Thursday, April 20, 2017

Hawthorn needed to Revisit the 'Vandenberg Era'

Richie Vandenberg is a figure forgotten by most, or if remembered, viewed as a good to average AFL footballer, or perhaps regarded as a 'plodder'. His 15 minutes of fame came after his display of brute thuggery in the infamous 'line in the sand' game against Essendon in 2004.
As one now dissects the Alastair Clarkson masterminded 4 flag Hawthorn juggernaut and its recent spectacular fall from grace, his name once again comes to mind. In the infancy of the Hawks dynasty Vandenberg cast in the role as an unlikely Captaincy choice played a definitive role as a segue between the leadership of Shane Crawford and the brilliant and defining captaincies that followed. He was the perfect shield for Sam Mitchell and Luke Hodge at a time when the temptation would have been ripe to thrust either of these players into the captain's role before both were properly ready, knowing they both had it in them to be great leaders. Melbourne bore witness to the ill advised nature of doing this with their decision to throw in Jack Grimes/Jack Trengrove as dual Captains soon after in 2007. Hoping both would learn on the job and mature into the great leaders that seemed part of their destiny, only to see both chewed up as a result. Vandenberg spared the aforementioned duo of a similar destiny, particularly in 2005/6 when the team had a 14/30 win loss record and all types of slings and arrows were being directed at the club from fans and the media alike. Vandenberg took it all on his ample chin and in doing so engendered a steely resolve that enabled the wave of youth coming into the team to mature quicker, as he took most of the bullets for the team's struggles. When he departed in 2007 with the team on the rise, he was easily forgotten by most but his legacy cannot be overestimated as he provided the perfect baton change to the next wave of leaders which propelled the team further along the path to unbridled success. 10 years on and the memory of Vandenberg lingers. Hawthorn has recently embarked upon a very public succession strategy which saw the club let go of Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis at the end of 2016 followed by replacing Luke Hodge as captain in the early throws of 2017. The choice of Jarryd Roughead as Hodge's replacement warmed the hearts of all the Hawks' faithful, but the choice had an emotional basis and lacked a rational justification. By appointing Roughy, the club naively assumed that he would seamlessly go back to being the dominant figure he was before a fight with cancer deprived him of playing at all throughout 2016.
His 18 months away has also seen a distinct shift in the game with the possession dominated game plan that underpinned Hawthorn's success being picked apart and countered to such an extent that holes were punched through it. Teams such as the Western Bulldogs, Sydney and GWS checkmated it with game plans centered around similar high grade skill and decision making. Then cut it to ribbons with rabid appetite in contested situations coupled with relentless jet propelled two way running, both from a defensive and attacking viewpoint that the Hawks had no chance of matching.
It has cast Roughead in the unenviable position of trying to re-acclimatize as a player while entrusted with leading a team in a transitioning stage with its game plan verging on being rendered obsolete.
Wouldn't greater sense have been to allow him to just play in 2017 without the extra pressure of the captaincy? This decision seems even more odd when one considers the loss of the support that on-field generals like Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis would have provided. The Club failed to factor in how much effect this would have, not just on the new leader but the team as a whole. The deputies he was provided with (Liam Shiels and Isaac Smith) lack the know-how to fully support Roughead in the infancy of his leadership. With the team struggling mightily in the early stages of the 2017 season, the team's lack of on-field leadership has been noticeable, especially during the game against arch rivals Geelong. During this match, only the previous leader Hodge showed any semblance of leadership which made many question why the club was so eager to take the captaincy off him as it remains apparent that he is still the best choice of leader.
No doubt Hodge still would be the best choice but his abdication was all about the Team embrace of succession. A more proactive decision would be to acknowledge the potential of Roughead as a leader along with the likes of Jaeger O'Meara and revisit the Vandenberg era by inserting a bridge type figure until such players are ready. Grant Birchall or Ben Stratton would have been perfect interim candidates, with these grizzled veterans both respected for their silent leadership style along with being 'as tough as teak'

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