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AFL 2017 Season Review: Hawthorn Hawks

It has been a tale of two halves for Hawthorn in 2017. They looked to be down and out before the bye, but have recovered to play some good footy towards the end.


Overview

After being a powerhouse and a regular finals challenger for a long time, the Hawks have entered a rebuilding phase as expected. Despite this, no one could not have predicted that they would start the season 0-4. What was worse was the way they were losing these games, and the margins they were losing them by. 

They were culpable of 3rd quarter blowouts which led to significant losses against Essendon, Gold Coast, Geelong and Adelaide. The Hawks seemed to have stemmed the rot with a win over the Eagles, but more pain followed with a crushing loss against the Saints at their own fortress in Launceston. This was a season of many unenviable firsts for Hawthorn.

As the season progressed, injuries to Grant Birchall, Cyril Rioli, Ben Stratton, Josh Gibson and James Frawley seemingly had condemned Hawthorn to a near-bottom finish. However, Alastair Clarkson has made a habit of beating adversity, and he did so again by reshuffling his players into positions they had never played in before. The results were evident after the bye, as Hawthorn appeared rejuvenated and up for the contest. Despite missing out on finals, the Hawks look to be in a much better place than when they started the season.

The lowlights of the season could be most games from the first half of the season, where they looked listless and slow. The highlights of the season are certainly the two wins against Sydney and the away win against Adelaide.


What they did well

Blooding the kids

Hawthorn haven’t had a high draft pick for a while, but have still managed to unearth gems like Ryan Burton, Daniel Howe, Blake Hardwick, Connor Glass and James Cousins. Add to this the likes of Kieran Lovell, Harry Morrison and Kurt Heatherley, and it is easy to see why the Hawks would be excited by the future. Burton has been a revelation, and held the backline together with his footy skills and ability to read the play. 

Hardwick has been one of the most efficient players this season, and Howe has relished the challenge of playing a negating midfield role, clamping down the likes of Sloane and Fyfe. Glass and Cousins have impressed as well, and despite playing only one game, Morrison looks a beauty. They finished 12th and still managed to get serious game time into these players, which will hold them in good stead for their rebuild.

Building accountability and versatility into players

Clarkson has the gift of extracting the best from his players, and he did just that in times of need this year. With half of the experienced backline obliterated with injury, he threw the gauntlet down to Sicily and Gunston, and they rose to the challenge admirably. For two players who have spent most of their time in the forward line, the duo were crucial cogs in Hawthorn’s defensive wheel, taking crucial intercept marks and providing composure in the backline. 

Likewise, he moved Howe from a defensive role to a negating midfield role, and it worked a treat as the youngster clamped down some big names in the second part of the season. Taylor Duryea was offered a new lease of life in the forward line to fill the hole left by Paul Puopolo, and he took to the task with aplomb. All these players were going through an indifferent patch of form at the beginning of the season, and Clarkson’s reshuffle provided them with the fresh challenge and impetus needed to start firing again.

List management

Several eyebrows were raised when Sam Mitchell moved to West Coast for a one-year deal. Anger gave way to panic when Jordan Lewis followed suit, moving over to the Dees. In two days, Hawthorn had lost close to 700 games of experience. While all this seemed drastic at the time, it is hard to argue that it wasn’t the smart thing to do. By moving Mitchell and Lewis on a year before Hodge retired, Clarkson ensured that while Hawthorn retained some experience, that they were also blooding kids. 

While the first half of the season looked set to prove that he was wrong in doing so, the rewards are evident to see. Hodge has now retired, and Burgoyne will stay on for a year, possibly two.  If Michell and Lewis had stayed, they would have played most of the games, and likely retired at the end of this year. Hawthorn would not have had the opportunity to get games into their youngsters while Hodge and Burgoyne were still around, and the situation could have been a lot worse. Instead of bottoming out completely, Clarkson has ensured that his side rebuilds one step at a time.


What they did not do well

Entry into attack

With all the inexperience and injuries, it was evident that the team would struggle to score like they have been in the past. But the fact that Hawthorn rank 14th for inside 50s and 13th for efficiency inside 50 shows how poor their attack was in 2017. The results were obvious, as they averaged 12 goals a game. The Hawks were also poor in keeping the ball in their 50, as well as with their marking inside 50. When you combine this with lack of contested ball and clearances, it becomes clear what they need to work on for 2018.

Poor third quarters

In what is termed as the premiership quarter, Hawthorn have conceded 95 goals this season. In comparison, they conceded only 67 in 2016 and 61 in 2015, a year in which they completed their ‘three-peat’ and were deemed one of the tightest defences in the competition. The lack of experience is an obvious contributing factor, but there is also a lack of awareness and skill errors from more experienced players which is a cause for concern. 

The Hawks tidied things up towards the end of the season, and played a lot better as a defensive unit. However, to become genuine finals contenders again, they will need to eliminate the skills errors and indecision from their game, and be bold enough to take the game on. I am sure Hawthorn fans would rather see a goal conceded as a result of their team going into attack, rather than one conceded because of a turnover due to indecision.

Lack of run

At their best, Hawthorn’s game is to have their inside midfielders feed the runners, who would break lines with speed and provide great service to their forwards. This was evidently missing this year. With Brad Hill’s departure and Rioli’s injury, Smith became the focal point, and oppositions quickly worked out how to negate his influence. 

Hartung has worked hard to improve, and is good when he gets going, but cannot carry that load alone. Hawthorn have beaten teams like Sydney and Adelaide who are better matched to their style of play, but have struggled in games against quicker sides like St Kilda, GWS and even the Suns, where their stagnation and lack of run has led to turnovers and easy scoring opportunities.


What they need

While Tom Mitchell shouldered most of the grunt work in 2016, Jaeger’s return and the development of Cousins and Lovell will provide them with some good inside midfielders. Langford and Shiels have provided adequate support as well. What Hawthorn desperately need is some run and carry, and they will need to recruit or draft accordingly. 

With Lachie Whitfield out of the picture, and a Josh Kelly trade unlikely, Hawthorn will need to think outside the box to find someone to fill this running midfielder role. The Hawks also seem to be missing a marking forward, and Tyrone Vickery has not performed as expected. Hawthorn might look to cut their losses and acquire a younger tall. Some of this will also hinge on whether Clarkson swings Gunston or Sicily forward once their veteran defenders return.


Final word and rating

It has been a tale of two halves for Hawthorn, with doom and gloom in the first and hope for the future in the second. In Hodge’s retirement, Hawthorn have lost years of experience, leadership and instinct; something money cannot by. However, they have Burgoyne for another year, and the kids are coming along nicely. Don’t expect miracles, but if everything goes well, Hawthorn should be challenging for finals in 2018.

Rating: C


How do you rate Hawthorn’s season in 2017? Are they on the right track? What do they need to step up to the next level? Share your thoughts below.

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Sudi Chandrasekharan

Sudi is RealSport’s Aussie Rules Editor, and a passionate Hawthorn supporter. He is a big advocate for more fan-based writing in sport, and works with his team of dedicated writers to bring some good analysis and opinion to AFL fans across the globe. Sudi is also currently working on creating weekly AFL podcasts for RealSport, so stay tuned!

AFL 2017 Season Review: Hawthorn Hawks

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