Saturday, July 22, 2017

View from the Outer, Round 18, Fremantle versus Hawthorn

Hawthorn delivered Alastair Clarkson the best gift of all for his 300th game as the club's coach, with a dominant 52 point win over Fremantle in Perth last night. It was very much the new on display, with smatterings of the old.
The match was in essence a 2 on 2 duel between the respective team’s loose men in defence. Whilst the Hawks duo of Jack Gunston and James Sicily dominated in zone off roles floating unchecked across half back, their counterparts for the Dockers were largely anonymous. The 2 players resembled sweepers in a soccer-like set up and this, along with their long kicking skills in counterattack solidified the team's defence. In the early stages when the Hawks forward line was pushing up high, the contest resembled an ‘apple core’, fought between the two 50 metre arcs, with the Hawks constantly getting out the back when facilitated by Sicily and Gunston on the counter. Unfortunately Sicily’s fabulous performance was marred by an unacceptable display of attitude directed at team mate Taylor Duryea in the throes of half time which might see him sent to Box Hill next week as penance. After the match, Alastair Clarkson diminished the altercation by saying he was ‘fine’ with it, but there is always a loaded dice that goes hand in hand with that term and one can presume this issue is likely to be addressed with Sicily behind closed doors. As for the old, Clarko once more bucked trends by ignoring the recent fad of head to head duels in the midfield and played Daniel Howe in an old fashioned tagging role. Howe was again outstanding, nullifying Nat Fyfe's influence and taking things to another level by kicking 2 pivotal goals. The effect Howe has had on the team's prospects since assuming a 'taggers' role reminds this old scribe of the effect James ‘The Freak’ Morrissey had on the 1991 Flag when placed in a similar role. Howe’s bulking presence offers protection for the likes of Tom Mitchell and Liam Shiels. This affords them greater control in the midfield which is evident from the team's recent ascendency in contested football. Thinking back to Matt Priddis' Brownlow Medal from a few years back, Mitchell must be a smokey for this year’s ‘Charlie’. The youth production line raised its middle finger once more to its many detractors with the debut of Connor Glass who looked brilliant with his reading of the play and dash off half back. The most pleasing aspect of the display was the universal intent of the 22 red hot goers. This augurs well for the present and future of the club, when you look at the effect that the return of many incumbents (currently on the sidelines) will have. The team's recovery from a poor start to the season has been based around young players whose hard work is more than compensating for their lack of experience and composure. Exemplifying this is our aggressive counter attack from defence by the aforementioned duo as well as our superb defensive forward trio in Taylor Duryea, Will Langford and Ryan Schoenmakers who set up many second chance opportunities. Consider the amazing talent yet to return: Cyril Rioli with his sublime class and precocious x-factor, James Frawley and Ben Stratton balancing out the back half, together with scything rebounder Grant Birchall. Add to this a fit and firing Jaeger O’Meara from 2018 onwards and Hawthorn's future looks very bright. Postscript: Other than being Clarko's 300th game coaching the Hawks, this match brought another milestone in being Shaun Burgoyne's 100th consecutive game playing for Hawthorn. I was dismayed to see Fox Footy's homage to Shaun during the half time break featuring footage of Peter Burgoyne which one can presume was in error. This was lazy journalism and very disrespectful to an icon of the game.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Alastair Clarkson- 300*

