Become a Patron!

The "Ifs", "Buts" and Other Stuff - Hawthorn

I’ve kind of given this one a hurry along, as I think looking at the Hawks in the wake of Tom Mitchell’s injury is not only topical, but important in terms of their team structure going forward.

It’s instances exactly like the Mitchell injury that steer me away from doing the traditional “prediction” kind of article about each team. All it takes is one little thing to change the trajectory of a season for a player, or a club. On such a high, the reigning Brownlow medallist and MVP won’t get an opportunity to defend those titles. He won’t get an opportunity to once again give the record for most disposals in a season a shake. He won’t add another 50-disposal game to his CV, and he won’t be leading the Hawthorn push for finals.

You could almost hear the collective groan from Hawks supporters as the news trickled through. “Season over” said some, jumping the gun a little. The Hawks took a huge blow, but they’re a professional outfit, and to think that injury to one player, albeit one fantastic player, could derail an entire season is probably a little premature. In times of need, often a hero (or two) emerge, and that’s what the Hawks require in 2019.

This team contains two other All-Australians. It contains premiership heroes and rising star nominees. They’ve recruited beautifully, and almost stole the show during trade period. They may have lost a very special ingredient in what they were cooking up for 2019, but it hasn’t completely ruined the recipe. There are other things Alastair Clarkson can add to spice things up.

Hopefully we’ll cover a few in the “ifs” and “buts”.

 

IF…

… you write off the Hawks too early, you may pay dearly for the mistake.

They may have departed the finals in straight sets, but the Hawks’ 2018 season was a re-emergence after only one season in the AFL finals wilderness. With Tom Mitchell leading the way, and yes we’ll get to his absence and what it means in detail, Hawthorn were able to aid Jack Gunston and Luke Breust in finding All-Australian form, as they reversed their 2017 fortunes and returned to the top four.

Many saw the Hawks as a spent force in 2018, but with Ben Stratton and Blake Hardwick emerging as genuine leaders in the backline, and kids like Harry Morrison and James Worpel both securing Rising Star nominations, Hawthorn was able to unearth solid young talent without heading to the pointy end of the draft.

Again.

Have a look at these draft bargains on the Hawks list. Isaac Smith – pick 19 in 2010, James Sicily – pick 56 in 2012, Liam Shiels – pick 34 in 2008, Paul Puopolo – pick 66 in 2010, Luke Breust – pick 77 (rookie elevation) in 2011, Ben Stratton - pick 46 in 2009, and Blake Hardwick – pick 44 in 2015.

I’ve heard many lament that the Hawks have not gone back to the draft to replenish their youngsters, but when you can gain such quality players so deep into drafts, what’s the point? They have rebuilt on the run, and with the addition of Chad Wingard and Tom Scully, must still be viewed as a threat in 2019.

Any way you paint it, there will be 22 Hawks on the park on any given gameday. The fact that their best is missing is significant, but it is not the be-all and end-all of their season. With crisis comes opportunity, and it will be interesting to see which Hawks grab that opportunity and make the best of a bad situation.

 

… 2018 was a year of growth for Jaeger O’Meara, is 2019 the year he truly breaks out?

Not many people have let Kane Cornes forget that he called Hawthorn’s trade for O’Meara the worst trade in history. As O’Meara found form in 2018, Cornes’ declaration looked a little foolish. Personally, I like Cornes – he doesn’t water down his thoughts, and in the AFL media, where people basically parrot each other, he isn’t afraid to go against the grain – but O’Meara looked very good last season. He looked like a player that remembered what he could do, and what he was meant to be capable of. If we see improvement again in 2019, it may soften the blow of losing Mitchell.

O’Meara is a very different player to Mitchell. Let’s face facts – nobody finds the ball like Mitchell does, but O’Meara was just a shade under five clearances per game in 2018, which was good enough for equal 31st in the league. He will need to lift that rate with his partner in crime on the sidelines, and perhaps this will be a boon for O’Meara personally, whilst surely a detriment for the team overall.

