Hawthorn v Fremantle - What Happened?
There’s a point you reach in every AFL season where a few things start to happen. The first is that teams start to play in games with no impact on the finals, which was not the case in today’s game. The second, teams have to learn to start winning without their best players, who start missing games due to injuries and so on, which Freo have struggled to cope with over the last three weeks really.
The third and final one is that teams play in games wherein they essentially put their seasons on the line. We saw it last weekend, we saw it on Friday night and, as Hawthorn ground out a gritty, aesthetically unappealing but important win over Fremantle, we now have to ask the question of whether or not Alastair Clarkson’s men will be missing September action for just the second time this decade, as looked likely a fortnight ago.
Heading into this Tasmanian clash, just four premiership points and one percentage point separated these two sides on the ladder. Form for both sides has been hard to get a read on, with Hawthorn not having won consecutive games this year, while the Dockers, after beating top eight contenders Brisbane, Collingwood and Port Adelaide in consecutive weeks, had lost their last three, to Melbourne, Carlton and West Coast. The recent record suggested Hawthorn would get the chocolates, with Alastair Clarkson’s side winning 14 of the last 16 against the men in purple, and further, Fremantle hadn’t won in the Apple Isle since 2006’s “Siren-Gate”.
It was a fairly topsy-turvy game in Launceston, with both sides having their own periods of dominance especially throughout the first half, but in Ross Lyon’s 300th game coached the Dockers were left to rue wasted opportunities and poor ball use, while the Hawks kept their slim September hopes alive. Here’s what happened:
Well, At Least That Was An Improvement
That might be a cutting insight into the bleedingly obvious, but the Dockers were significantly better this week than they were in last week’s Derby horror show. That’s not to say they were good against the Hawks though. Despite losing the inside 50’s by just three this week, they let Hawthorn have 11 more scoring shots, and while they also won the clearances and the contested possession, their ball use was at times appallingly bad, especially when coming out of the backline, as far too often they invited pressure back onto themselves and let Hawthorn stay in the contest.
They may not have been quite as wasteful as they were last week, but the Dockers’ work forward of centre in the first quarter against the Hawks was again shocking. Andy Brayshaw will be a more than handy player in the future, but he spurned his side’s first inside 50, turning the ball over, while in the absence of Taberner and Hogan it was important that Lobb hit the scoreboard. He did, though he managed just two behinds from gettable set shots, and when Sean Darcy managed to miss Cam McCarthy running into an open forward 50 it looked like it was going to be another one of those weeks for the Dockers. At quarter time, taking into account their last eight quarters of football, Freo had been outscored 33.19 (217) to 8.29 (77).
Ross Lyon must count his lucky stars that this team has Nathan Fyfe in it, because with Walters and Mundy below their usual output for most of the afternoon, his captain looked singularly focused on ensuring there would be no repeats of last week. There’ll be more on Fyfe later, but it’s pretty clear that Fremantle need two of him, with one up forward and one in the middle. They would also love to be able to get Alex Pearce back into the side, because without him their backline looks completely directionless. They were probably lucky that the Hawks didn’t make their back half turnovers hurt even more, although when Ethan Hughes hit Chad Wingard lace out to put Hawthorn up five goals to none it looked like it wasn’t going to matter.
There was a strong breeze in Launceston, but somehow kicking into it made things a whole lot easier for Fremantle in the second quarter. With Nat Fyfe up to his usual heroics, luck seemed to be turning Fremantle’s way, with a Cam McCarthy mongrel snap somehow landing in Stephen Hill’s lap to keep their side in the game. They scrapped hard again after half time, getting the first goal of the third after ten minutes of playing time, and with their forward pressure game working, managed to get back within a kick. Darcy Tucker’s excellent mark and well executed, if flukey, set shot looked like swinging the result back in his side’s favour, and it’s entirely possible, had Matera or Cerra nailed gettable goals halfway through the third, that the result would have gone the other way. Momentum is a funny thing in football though, and after doing all the hard work to get the margin within striking distance, Hawthorn managed to kick away before the final break.
With the game not yet sealed early in the last quarter, it was pretty clear against the always well-drilled Hawks that Freo would have to take every chance they got to get back into the game. With McCarthy dropping a chest mark, and Walters missing a difficult, though not necessarily impossible by his standards, set shot, it was pretty clear that it was just not to be. Two late consolation goals to Lobb and Matera doesn’t really excuse how poor the Dockers were on the day though. A month ago they looked certain to return to September for the first time since 2015. After their last four games, they don’t look anywhere near a top eight side.
