Monday, June 12, 2017

View from the Outer (M7), Round 12, Hawthorn versus Gold Coast Suns

Hawthorn’s 16-point, round-12 loss to Gold Coast was sealed before a ball was even bounced with Luke Hodge being a late withdrawal from Saturday’s game. The growing list of absentees in Hawthorn’s line-up has left the team unbalanced, with too many youngsters who lack the required know-how and a lack of experienced players to guide them. Despite the loss, there were many positives to take out of this match. Chief among them was the first glimpse of a genuine embrace of a ‘rebuild’ by coach Alastair Clarkson with the long overdue shelving of his uncontested possession based game plan being replaced by a handball dominated strategy. This alteration afforded the team some much needed structure. Their quick movement in transition out of defence traversed through the opposition’s zones to facilitate an attack that has suffered for most of the season due to the dismal supply. Ultimately it failed due to the lack of execution by the players, both in terms of on-field skills and associated decision making. When players were pressured, they too easily diverted from the new strategy and undertook a defensive mindset by going back to self defeating sideways and backwards chipping rather than taking the game on. Sadly, when they did stay the course, too many times they were brought undone by dreadful execution going into the forward 50 or ill-conceived choices in possession. In the last quarter when their play did flow better the results were there to see and it nearly led to a come from behind win. The instant effect of this change in game plan (when adhered too) was the reinforced structure in the team, particularly forward where it has been dysfunctional for most of the season. It was no coincidence that Jack Gunston had his best game for the year, kicking 5 goals with his leading style of forward play finally given support with more urgent entry into attack. Gunston’s success was also helped by Clarkson playing him in attack rather than having him marooned and zoning off in defence or floating on the wing as has been the case for most of 2017. Gunston found a very capable forward partner in Tim O’Brien whose forward-role skills were a stand out alongside his 2nd and third efforts. Away from the focus on the coaches box, the game gave a good insight into ‘generation next.’ This was highlighted during the last quarter when Josh Gibson left the ground, stricken with a groin ailment. With the likelihood of Gibson, Luke Hodge and Shaun Burgoyne to retire at season’s end it was great to gain some clarity as to the state of the team’s defence in their absence. The Club needs to do all it can to coax Steven May, who dominated in defence for the Suns, to solidify our defence in the key post in partnership with James Frawley. If May re-signs with the Suns, the Club needs to divert its attention to recruiting Jake Lever from the Crows. While Josh Gibson’s absence provides the perfect opportunity for Kaiden Brand or Kurt Heatherley to assume a spot in the defensive line-up, there are doubts surrounding the merits of both of these players as key defenders at AFL level. If either May or Lever could be signed in a trade, it would leave the team with this back 6 line-up for 2018 and beyond: B: Stratton, Frawley, Hardwick HB: Birchall, May/Lever, Howe In solidifying the key defensive posts, it would free Ryan Burton to go into the midfield. This is an area that was once again badly exposed during this game with a huge discrepancy in contested possessions (144/113) and the clearances (42/27) being a key factor in the defeat. It was an eye opener how the team rose in the last quarter when Jarryd Roughead added some much needed support to Tom Mitchell in the midfield. Our recruiting personnel need to school themselves on the evidence and do everything in their power to add some more class to this department that is severely lacking.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Mid-Season Review-Hawthorn

