sicily to play the loose role across half back if they want to prevent what could be a big day out for TMac.

The other option is to drop Jack Gunston into defence and use his ability to read the ball to hamper the delivery inside 50, but that is robbing Peter to pay Paul.

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CAN THE HAWKS MATCH THE MELBOURNE HARDNESS?

Watching the Dees last week, one thing jumped out at me – their desire to hit, and hit hard.

Joel Selwood was on the end of it several times, and when he did finally retaliate, it cost his team a chance at goal. Jack Viney rag-dolled Gary Ablett every chance he got, and you can see him right now licking his lips, thinking about inflicting some tackling pain on Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Isaac Smith whenever they touch it.

The Dees were a hunting, tackling juggernaut against Geelong, and the Cats wilted under the pressure. Can the precision Hawks stand up under that sort of pressure?

The Hawks’ switch of play to create space will be vital in alleviating the Demons pressure, so the Dees will have to run hard to shut down the inboard Hawthorn kicking game.

Last week there were a few Hawks who looked very uncomfortable under the intense Richmond pressure. The usually unflappable James Sicily looked panicked when he got the ball, hacking it outside 50 and straight to an opponent, on several occasions. Whilst you can put that down to rust in his first game back from injury, others across half back couldn’t find a man either. Blake Hardwick and James Worpel combined for 14 turnovers as the Hawks butchered it under Richmond pressure.

Melbourne will be looking to replicate that result this week, and they have the tools to do it. Melksham, Fritsch, Petracca and Neal-Bullen are all capable of huge impact in the forward half. The Dees collectively had 23 tackles inside forward 50 last week. Geelong had just nine.

The Dees have a human battering-ram in Aaron vandenBerg, and are blessed with hard nuts just searching out physical contact, like my mate Joe Ganino late in the night at an over 40’s event.

The Hawks will need to bring the same pressure they did in the first quarter of the game against Richmond, that saw them lead the champs at the first break, but sustaining it over four quarters may be an issue.

Clarkson often implores his team to go harder for longer, until the other team breaks. The Hawks will have to adopt this mantra, and employ it perfectly to match and beat the manic Melbourne pressure.

 

THE SECOND MELBOURNE TALL

When Jesse Hogan went down for the season, many wondered just where the Dees would generate their inside 50 marking from. That was answered emphatically with the Elimination Final performance of Sam Weideman.

He slotted three goals and 24 disposals, and was clearly the best player on the ground in the first half. He and TMac combined for six contested marks against the Cats, and with Ben Stratton out, the Hawks simply cannot allow this to happen again.

Weideman is just 21 years old, and his recent form is starting people talking (again) about whether Hogan is possible trade bait for the Dees. Irrespective of scuttlebutt, three marking forwards is a wonderful problem to have, particularly when one is out injured.

Weideman will need to be an effective target in order to draw the attention of Sicily across half back, and if he can do that, it opens up so much more room for TMac, and vice-versa.

 

JORDAN LEWIS

This is a story in and of itself. All but discarded by the Hawks, Lewis has created a role for himself across Melbourne’s half back line. As always, he is cool under pressure, and there’s been times this season where he has looked like the only Demon with any poise when the pressure has gone on – the loss against Geelong late in the season being the most recent occurrence.

But this is a little more than just a regular game for Lewis. As much as he tries to play it down, this game is charged with emotion. This is the club he won four premierships with. This is the club he will be most closely associated with once his career is done. This is the club that didn’t think he was worth a longer contract after years of service. There has to be a bit of FU about Lewis going into this game.

I wrote that Lewis will always be closely associated with Hawthorn. That will always be true, but there is a way that Lewis can build just as strong a connection with the Demons, and doing that starts this Friday night. A win over his former team, in a cut-throat final, and possibly a premiership with Melbourne would give him a special place in the hearts and minds of all those at Melbourne.

Maybe Jordan Lewis was never at home at ‘the family club’? Maybe he’s now found his footballing family in red and blue?

 

JETTA ON BREUST

Neville Jetta has proven he is the competition’s best lock-down small defender, and he will have his work cut out for him against the best small forward in the game this season.

Breust is elusive, and can seemingly have the ball on a string at times, but he has the penchant of sneaking out the back looking for the cheap one. If he tries this tactic, Jetta will eat him up. The only way you beat Jetta for the day is to beat him one-on-one, and that is no easy task.

Whilst Breust is quick, Jetta matches him. Whilst Breust is a beautiful reader of the football, Jetta is his equal. Whilst Breust is an opportunist, Jetta is a master of nullifying those chances.

If the game is a close one, the contest may be decided by this match-up. Should Breust get away from Jetta and kick a couple of early goals, the pressure will build, and with Puopolo and Gunston lurking inside the Hawks’ forward 50, things can get very messy, very quickly.

Jetta has done some huge jobs this season, and is rarely beaten. You’d back him in to keep Breust quiet, and if he can, it’s hard to see the Hawks winning.

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THE GUNSTON FACTOR

Sounds like a terrible TV show, huh? Maybe there’s a career after footy for him?

I don’t think I’ve seen Jack Gunston play two poor games in a row all year. That said, I haven’t watched every Hawks game, either.

The two poor games I remember him playing, prior to last week, were Round 10 against West Coast, and Round 14 against Gold Coast. But it’s not the poor performances I want to focus on – it’s his ability to rebound.

Following the Eagles game, Gunston compiled 25 touches in a win against Port Adelaide. Following the Gold Coast game, he had 21 touches and four goals.

Last week he was conspicuously quiet in the first half against Richmond, and was then moved back to cover Stratton’s loss. Whether he plays forward or back, the odds are that Gunston won’t be going quietly into the night this week. His record in big games is exceptional, and he definitely does not historically shrink in finals. This game is as big as it gets for the resurgent Hawks.

He needs to fire.

 

THE RECORD

On recent form, this should be a cracker, with the Dees starting to knock over fellow top-eight teams and the Hawks fell only to Richmond over the past seven games. But what if I told you that Hawthorn had dropped Melbourne in 15 of their past 16 meetings? Does that change things?

It shouldn’t – the Dees have already shown they’re capable of putting history aside and concentrating on the present.

They’ve taken their Geelong hoodoo and kicked it to the curb. They’ve taken a finals drought and knocked that over as well, and now they come up against their bogey team – can they dispel this as well? The Hawks crushed Melbourne in Round 4 after the Dees controlled the first fifteen minutes of footy. Hawthorn rattled off a 16 goal to one run as they made Melbourne look amateurish on the MCG. Not that this will haunt the Dees, but if the Hawks fall behind early, they will retain belief.

If the Dees allow the Hawks space, as they did in Round 4, they will pay for it. As stated above, their pressure game has to cause uncertainty and turnovers for them to be successful. If the Hawks have their kicking game going, and they’re allowed time to lower the eyes and hit targets, they can tear the game open.

 

A TALE OF TWO CAMPS

Watch this become a story if the Hawks get up.

Every year, the Hawks take their team and they walk the Kokoda trail. Ask anyone who has ever done this hike – it’s not a leisurely stroll. The Hawks are on food rations, and they push each other to the limit.

The Dees went to the Players Association when they were presented with a camp they didn’t like the look of. The media is just dying to make this comparison between the teams – DYING! The only way they can do that is if the Dees capitulate when the going gets tough.

As stated above, the Dees are excellent at putting things behind them, and on Saturday morning, we’ll either be lamenting the Demons lack of mental toughness and revisiting their reluctance to go on their pre-season camp, or we’ll be revisiting it as a moment of player-directed leadership and citing it as a metaphor for their season.

 

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