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.

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