At the mid-way point of the season, a win loss record of 4/7 accurately reflects the merits of the Hawthorn Football Club in 2017. While this may be difficult for their spoilt fan base to digest, for the most part this year the team has resembled a unit in rapid decline despite occasional reminders of past glories. In reviewing the first 11 games I have categorised my comments into ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’. The Good First and foremost, the return to the AFL of Jarryd Roughead warmed all our hearts. He has vindicated everyone’s respect as a star on the ground and a beloved and sincere gentleman off it. Tom Mitchell has been superb carrying the midfield and looks to be the steal of the century after being acquired from Sydney in exchange for pick 14. Ryan Burton has shown that he is destined for superstardom, playing as a rebounding key defender in a back half that has been under siege for a large part of the season so far. Burton's composure and “cool hand Luke” approach reminds this scribe of a young Luke Hodge and similarly has leadership of the club stamped all over his ample frame. It would be a sincere injustice if he doesn’t win the Rising Star Award and his form has been that impressive that he must be a dark horse for inclusion in the All Australian 40 man squad at season’s end. Blake Hardwick has flown under the radar but has been a great inclusion as a rebounding half back while James Cousins looks to be a very good prospect in the midfield since being upgraded from the rookie list. From a team viewpoint, the victories over Sydney and Melbourne were the highlights with both efforts exuding real guts and resolve from all in the 22. The Bad The team’s decision to let go of legends Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis at the end of last year pointed to the desire for a new age and with it an emphasis on ‘Generation Next’. Sadly, the inability of the next wave to step up and assume prominent roles to fill the breach of those icons has been the crux of the team’s fall from grace. Many players who have been on the fringes for several years have been afforded chances to seal places in the best 22, however they have come up short. Likewise, incumbents in the team have failed to step up to assume greater responsibility. The result is a soft underbelly in the team that is too easy to exploit along with the absence of any valid depth. These problems have come home to roost with injuries. A lot of incumbents, once afforded respect in our glory days, have failed to make the necessary adjustments to stay valid in a predominantly struggling team. This failure has seen players validly criticised as either being ‘downhill skiers’ or for lacking the want to get their hands dirty by stepping up to the coal face in a time of need. Mixed messages from the coaching group re selection hasn't helped the cause either. A prime example of this is the treatment young Tim O'Brien has received. After 5 years of nurturing and grooming this talent to be our power forward we have gone down the old path of trying to turn him into a defender to cover our deficiencies in this area. When this failed he has been summarily dropped from the team. Most recently after finally finding form as a marking goal kicking forward and pinch hitting in the ruck. The opportunity to play him in this role against a weaker Lions side and gain even more confidence was not taken. Injury has since curtailed him and well he now is back to square one. The suspension of Luke Hodge for the opening round by the “leadership group” was surely overkill and in hindsight robbed the team of a chance to open the season with a victory over an old foe in Essendon thus instilling some confidence in the group.
The Ugly The most glaring entry in ‘The Ugly’ category is Alastair Clarkson’s stubborn denial of the team’s decline. The departure of Chris Fagan was a big loss. He and Clarkson in tandem formed a near perfect good cop/bad cop dynamic that was key in the Club’s dominance. With Fagan’s departure the clarity in decision making has been skewed both on and off the field. Clarkson for most of the season has been betwixt and between, often talking of the need and want for change but rarely following through. Take the four defeats of rounds 3-6 as an example. These losses totalled 307 points however not one senior player felt the axe. The Club’s tolerance of these limp efforts and refusal to make an example of a few big names clashed with its zero tolerance shown to Luke Hodge. Sticking to an uncontested/possession dominated game plan that was essentially countered and rendered obsolete midway through last year has been very curious. It has made the team too exploitable to the run and gun of the new age. This has led to several hidings as the result of opposition teams fracturing the loose man out the back strategy through their loose man on the spread, with the patriarch of this, Josh Gibson, as the main victim. The on-field attitude, effort and resolve of the group has often been lacking. Key in this has been the change in leadership from the ‘General’ Luke Hodge to Jarryd Roughead, who returned to the game after spending 18 months on the sidelines due to a cancer scare. In a time of transition there was no sense in replacing Hodge who would have been a perfect figure to lead the club through the infancy of a rebuild. The change in captaincy has transformed a team once revered for its leadership all over the ground to one that’s severely lacking in it and suffering as a result, with some of the limp surrenders being standout examples. The loss of Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis from the leadership group has also been profound. The midfield has been shambolic for the most part, attracting this mocking sarcasm from Titus O’Reily; “Currently, Tom Mitchell is the council worker you see digging the ditch while 17 people ‘supervise’ him”. Sadly, this entertaining satire is the grim reality as our midfield resembles a perverse game of ‘Hokey-Pokey’ from a Lone Ranger viewpoint- take your Sam Mitchell out and put your Tom Mitchell in..... The lack of options and rotations through the midfield has had a profound effect on the team’s defence with the absence of support it provides. This aside, the lack of progress of youngsters on the list has mostly affected the defence, with Kaiden Brand and Kurt Heatherley as prime examples, neither of whom appear to have what it takes to make it at AFL level. Ryan Burton has been superb when cast in the key defensive role but his picking up the slack for the other youngsters has robbed the team of his influence in the midfield. Lastly, a few recruiting gaffs: - The Club knowing Brad Hill was leaving for the whole of last year but never actively pursuing a valid replacement; - Paying far too much for Jaeger O’Meara, with the club held to ransom by GCS and caving into their demands; - The wage given to Tyrone Vickery in Free Agency. A fee approaching $500,000 a year which far exceeded many proven performers’ wages making one question whether this has caused disharmony within the group. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the season pans out for Hawthorn.

