The Hawthorn Football Club enter 2008 full of optimism after making the finals for the first time under the new coaching regime. The club adopted a long term strategy when current coach Alastair Clarkson took over after the 2004 season, and the benefits are starting to be seen a little earlier than even the most optimistic of supporter could have imagined. The club is seeing a lot of players they have recruited begin to improve at once, which has had a synergistic effect on the entire side. The benefit of adopting the strategy is the group is growing together and learning together, and have now begun to believe they belong at AFL level.
The key question for season 2008 is how much improvement can be made after the side had their break out season last year. There are some of the opinion that the club may need to go backwards before they can go forwards given the retirements of three experienced players in Joel Smith, Ben Dixon, and captain Ritchie Vandenberg. But there are also those who believe the club now has a stronger outer core given there are now no passengers in the best 22, and the fact spots in every section of the ground are immensely competitive.
It all comes down to several factors that can not be measured before the season actually gets under-way. The first is how the club backs up its first successful season under Clarkson given now there are high expectations on the group. The club will be hunted and will not slip under the guard of opposition teams desperate to stop the style of play Hawthorn wishes to play. The competition is extremely competitive, and it does not take much of a change in attitude to slip right down amongst the pack. The side can not afford to just expect to play finals this season, and must not take anything for granted. Thankfully, Clarkson seems to be the perfect candidate to ensure this type of complacent thinking will not be allowed, and he is very realistic about where the team is at, whilst also setting very high goals for the team in that there are no boundaries in terms of what they can and can not achieve this coming season.
The second factor is how quickly the guys from the last three drafts can come along, and how quickly they adapt to football and become influential rather than just showing glimpses of their ability.
In the 2005 draft the Hawks took the option of going for guys who wouldn’t play their best footy for 3-5 years after they were drafted.
Xavier Ellis was still finishing year 12, and is a light player who still needs to add strength. He looks a lot more capable of influencing games this year than he did last year, but how well he does this year is still to be seen. He’s a very talented player and the club hopes this is the year he starts to show what he is capable of.
Travis Tuck was a long term prospect as well, but has come along quicker than expected and will start round 1 and is in great shape to play football. However, he has virtually not played and history says players need to get to around 30 games before they start to really feel they belong.
Grant Birchall has shown it can be done quickly, but it certainly isn’t the norm, especially in a side expected to play finals.
Beau Muston has done his knee once again, and was expected to contribute this year. He was a big part of the club’s plans this season. Its shattering news for Beau, and one can only hope that he comes back and makes a career out of the game yet.
Beau Dowler was recovering from a broken pelvis and he too will seek game time this year and will only improve as he becomes more confident in his body and his ability.
Max Bailey is a ruckman and everyone knows they take time. When you consider he also had a knee operation last year, you realise that this group may still be a year or two off at least where the club would like them to be, which is what makes 2008 a very unpredictable one when trying to grasp how much the group will improve.
The club also is excited to have drafted Cyril Rioli last year, as he adds explosive pace and offers an option when the ball hits the ground in the forward line. He has shown immense talent during the pre-season and looks to have secured a birth for round 1. His defensive pressure means it will never be a liability to select him in the side, and he doesn’t need many opportunities to impact a game. He seems a perfect selection for what the club was looking for, and it is hard not to be excited about having him on the list.
Mitch Thorp is also a highly rated player who has only played the one game and the club is desperate to get into its starting 22. He is someone who is capable of having an impact immediately, but too needs to get his body right after having an interrupted pre-season. If he gets fit and firing the Hawks’ forward line will be arguably one of the most dangerous in the competition, but he may struggle finding his feet given his lack of preparation.
The talent is there for the Hawks this year, but how these players will come on is still a mystery which is why 2008 is a very hard year to predict for the club. Whilst they are very inexperienced, some have still been on the list a long time, so may have the maturity in terms of age and body shape to have a real impact as soon as this year.
The question of leadership also is raised whenever a new captain takes over. Whilst captain Sam Mitchell and deputy Luke Hodge look like natural leaders, they are in their first year in the position and it will interesting to see how they handle the pressure and whether they keep their form up and go to the next level.
Sam Mitchell was a fine choice as captain and credit must be given to those in charge for giving the club the focal point of having an individual player as captain rather than going for co-captains, even though it was must have been painfully difficult to deny Luke Hodge the honour.
St Kilda suffered from having co-captains, and when their list was peaking it can be argued that they lacked identity and direction from a single leader, even though they had several suitable candidates on the list. Sam Mitchell demands respect in the way he trains, plays and how he conducts himself off the field. He is an all round leader in every aspect.
Luke Hodge will still have a huge role to play as on field leader, and arguably once the side hits the field he is still the general of the club, even though he may not have the title.