This week, Alastair Clarkson will coach his 300th game for Hawthorn and, in doing so, will overtake the immortal John Kennedy Senior's coaching tally at the club. Both men have an incredible record of success at the club and are interwoven into the very fabric of its culture. The 'Godfather', John Kennedy was responsible for the club's ascent from mediocrity to ruling the game and now, Clarkson is charged with the task of once again delivering the club to greatness. Kennedy Snr's stature has long been viewed as unrivalled in Hawthorn circles, but Clarkson has not only come out of Kennedy’s considerable shadow but has come to be viewed with the same reverence. This is truly remarkable when you consider the mood back at the end of 2004 when noted Hawks fan Stephen Quartermain greeted Clarkson's appointment with one word: 'underwhelmed’. This was a common reaction, with many tapping into the grey clouds of self doubt that had gathered around the club. Clarkson's lack of experience as a senior AFL coach saw him likened to the proverbial 'lamb to the slaughter'. It also went against the grain as Clarkson was a non-Hawthorn person and this furrowed many of the traditionalists’ brows. Clarkson seemed to revel in the face of such slings and arrows. He uncorked the ‘angry ant’ within him and steeled his focus and resolve to prove them all wrong. He made several tough and often unpopular decisions in his infancy as coach, sacrificing many incumbents, regardless of their past deeds or reputation and opted to embrace youth. One such decision was when he replaced Shane Crawford with Richie Vandenberg as captain. Vandenberg's appointment was the first glimmer of Clarkson’s pedigree. The needs of the group called for a strong role model in this period of transition, someone who was willing to take blows on the chin for others. The decision to hand Vandenberg the captaincy also offered protection to the next in line leaders of the club such as Sam Mitchell and the man who would go on to become the 'General', Luke Hodge for at that point in time they were not quite ready. Vandenberg's appointment was the right choice at that time. Just as profound as the Vandenberg appointment in the club's rise was Clarkson's procurement of fitness guru Andrew Russell from Port Adelaide. So insistent was Clarkson on this recruiting move, he even offered to pay Russell's wage himself. This was a testament to his dedication and belief in his blueprint for the club. Clarkson's priority was to focus the club's recruiting on developing the spine of the playing group. This, coupled with his keen eye for rough gems from other clubs set all the aces in place for his genius to come to the fore. This has seen him ascend to a revolutionary figure of the AFL, one who has reinvented the way the game is played. He has rendered traditional positions obsolete and replaced them with zones and presses, each brilliant plan coupled with unrivalled tactical nous. The ’Clarko Cluster' was one of his many innovations that commandeered the remarkable 2008 flag. It bamboozled and befuddled the opposition think tanks like no other evolution in the game's history. The main appeal of his genius is his chameleon demeanour. He continues to stay ahead of current trends and does this all with profound charisma. How he tinkers and continues to evolve deceives opposition teams into thinking they have a grasp on his tactics, only to have this morph into uncertainty once more. This year, as the club again embraces a transitional period, we have seen another side to Clarkson. Whilst all have seemingly rejoiced in the end of the Hawks era and a predicted long rebuild, he has remained calm, composed and unquestionably loyal, which has brought a sense of reassurance to the new generation. Clarkson's genius would not garner the success it has without his high sense of empathy. He reeks of 'realness' which is such a rare quality in this transparent age. Everyone at Hawthorn knows he will always have their back. This compels a belief in him that borders on zealotry. Both on and off the field, this all encompassing faith has helped place him on the mantle as a cultural icon of the club. An example of Clarkson's incredible kindness and empathy was highlighted after the death of past great David ‘Rubber’ O’Halloran in 2013. Clarko responded to this unexpected passing by inviting 'Rubber's' widow and two children not only to attend the match, but be involved in the post game huddle as they sang the team song. Tears flowed that day but such a warm embrace was not lost on anyone who is proud to call Hawthorn 'the Family Club'. This touching gesture harkens back to an era of the game that was defined by loyalty. With such a notion almost a thing of the past with players being so dispensable these days, this act made all that bore witness to it know that even when you are departed from the club, the club will never depart you.

Always Hawthorn’

Saturday, July 15, 2017

View from the Outer, Round 17, Geelong versus Hawthorn

If one ever wanted the definition of a team ‘beating itself’, they need look no further than Hawthorn's performance on Saturday afternoon at the MCG, where a prime example of this was on display as Hawthorn carried Geelong over the line. From a Hawthorn perspective, the game was truly infuriating on so many levels, predominantly as a result of Geelong's Patrick Dangerfield, who, despite being stricken in the early throes of the match, was the difference between the two clubs. After seeing the Cats' star go down and being sent forward, showcasing Geelong’s over reliance on him, it offered the Hawks the chance to exploit the situation and with it gain a decisive ascendency in the contest. Cast as an old style one out full forward, Dangerfield operated largely in the forward 50 whilst the rest of the Geelong attack played higher. It was bemusing to see him in constant one on one duels where he was allowed to hold the whip handle against a predominantly inexperienced Hawks defence. The frustrating aspect wasn't so much their inadequacies when matched against arguably the AFL's premier star, but the fact that everyone else was assigned to a zonal defence instead of someone running shot gun for Dangerfield’s direct opponent. After witnessing James Sicily in the win against Adelaide sit 10 metres in front of Eddie Betts in support of Blake Hardwick, a move that proved pivotal in the win - why wasn’t the same tactic employed here? It would not only have limited Dangerfield with third up support, but also ignited the Hawks' rebound due to his inability to chase. The other main theme of the defeat was the constant failure to execute, which was highlighted in the ultimate hammer blow of Isaac Smith curiously deciding to play on rather than go back and take responsibility for a set shot on goal. Flawed decision making, which was the difference between winning and losing, was frustratingly seen on too many occasions throughout the game. There were too many missed handballs or substandard kicks which fractured the chain in transition when out and leading to turnovers which killed us when inside 50. Also, once more, our inexplicable tendency to miss set shots on goal was the final nail in our coffin. The Hawks' forward line, which has been excellent in recent weeks, had a look of imbalance to it. There was too much emphasis on manufacturing goals due to the pressure acts of the many defensive forwards without the structural support of more attacking entities. Taylor Duryea and Ryan Schoenmakers were stellar, particularly Duryea in the job he did limiting Harry Talor’s influence. With Jarryd Roughead and Jack Gunston playing roles largely in the midfield, it deprived the forward line of their pre-eminence as goal kickers and creators. In particular, Gunston playing on the wing and deep in defence rather than forward, where he has been a consistent 50+ goal kicker for the last three seasons, would have delighted the Geelong coaches. The frustrating irony is that it was Gunston who passed the ball to Isaac Smith in the dying seconds of the game to set up a shot on goal. If Gunston had of been stationed more permanently forward perhaps the outcome would have been better for Hawthorn. Lastly, to 'The General’, Luke Hodge: with the game in the balance, 10 points down, under a minute left to play and surrounded by Cats players, he got the ball outside 50 and pinged it through the big sticks off two steps on his non-preferred right foot to give his team a chance at a remarkable late victory. This showcase moment reminded all of us privileged Hawthorn fans how lucky we have been to witness one of the greatest the game has ever seen.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Thank you Luke Hodge!