After playing 21 games in 2018, O’Meara’s body has shown it can stand the rigours of the AFL season. He’ll need to be solid, reliable and consistent as the year unfolds to provide a springboard for the Hawks out of the middle. I mentioned O’Meara was 31st overall in clearances, but in terms of centre clearances, he jumps to 22nd. For the Hawks to be successful, I reckon O’Meara needs to be around the top ten. With him playing at that level, the Hawks may well surprise people.

On the burst, O’Meara is wonderful to watch. The vision of him blowing away the Melbourne players in a race from the centre to full forward in 2018 must’ve imbued confidence in his teammates, coaching staff, and himself. 2019 might be the year O’Meara fulfils his enormous potential, and it would come precisely when the Hawks need it most.

 

… Clarko is a coaching genius, 2019 is his greatest test.

I found it really interesting to hear Clarko talk last season about there being no magic trick a coach can pull to change a team’s fortunes on any given day. He is a man who understands systems, and the role each player, coach, and staff person plays within a system. He is a people-person, and players respond to him.

Does it make him a coaching genius? Maybe, but for those who say it doesn’t, what he did with the 2018 Hawthorn team was nothing short of remarkable. Coming off a season where the Hawks made it close to impossible to make the finals, with a disastrous 1-5 start, Clarkson’s Hawks turned it around in the second half of the year to win six, and draw one of their last ten games.

That form carried over to the 2018 season, with the Hawks finishing top four.

There were not many that rated the Hawks that highly prior to the season. Actually, there weren’t many who rated West Coast or Collingwood highly either, so it’s a good thing that head coaches don’t really listen to media speculators, huh?

Clarkson’s understanding that all good things must come to an end (the departures of Hodge, Mitchell and Lewis would have surely left a sour taste in the mouths of not only supporters, but players at the conclusion of 2016) is a little ahead of the game in AFL terms. Whilst many hang onto club legends a little too long, Clarkson has valued the rejuvenation of the list over sentimentality. And in 2018, it paid dividends.

But in 2019, a centrepiece to that revival is missing. Tom Mitchell’s injury is a killer blow to the aspirations of the Hawks. If Alastair Clarkson can manoeuvre Hawthorn into contention without its star midfielder, I am not sure he’d have a doubter left. If they can replicate their 2018 form, the Hawks should be ready to build a Clarkson statue.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

Look! Mongrel Punt Stubby Holders. Buy one and be cooler than all your friends! It also helps the site out.

 

… James Sicily plays every game, he’s a lock for an All-Australian blazer.

This is one of the most interesting side-stories to the season. At the outset of 2018, there was a lot of focus on the behaviour of James Sicily on the field. He just seems to be the sort of player that either a) attracts attention from the opposition, b) courts attention from the opposition or c) has a very punchable face.

Maybe it’s a combination of the three, but in 2018, Sicily went about becoming a polarising figure in AFL circles. Whether it was earning small suspensions for dropping the knees into the head of Joel Selwood, and stepping on the leg of Shaun Atley, or trying to convince Joe Daniher to give him a high-five after banging a long goal, Sicily was making news.

Now, making news is one thing, but making news for the right reasons is what the Hawks want from their talented half-back. The way he ran forward and bombed goals highlighted what a talent he is. His ability to read the play and take intercept marks has only a couple of peers in the game, and he ticks over at 81% disposal efficiency. If he gets his head on straight, we are talking perennial All-Australian selection.

But can he get his head on straight? Sicily appears to enjoy the banter and byplay of the AFL, and good on him for it. Have fun, make the game a little more exciting for fans, but when you reach the line… don’t trample all over it! When you have the opportunity to run past someone, or step on him… don’t bloody step on him!

Sicily is so important to the Hawthorn structure. In a floating role across half back, he can launch swift counter attacks, and make teams pay with his penetrating kick. The Hawks need him on the park, and cannot afford to have him sitting in the stands this season. After the events that saw Tom Mitchell’s season ended before it began, the Hawks need nothing but positivity from Sicily.

Whether that’s what they get will be interesting to say the least.

 

BUT IF…

 

… there was ever a reason to drop your head, Tom Mitchell’s injury is it.