They’re The Mighty Fighting Hawks
If you were trying to sell memberships at Hawthorn HQ, this wouldn’t be a game you’d be screening to allure people. In blustery conditions, both sides had periods of poor ball use. Ultimately though this was an excellent and important win for Hawthorn. As mentioned above, they haven’t won consecutive games at any point this season, sliding from a top four finish last year to what looked likely to be a bottom six finish this season, just a fortnight ago. To back up last week’s tense, tough win over Collingwood was the most important thing for Hawthorn, and that’s exactly what they did.
Footy can often be a stoic, unsentimental game, and you need only have watched today’s game to know style isn’t always the first thing in the minds of coaches. However, no footy fan could truly have denied the romance of Grant Birchall running out in the big league for the first time in more than two years, especially given his status as one of Tasmania’s greatest, if underrated, footballing exports. While he may not have been in Hawthorn’s best players, he showed he still has a lot to give at AFL level, with 21 touches at 81%, eight marks and seven intercepts an excellent return. It’s true that it’s hard to have sympathy for a player who’s won four premierships but it is certainly hard to have any spite for Birchall, who will go down as a great of the Hawthorn footy club.
At times today the Hawks looked, for want of a better word, uninspired with ball in hand. They struggled to get their run going often enough, with, for example, Jarman Impey well down on his metres gained from last week against the Pies. They lacked a little bit of lustre in the first ten minutes of the first term, needing two big grabs from the improving Tim O’Brien to get them going. Their best footy of the day probably came twenty minutes either side of quarter time, although their four goal burst at the end of the third quarter was also a decent display. After missing out last week, and having been in and out of the team throughout this season, Mitch Lewis has to be a lock for the Round 17 Rising Star nomination. Four of his five marks were contested, with three goals and a goal assist from 16 touches for the day suggesting his future as the focal point of Hawthorn’s forward line is a bright one.
It helps big forwards like Lewis when you get quick ball movement out of the centre, and he got exactly that from James Worpel in the first quarter, who received a perfectly placed tap from McEvoy before steaming out of the middle and hitting the key target lace out. In the absence of Tom Mitchell I reckon Worpel has been really good this year, and he’ll likely be in the votes when they’re released on Monday. He was Hawthorn’s leading disposal winner, with his 33 touches covering a quietish day from Jaeger O’Meara. He also had 15 contested, nine clearances and seven score involvements as he willed his side home. His smother and then follow up work in the third quarter were probably the highlights of his day, with the turnover he created ending up in a Conor Nash goal which broke a run of five in a row by their opposition.
James Sicily might not have been as good as he was last week, but as the co-general of the backline with Ben Stratton he made Freo’s admittedly undermanned forward line looked second rate. They managed just eight goals for the day, with two coming when the game was all but over, and though he had just 16 possessions, he also had a game high nine intercepts. He took a mark in the second quarter going back with the flight where he ended up seated on the ground and yet he made it look entirely simple, and he now looks almost certain to pick up a first All Australian blazer come September.
If there’s one thing Hawthorn have traditionally done well under Clarkson it’s a refusal to panic when they’re challenged. Instead of rushing the ball in the last to kick another goal and slam the door shut, they chipped the ball around, took time off the clock and ended up maintaining possession of the ball for long enough to keep Freo out of the contest anyway. It helped that they had the impassable Sicily behind the ball, who wasn’t to the same level he was last week but was more than handy especially in the last. They ended up outscoring their opposition anyway, 3.4 to 2.0, with Luke Breust’s third goal a spectacular sealer to a dour day.
Matchups Made In Heaven
The subtitle may be hyperbole, but in a game which had as much anticipation as you’d expect from the Saturday, off-Broadway 2.10pm game in Launceston, there were a couple of matchups which loomed as critical to deciding the result.
Howe v. Fyfe
In Hawthorn’s second to last game at the University of Tasmania Stadium, against the Blues, Daniel Howe was one of the match winners for his side, going to Patrick Cripps and ultimately taking the points, so it’s clear that he’s capable of going to an opposition superstar and keeping him quiet. Of course, Nathan Fyfe represents a new challenge entirely, given he is in my opinion the best player in the game. Even if he isn’t that, though, he’s certainly one of the most dangerous, and despite his clear intent in the first quarter, Howe probably took the points early, keeping Freo’s captain to just four touches at 50% efficiency.