Friday, June 2, 2017

View from the Outer, Round 11, Port Adelaide versus Hawthorn

Looking at the big picture, the Hawks’ harrowing performance this week against Port Adelaide was short term pain for long term gain. It seems evident that Hawthorn’s humiliation woes will continue until Alastair Clarkson starts embracing the ‘catastrophic changes’ to which he alluded earlier in the season.
Chief to Hawthorn’s woes is the obsolete nature of their uncontested game plan. This was exposed last year by teams who married a heavy emphasis on contested football with run and gun two-way running. Port epitomised this on Thursday night, smashing us in contested football 163 to 125 and scything us with their spread and outside run. On the rare occasion we did win the pill their relentless pressure exposed our suspect foot skills while rendering our forward line mute. Their selfless running to position to set their zones always left our attackers isolated in duels with two or three zoning defenders after which they killed us with their lethal rebound out of defence. The midfield is the crux of the issue, with a lack of ball winners inside, an absence of gut running with associated outside run and a high deficit in skills. Shaun Burgoyne turned back the clock last week against Sydney but was obliterated by the depth of quality in the Port midfield. To be frank, it epitomised our issues when we still rely on a 34 year old in the twilight of his career to be a game changer in a pivotal area of the ground. Injuries to youngsters Kieran Lovell and Jonathan O’Rourke along with the time it’s taking Jaeger O’Meara to fully recover from a long term injury haven’t helped, but a heavy emphasis needs to be on identifying targets through trade or free agency to redress this glaring weakness. There was every reason to excuse the struggles of the defence and some individuals in the wake of the onslaught but there is always a certain clarity found in crisis. While Ryan Burton underlined his ascent to superstardom and Taylor Duryea had his best game for the club since his stellar 2015 finals series by keeping Port star Robbie Gray quiet, both Josh Gibson and Kaiden Brand were badly exposed. The Club needs to tap Gibson on the shoulder and tell him to retire during the break as there is no valid reason for him to continue playing. If he does go on, it will stifle the progress of the new age as it will prevent us from gaining clarity over the merits of both Brand and Kurt Heatherley in defence and whether they are worth persisting with in 2018 and beyond. Both players need to be included in the team from now on, with wins an irrelevant factor. The focus from now has to solely be on the Club’s future by playing these youngsters, surrounded by the experience of Luke Hodge, Grant Birchall and Shaun Burgoyne. If they are found wanting, the club needs to do everything in its power to coax Stephen May from the GCS as a long term answer to partner with James Frawley in defence. Tough decisions need to be made on a few fan favourites to bring in some much needed early draft picks or be part of packages to bring in future talents from rival clubs. Josh Kelly from GWS needs to be a priority, though this might be fanciful with us lacking the currency in picks or players to facilitate the trade. Rather than feel depressed fellow Hawkers, let’s embrace this line from our team song: “Riding the bumps with a grin (at Hawthorn)”.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

View from the Outer, Round 10, Sydney versus Hawthorn

Shaun Burgoyne’s vintage performance in the midfield was the impetus for Hawthorn’s upset win over Sydney on Friday night, with the Indigenous Round a fitting setting for the superstar to wind back the clock. The choice to axe Will Langford would have angered many of the Hawk’s faithful who respect him for his consistent and honest efforts, but this decision by the selection panel proved to be correct. It redressed the existing imbalance in the midfield by adding another attacking entity into the mix. Having similar defensive types in Langford and Shiels both operating in the midfield limited its effectiveness. It was expected that one of Langford or Shiels would tag Swans’ captain Josh Kennedy, but pitting Burgoyne in a head to head dual was decisive in the 6-point win for the Hawks. Burgoyne’s inclusion in the midfield relieved some of the unfair burden that first year recruit Tom Mitchell has felt throughout 2017. It also allowed Liam Shiels to play his best game of the season in a freer attacking role. Tactics aside, this win was one of the more satisfying I have witnessed in the nearly 50 years I have followed the club. After the insipid display against the Pies last week, few gave the Hawks a chance to even challenge, let alone defeat the Swans who have looked to be on the rise, especially given Hawthorn’s line up was missing many key players and included two debutantes. It was comical listening to the Channel 7 commentary bemoan the ‘undermanned Sydney line up’ and thinking: Cyril Rioli....Ben Stratton.....Jonathan Ceglar....Grant Birchall....James Frawley....Jaeger O’Meara... The intent and commitment of all 22 was evident from the first siren and was married with some rarely seen resolve and composure; two qualities that have been so lacking throughout the disappointing 2017 campaign. It allowed the team to face up to many uprisings from Sydney and knock them back down in decisive momentum shifts. Crucially the Hawks led at the half time break, despite a surge by Sydney during the 2nd quarter where the Swans reduced the margin to 4 points. Hawthorn, however, steeled their resolve and kicked 3 further goals late in the term to extend the margin back out to 21 points. The Swans took an 8 point lead in the last quarter however the Hawks fought back with goals from outside 50 from both Shaun Burgoyne and Jarryd Roughead which sealed the win. The old firm of Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson were crucial in commandeering a vastly inexperienced defence. Hodge, playing a loose man in defence role was superb and Gibson was so clever in controlling Buddy Franklin from having a decisive say in this contest. Franklin might have kicked 5, but if not for how wily Gibson was in playing him that figure could have easily been doubled. Gibson’s inner knowledge of Buddy was so evident, never giving him the opportunity to turn him around and holding sway in the majority of contested duals. Ryan Burton once more underlined why he should be a Monty for this year’s Rising Star Award. Circumstance has dictated he play in defence this year where he has excelled but in time one can see him developing into a dominant big midfielder. Brendan Whitecross is a figure that seems contrary to this age where there is such an emphasis on elite qualities over all round solidness. No matter how revolutionary the game gets, the value of a ‘footballer’s footballer’ like Whitecross will never cease. Debut Watch: James Cousins – He had 14 possessions and kicked a goal, which was a good first outing. The goal was the stand out, kicked on his non preferred left foot which shows he is a capable two sided player whilst too many are lacking in this regard. He lacks the maturity in body as yet to be a regular but shows with his natural ball winning that he has every chance to make it. Dallas Willsmore – He was largely anonymous with only 9 disposals and struggled with the increased pace of the AFL but is worth persisting with. The Hawks were truly heroic and exuded grim defiance in refusing to accept anything but victory. This fight back will prove to be a building block for a new age.