I wanted to leave it until this point, but I couldn’t help throwing it into a couple of sections above. What a huge blow. The Brownlow medallist and AFLPA MVP gone before the season starts. Bigger than the injury to Sam Docherty at Carlton by a fair stretch due to where the sides sit, Mitchell’s broken leg is not just cause for concern in 2018, but a tibia/fibula break could be of concern for the long term.

How do you replace what Mitchell brings to the table? Simply put, you can’t. His 35.3 touches, 16.2 contested possessions and eight clearances per game are more than any current Hawk… hell, more than any current player in the game can match. In short, he is irreplaceable.

If Hawthorn could swap any player out of the side and have Mitchell back, they’d  do it. He’s their engine room, their workhorse, and their ball winner. Others are equipped to do some of the dirty work – Mitchell revels in it.

So if they can’t replace him, how do they attempt to cover his absence?

We touched on what the Hawks need from O’Meara, but players like Liam Shiels, who already works his backside off each and every game, will now be required to do more. Sadly for Hawthorn, they are painfully thin in the quality department when looking at their midfield. This was exposed against Melbourne in the finals last year. With O’Meara out injured, and Burgoyne was playing with broken ribs, it seemed as though it was Tom Mitchell against the entire Dees midfield. Also, I’m excusing Burgoyne because he’s almost as old as I am. Mitchell hurt his shoulder, Shiels played well and Ricky Henderson was probably amongst the best Hawks on the ground.

So, we’re looking at a midfield with O’Meara, Shiels, Henderson, Daniel Howe, Isaac Smith on the outside (and getting the tag if teams want to shut one player down), Shaun Burgoyne and maybe Jarman Impey pinch hitting? Not good enough.

The only other option I can see here is that new recruit, Chad Wingard goes into the guts.

It might be a risk, and the Hawks may be robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Wingard in the centre could be the remedy. When thrown into the action (after a disappointing start to the season up forward) Wingard averaged 25.62 touches per game from Round 12-19 for Port Adelaide. He can find it in there, and he’s dangerous when he gets it.

A Hawthorn midfield with Wingard in it looks tough to handle. A Hawthorn midfield without him… it’s shallow.

Grab a Mongrel Bumper Sticker - click the image, grab a sticker and help spread the Mongrel word. We’d really appreciate it.

Grab a Mongrel Bumper Sticker - click the image, grab a sticker and help spread the Mongrel word. We’d really appreciate it.

 

… no one emerges to help Roughead in the air, the Hawks have to be in trouble in the long-term.

He copped a bit of flack in 2018, and I am really hopeful that big Rough can have the kind of year  that shuts some people up in 2019, but there is no question in my mind that he needs someone to step up and be ready to take over from him when he decides the time is right to walk away.

The Tim O’Brien experiment surely cannot continue much longer. I am not sure I’ve ever seen a bloke almost take as many marks as he has almost taken. The only other name that leaps to mind is North Melbourne’s Kerry Good in the 1980s, who my father used to call the “Flying Nun”. Always flying – marking none. I am pretty sure my dad was as annoyed at Good at times as I get watching O’Brien. In fairness, Good actually delivered – in his first 40 games, he had 66 goals and 136 marks. O’Brien has played 46 games for 37 goals and 156 marks.

The Hawks need so much more for O’Brien… or he needs to take that #23 jumper off.

Mitch Lewis is the name you hear Hawk supporters talk about most in regard to helping out up forward. With only two games to his name, this might be a little optimistic, though VFL watchers say his seconds form was very good.

The other option is for Jonathon Ceglar to spend more time deep, and allow Big Boy McEvoy to rest up forward more often when Ceglar goes into the ruck. But what you get in marking power, you lose in ground ball skill.

As it stands, whilst whomever it is to making a fist of the marking forward spot develops and starts having an impact, Roughead will have to do the work. The Hawks need him contesting and bringing the ball to ground. Sounds easy, huh? Well, Rough hasn’t exactly had an easy run of things lately.