Then came what loomed as the moment of the match. Fyfe going down injured looked like slamming the door shut on an already struggling Fremantle side. He came back on though, and clunked a nice contested mark on Hardwick for his side’s first goal halfway through the second. It was very obviously hugely important that he got back on the park, kicking both of his side’s first two goals and keeping his side at all in the contest. I’d argue more than any other player in the competition he’s talismanic, with his run down tackle on Smith sending his side inside forward 50 again. It became Hawthorn v Fyfe. His third goal in the second to get the margin back to one kick showed exactly why he’s the best player in the competition, and he then saved a goal on the goal line at the other end, begging the question: Is there anything he can’t do? His work around the ground was essentially what kept Freo in the game, and his contested marking was a real feature, with three out of his six marks for the day.
When he went into the middle, Howe managed to keep the 2015 Brownlow Medalist relatively quieter, such that he finished the day with just 24 touches, with his Hawthorn opponent managing 18 of his own. It’s probably hard to declare this one as a convincing victory either way. I had Fyfe in the votes but that was essentially for his work up forward, which came mostly opposed to Blake Hardwick. Howe probably had Fyfe’s measure in the middle though, keeping the Freo skipper to just five clearances, well below his usual output.
Brad Hill v. Henderson
Talk of moving clubs hasn’t seemed to have too much of an impact on Brad Hill, who is having another fine season. I was genuinely stunned when I heard he’s only just turned 26, given I thought he’d been around the block for far longer than that. Ricky Henderson, on the other hand, looks like he’s in his 40’s but is actually just 31 and enjoying a career best year. Either of these two players would be a justified All Australian at this point, and the winner of the wing contest would go a long way to deciding the winner of the game, I thought before the game. I was probably wrong on that though, with both of these players in their side’s best two.
Henderson was the best player on the ground in the first quarter, with 10 touches and six marks, and though he slowed down a little after that, I had him as best on ground again. The former Crow has this handy knack of bobbing up at exactly the time Hawthorn need him to, and when they desperately needed a goal to end a run of four unanswered, it was him who set up Tim O’Brien with a lovely kick, though the forward subsequently missed. Then there was another pearler of a kick to set up Lewis for his second goal in a row, pushing the margin back beyond 20 points, and though it wasn’t a spectacular kick to Chad Wingard, it was again Henderson doing what needed to be done to get his side over the line. His 654 metres gained were the most of any player, as were his seven inside 50’s, while he also had five rebounds, 11 marks and six score involvements.
Brad Hill, meanwhile, played one of his best games of the season, and if the result had have gone the other way, would almost certainly have featured in the votes. His 37 touches were a game high, while his 553 metres gained were the most by any Docker. However, as if to highlight how wasteful the rest of his team were going forward, despite having a decent disposal efficiency of 73%, Hill was involved in just three scores, a very low mark for a player getting that much of the ball. If he does leave Fremantle come season’s end, it will be a huge loss, given he’s as good a naturally talented wingman as any in the competition.
If at any point in this article I’ve made it sound like this game should be considered a knock on Hawthorn, for playing a dour style of footy, then that was absolutely not my intention. We mortals should know a lot better than to question Alastair Clarkson, who more than anyone else knows how to get the job done in September. They still face an uphill battle to get there though. On seven wins, they’ll need to win at least five, if not all, of their last six games to make the eight. This would involve beating at least four of Geelong at the MCG, Brisbane in Tasmania, a resurgent North Melbourne at Marvel, GWS in Canberra and West Coast in Perth. In short, if they make it to finals they’re as good a chance of any other side of winning the flag, given the run of form they’ll have leading into September. It starts with traditional rivals the Cats next weekend, who have looked shaky over the last month.
The Dockers have seemingly wasted another season, and while form is fickle in football, their last four losses have really taken the wind out of the sails of what looked, at one stage, a very promising season. Injuries hurt, of course, and having lost Pearce, Taberner and probably Hogan for the year it seems as though Ross Lyon has 2020 to look forward to. They aren’t out of the running though, with seven wins as well, and a somewhat easier run home of Sydney, Geelong and Essendon at home and the Dogs, St Kilda and Port Adelaide away. It starts with Sydney next week, and given their faltering against the Blues in the earlier timeslot, Dockers’ supporters would probably like their chances.
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