The glare of Friday night football means that the rest of the football world has cottoned on to what Hawthorn supporters have known pretty much all year. The Hawks just aren’t a very good football team.
The loss to Essendon leaves them with a 5-7 record. They’re highly unlikely to play finals this year. They’re sound enough defensively and the midfield is at best, honest, but where the team has truly fallen down this year is up forward. They’re yet to kick more than 90 points in a game this year. The forward line is dysfunctional if you’re being kind, a mess if you’re being honest.
Hawthorn probably over-achieved in 2018 and making the top four at the end of the home-and-away season was a tribute to the brilliance of coach Alastair Clarkson. A repeat performance this year was always doubtful, even before Brownlow medalist Tom Mitchell broke his leg in January and was ruled out for the year.
What we know about the Hawks is that they won't sit still and settle for mid-table irrelevance. There has been an element of ‘suck it and see’ about team selection for several weeks already and Clarkson laid it bare for all to see late on Friday night when he said the Hawks were at an “exploration stage”.
Four flags since 2008 buys a fair degree of goodwill and what was surprising in the aftermath of the loss to the hated Bombers was not a feeling of anger from supporters (although the decision to omit Mitch Lewis on Friday night caused a stir) but one of impatience. If there is to be a rebuild, get active at selection and then get on with it.
The next 10 weeks affords Clarkson the opportunity to elevate the likes of Oliver Hanrahan, Harrison Jones and Jackson Ross to see whether they’re AFL-calibre footballers. Jones had an impressive summer, Hanrahan is in his third season while Ross kicked four goals for Box Hill on the weekend and is second on the VFL goalkicking tally. There will be calls for Changkuoth Jiath and Mat Walker to play as well, but they can wait til next year.
Tough decisions need to be made with the list. Jarryd Roughead and Ryan Schoenmakers appear set to finish up. Grant Birchall hasn't played in two years and there are few indications he will play again. Paul Puopolo is the tricky one because while he still offers something as a defensive forward, his offensive output has dipped. And what of Shaun Burgoyne? Maybe, just maybe, it is in Hawthorn’s best interests to make the hard call.
Could the Hawks make a hard call on another club legend?
Will these players be afforded any sort of farewell game? Perhaps the round 22 home game against Gold Coast, inexplicably scheduled by the AFL for a 4.40pm Sunday start at the unpopular Marvel Stadium, could be marketed by the club as a ‘salute to the stars’ type of game. Otherwise they’d be battling to get 10,000 fans there.
Finally and most importantly, it is time to hit the draft. More often than not, Hawthorn regards its early draft picks as currency for the trade period than building blocks for the future, but with the prospect of two picks inside the top 25 and perhaps a third if there is a club out there willing to offer, say, Isaac Smith a longer contract than the likely one-year extension the Hawks will offer, then the opportunity to inject elite young talent into the club can no longer be ignored.
With the best coach in the land and arguably the best development program in the competition, Hawthorn should back itself in and embark on a youth policy. James Worpel, a no.45 draft pick two years ago, is already a midfield jet after just 23 games. Imagine what they could do with a top-10 pick?
It might not please the AFL and Channel Seven given the drab Hawthorn still has four Friday night games to go, but these 10 weeks might lay the platform for winning that “next piece of silverware” that Clarkson is forever talking about. For Hawthorn, that’s all that really matters.
WHAT ELSE I’M THINKING
1. Ben Stratton deserves a week for stupidity if nothing else, but if the umpires had paid a free kick at any stage on Friday night to Orazio Fantasia, then the pinching would have stopped and the Hawthorn skipper wouldn't be off to the tribunal on Tuesday night. Stratton was rightfully censured by his club, but since when does the AFL commission chairman Richard Goyder have the right to pass any comment? His “You don't want to see it anywhere,” remark is 100 per cent on the money. Of course we don’t want pinching to be part of the game. But could these remarks be seen as prejudicial ahead of Stratton’s hearing before an AFL tribunal that is supposedly independent?
2. All things considered, Richmond’s effort against Adelaide last Thursday wasn’t too bad. The reinforcements will finally start to return after the bye and with seven MCG games to close out the season, the Tigers should win enough games to make the finals. But they’ll want a top-six finish, otherwise they’re looking at a likely interstate elimination final and that might be beyond them this year.
3. Quite the midfield show put on by Brad and Matt Crouch the other night, with 78 possessions between them, 29 contested and 18 clearances. If the Crows really are on the path to late September, as no less a figure than Malcolm Blight has suggested, these two need to stay fit and remain prolific.
4. If the AFL is looking to bring back a rivalry round it could do worse than to schedule St Kilda to play Gold Coast. The margins in their past three encounters have been eight points, one point and four points in favour of the Saints, but certainly in both games this year the Suns had their chances to win. They’re not necessarily games from the top shelf between these two, but they’re entertaining all the same.
5. Carlton didn't quite get the chocolates against the Bulldogs, but Charlie Curnow’s seven-goal haul is what will get prospective coaches on the phone to the selection panel at Ikon Park. Where has that form been all year?
6. Fremantle toughed it out to get the four points against Port Adelaide on Saturday evening. That hardness hasn't always been in evidence when it comes to the Dockers in recent years so even at home, this was a special win. And Michael Walters continues to rocket up the ‘best player in the competition’ charts. He’s fast becoming one of this column’s favourites.
7. The Giants are in the midst of a strange draw, with consecutive road games in Adelaide, Hobart and Melbourne, with the bye mixed in as well. They did well to beat North Melbourne by 23 points at Blundstone Arena on Sunday (the Kangas kicked two junk-time goals inside the last minute) considering Jeremy Cameron, Jeremy Finlayson and Harry Himmelberg kicked just three goals between them. They look a team in need of the bye and it comes at just the right time ahead of some big games throughout July that will set up their run to the finals.
8. Behavioral Awareness Officers? Really?