I would love to see the big fella better his 2018 stats by a considerable margin. He was -2.65 touches, and -0.95 marks per game last season. If that trend continues, expect some pundits to start prophesizing the end of the road for one of the best blokes in the game.

 

OTHER STUFF

Grant Birchall - plenty have speculated that we’ve seen the last of Birch, and as he experiences setback after setback with his wonky knee, their voices are getting louder. He’s played five games in the last two seasons and will need to be fully fit to have an impact. I’m not sure he gets back, at least at the level required to be effective.

For all the talk about the Hawks not getting to the top of the draft, they’ve managed to pick up the #7 pick from the 2016 draft very cheaply. Jack Scrimshaw has played only four games for Gold Coast in his career, and could be the kind of surprise packet that every good team needs to be successful – I am a big believer in young players breaking out having an enormous effect on how well teams play over the course of the season. Scrimshaw could be that man for Hawthorn.

The Sam Mitchell influence – returning to Hawthorn after two years and a flag at West Coast, there is no greater football mind amongst the recently retired than Mitchell. His understanding of modern stoppage work, and midfield structure was key to the Eagles’ midfield ascension in 2018. Can he replicate that at his former home? I would’ve loved to have seen what he could conjure working alongside his namesake, but if he gets improvement from O’Meara, Wingard and Shiels, then the Hawks would be pretty happy.

I harped on about it a bit during the season last year, but Luke Breust kind of dropped away in terms of forward pressure in the second half of the season. He finished with 99 tackles for the year – one short of becoming the only man to ever record 50 goals and 100 tackles in a season. I was pulling for him, damn it.

If and when Tom Scully returns is a real factor now for the Hawks. Looked at as a bit of a luxury before the Mitchell injury, his run and carry, and ability to spread will be vital to whether the team can improve on 2018. Current reports suggest he is ahead of schedule, and if he can get himself right, the Hawks would breathe an enormous sigh of relief. His presence takes a large amount of weight from the shoulders of Isaac Smith, who was the only legitimately quick run and carry the player capable of doing damage last year. People have been rather flippant about the departure of Brad Hill over the last few years but what he brought to the table cannot be easily replicated. Many spoke of his speed, but it wasn’t that – he is no Cyril Rioli – it was his endurance. Hill was running just as hard in the last quarter as he did in the first. With him gone, and Hartung gone, the only one left with that kind of running power was Smith. If Scully gets in the mix, however, Isaac will have a peer again.

And I really like the pick up of Tim Mohr as insurance for the increasingly proppy James Frawley. Only three games to his credit over the last two years, Mohr could have a career renaissance at Hawthorn. I have a feeling the Hawks will call on him at some point during the season.

The draw – do the Hawks ever get a good draw? It’s as though they’re still being punished for winning three consecutive flags! Given recent history, it looks as though this is not an easy run for them again – they play Brisbane twice (two losses in 2018) and also face North, Geelong, est Coast and GWS twice – ouch.

They travel to play Adelaide, Brisbane, Sydney, GWS and West Coast over the course of the year.

So where do I see the Hawks finishing in 2019? Truthfully, I have NFI. This is a team that could easily finish top four or miss the finals completely. Prior to Mitchell’s injury, I was pencilling them in as bottom half of the eight, but this complicates things. Sometimes teams are galvanised by something like the Mitchell injury – someone, or some few jump out of the box to pick up the slack. That’s what the Hawks will be hoping for, and we could have a very clear picture of how they’re traveling after Round Five. Games against the resurgent Adelaide, the Bulldogs, Roos, Saints and the Easter Monday clash against the Cats will go a long way to demonstrating whether the Hawks will trouble teams later in the season. If they’re 3-2 after R5, watch out…

 

 

 If you want to give us a Like on Facebook or a Follow on Twitter, we’d really appreciate it.

And hey... if you'd like to support us, you could head over to our Mongrel Shop and purchase one of our hideously overpriced hoodies or notebooks. We even have a place for donations now.  ORRRRRR, get one of the more moderately priced stubby holders or bumper stickers. Click the links below. Keep The Mongrel alive in 2019.