On hearing of Luke Hodge’s impending retirement, my thoughts turned to ‘Mr Football', arguably Australian Rules' greatest icon, E.J.Whitten. Ted is a revered figure who did anything and everything for whichever guernsey he donned, whether it was for his beloved Footscray or when he donned the Big V to represent Victoria. His team mates would never avoid a contest or fail to put their head over the ball around Whitten, lest they risk being 'taken out' by him at the next available chance, an act he justified under the auspices of ‘footballing treason’. Stories of Ted Whitten remain the stuff of folklore as his footballing abilities were complete and unrivalled. In rabid zealotry towards victory, his efforts were both selfless and relentless and he was uncompromising in his demands of his team mates. His booming voice accompanied by that piercing glare would give onlookers chicken skin while causing all in his presence to walk taller, inspired to push themselves well past breaking point. I have no doubt that in time, Hodge, so very much in Whitten's likeness, will also be inducted as a Legend in the AFL Hall of Fame and lauded accordingly. During the past half century, the Hawthorn Football Club has had periods where it has lost its way but it has been fortunate to have some amazing leaders; icons of the Club who have steered it to being the most successful of the modern era. One such icon of Hawthorn is 'The Godfather’, John Kennedy Senior who took the Club from being the laughing stock of the VFL in the late 1950’s to one that was feared and ultimately envied. ‘Kennedy’s Commandos’ were inspired by his famous words at half time of the 1975 Grand Final, "Do something, Do! Don’t think, don’t hope, do!" Despite the loss that followed that day, this iconic speech has become the catch-cry of the Hawthorn Football Club. Similarly, Luke Hodge has established himself as a pivotal and key person in the Club's success. He came to Hawthorn in 2002 as the number one draft pick. At this time in the early 00's there was a very distinct and shameful straying away from the traditions that defied the 'Hawthorn way'. Our playing list at the time seemed more intent on looking their best during a game by preparing with a trendy Chapel Street hairdo or spending time on such pursuits as the CLEO Bachelor of the Year award rather than going the extra yards for the club. This period was defined by a jibe from our most hated rivals, Essendon: "Essendon players wear liniment, while Hawthorn players wear tanning lotion". Trent Croad became the poster child of this period and after parading himself with his new flashy BMW in a glossy Herald Sun tabloid spread, enough became fucking enough and despite having re-signed with the club during the 2001 season, he was very publicly loaded into the gun in a controversial trade move that rankled many supporters. This, however became a watershed moment as it was this manouvre that brought Luke Hodge to the Club the man who would later become known as 'The General'. Hodge was often unfairly judged in his early tenure at the Club, constantly compared to Chris Judd and even Luke Ball who despite being selected after him in the 2001 ‘Super Draft’, were dominating with much stronger clubs. It seemed a weekly routine after Hawthorn matches that talk back radio phone lines would light up with outraged Hawk fans, particularly during the grim period of 2004-6, with many questioning 'why did we select Hodge and not Judd, or even Ball?' As is often the case, with time comes clarity and from 2007 onwards, Hodge's outstanding performance silenced the fickle throng and I'm sure there are plenty who now claim to have always been one of the 'true believers'. His true "Legend" status began in the finals series of 2008, where Hodge suffered a blood curdling blow in the prelim against St Kilda which undoubtedly resulted in cracked ribs. The Hawks won this game to face the juggernaut team of the era, Geelong in the following week's Grand Final. The Cats' players tested his ribs early on in the contest, however Hodge responded by tapping his ribs and invited them to give their best crack. It was an act of intimidation, similar that of a boxer who smiles at his opponent after being struck a sickening blow. This action, in retrospect, turned the feared Cats into exploitable ‘pussies’. The Geelong team cowered while the Hawks were inspired. Hodge won the Norm Smith Award as best afield that day, in what many view as the greatest Grand Final upset of the modern era. The pivotal part Hodge played in commandeering the remarkable 2008 flag highlighted his pre-eminence as a figure in big games and after assuming the captaincy in 2011, some of these acts became almost biblical. These 'show-time' acts of skill combined with his self-sacrificial one percenters were a highlight of the Hawks' dynasty that reaped an outrageous 3-peat of Flags between 2013-15. Few will dispute that he has been amongst the greatest leaders, not just in the VFL/AFL, but in the wider sporting community and I am sure that in time we will be saying his name in the same breath as other greats of the game such as EJ Whitten and John Kennedy Senior. As he departs, my appreciation is immense. Not just for the joy he has given me in watching his many great games for the Club, but also the life lessons he has provided to me. His resolve to fight through tough periods and prevail and never give up are an inspiration to me and countless other fans. He has shown us all that even when we're beaten down, we can find a way to rise and win. Thank you Luke Hodge!