There is undeniably a wealth of talent at the club which is still developing, but that does not mean the Hawks don’t have a lot of work to do before becoming genuine premiership contenders. There are still many areas which they fall down in which they must improve on if they want to be a top 4 chance in 2008. The club has the cattle to dominate in the middle and the corridor, but it is how they deal with this dominance which will dictate how far they improve this season. Converting midfield possession into goals has improved, but is still a weakness in terms of both forward structure, and delivering the ball into the forward 50 in terms of being an elite club.
Mark Williams is one solution to this problem. He makes the most of his opportunities in front of goal, and he is the club’s best leading forward in terms of getting to the right position then leading to the right spots. He could really straighten the club up, and give it multiple options for the opposition to worry about. He showed through the pre-season that he may be moved around a little more on the forward flank to throw opposition sides off, but will still have a big part to play as a goal kicker in 2008.
The club will also look to push some of their best ball users, Rick Ladson and Grant Birchall into the middle of the ground at times as they are exceptional in delivering the ball to leading targets. Birchall is now read for more attacking roles when the opportunity arises, and is showing maturity far beyond his years, and will look to have a massive 2008. Rick Ladson has improved steadily under Clarkson, and his footskills in the elimination final was almost match-winning in such a tight situation. These guys need to be pushed up to be delivering to our forwards. Whilst Sewell, Mitchell, Bateman and Lewis can be efficient with their disposal, their kicks aren’t penetrating over longer distances. We still lack a little outside polish more so than pace, which I feel is vastly over-rated when you have a side who can use the ball quickly and directly, it doesn’t matter how fast you run. Our running is elite in terms of endurances regardless, and is probably a little under-stated how many times we ran teams off their feet through gut running last season.
Guys like Stewart Dew, Xavier Ellis and Travis Tuck need to do the job out of the backline that last years back 6 did so well if are to release others further up the ground. Dew looks ready to play straight away, and Tuck and Ellis will get their opportunities during the year to find their spot on the ground.
The Hawthorn defence is probably the most under-rated in the competition. Campbell Brown is an All Australian capable of playing on the competition’s elite small and tall forwards. I see this as a strength rather than a weakness, but some observers consider his height a problem. He has the pace and leap to keep up with the Lucas’ and Pavlich’s of the world, whilst also the nous to play on the Brad Johnson’s of the world as well.
Trent Croad can play on the power forwards of the competition and has shown on his day can play on anyone and he was also not named All Australian for nothing. Trent is now very reliable and it extremely rare that he is ever beaten badly, which means the Hawks do have that one player capable of shutting down the opposition star forward, which every top backline requires.
Steven Gilham is still developing, and last year really showed that he can be a solid contributor down back. He has had a massive pre-season and is looking stronger and will take some big jobs on this year. His one on one work has improved immensely, whilst he can also zone off and help his team mates out. His efficiency with the ball is A grade, and offers a fair bit on the rebound.
What is also under-rated about the Hawk defence is that the back 6 also have a great offensive capacity. The drive Birchall, Ladson and Guerra gave the side last year was impressive, and if they can continue to get the drive from whoever plays back there it’ll mean having a mobile and flexible back 6 will start to be shown more as a strength, rather than the perceived weakness of the club.
At the end of the day if the back 6 performs well together it doesn’t matter what names are on the paper, but I still feel the names the club have currently are better off than we give them credit for.
C. Brown T. Croad B. Guerra
G. Birchall S. Gilham R. Ladson
C. Bateman L. Hodge S. Crawford
M. Williams L. Franklin J. Lewis
T. Boyle J. Roughead C. Rioli
Foll: Campbell, Mitchell, Sewell
Int: Taylor, Tuck, McGlynn, Young
Emg: Clarke, Osborne, Dew, Thorp, Ellis, Murphy, Dawson, Bailey, Renouf, Morton, Dowler
The purpose of listing the best 22 was not to spark debate or even to show who I believe are the best players. I wanted to show how difficult it is this year to select a starting line-up. When people read the emergencies I have no doubt that some will say that T. Clarke will play this year, or Ellis will certainly be given games. Didn’t we draft Dew in order for him to play? Mitch Thorp will be knocking on the door in no time, etc. But if I had left out C. Young, or Rioli, or Guerra arguments could have been made for them too. This highlights that we are now becoming one of the clubs that has talent outside of its 22, and generally that is a sign of a club who is starting to get their list into a desirable state. I honestly don’t know what our best 22 is, and don’t necessarily think it is the one listed.
The club has a long way to go, and there are many players on the list yet to peak, but the club will enter the season with the confidence that they have had their best pre-season (in terms of the amount of guys completing full pre-seasons) since Clarkson took over, and enter the season believing the sky is the limit. They are realistic and know where they are at as a club, but the fact the they now believe they can beat anyone, and have the fire power to hurt everyone, will mean Hawthorn are now a club every side will fear when coming up against them for the up-coming season.