Hawthorn had a season of firsts in 2017, including an improvised defensive structure. This was partly due to injuries and partly due to form. The structure gelled well in the latter part of the season, and several young players showed their mettle and stepped up. However, it looks like they will have some key personnel returning in 2018.
We have also seen the departures of Luke Hodge and Josh Gibson. With no major trade movements to bring in defensive stocks, it looks like the list as it stands will be the one that takes field in 2018. Who are the best men to play in the back six for Hawthorn in the coming season?
1 James Frawley
‘Chip’ has been a constant fixture in the backline since his trade from Melbourne. While he has looked a touch slow over the past couple of years, you would assume injuries have played their part. The structure also changed at the end of 2015 with the departure of Brian Lake, which meant Frawley picked up the team’s best or most versatile forward.
At his best, he is a superb one-on-one defender capable of containing quality key forwards. Hawthorn have sorely missed his presence, and he will be a welcome addition to an inexperienced backline, especially given the absence of Luke Hodge. In 2017, Frawley played 8 games and averaged 4.3 intercepts and 6.5 marks a game before injury struck. If he can replicate this form and remain injury-free, he will play a majority of the games for Hawthorn in 2018.
2 Grant Birchall
The lanky, long-kicking defender was another key Hawthorn player who missed a large part of 2017 with injury. Prior to that, he had a stellar 2016 season, averaging 22.9 disposals and 5.2 intercept possessions a game. He also had 5.7 score involvements per game, and this illustrates his importance in the Hawthorn side.
It is reported that the PCL surgery has gone well, and he should be back up for pre-season. If he remains injury-free in 2018, Hawthorn will benefit immensely from his astute ball use and precise kicking.
3 Ben Stratton
Stratton was another key figure that Hawthorn lost to injury, with the intercept defender playing just 8 games before going down with a knee issue. He was slated for a return but pulled the plug after a reassessment. Given how the makeshift defence was performing, it did not make sense for the Hawks to risk an important defender going into 2018.
From all accounts, he should be back up and running for pre-season, and will slate right back into Hawthorn’s defensive structure. The Hawks will benefit from the return of a player who provides versatility in playing tall and small as required, and providing some good marking and intercept skills to stabilise the backline. With the retirement of Gibson, Stratton’s return will be even more important for Hawthorn in the long term.
4 Kaiden Brand
In the absence of key personnel, Kaiden Brand lifted well in 2017 to provide Hawthorn some good defensive presence in tight games. Brand is good at reading and attacking the ball, and his downfall at times is his decision making, or rather his indecisiveness.
However, this will improve with time and experience, and I reckon Hawthorn have found a solid key defender for the medium to long term if they can keep getting games into him. Brand played 17 games in 2017 and averaged 16 disposals, 5.7 intercept possessions and 6.1 marks a game, which is a marked improvement from 2016. More games in 2018 should see his form and his stock rise further.
5 Blake Hardwick
Originally picked as a forward, Hardwick has quickly adapted to defence, and done a stellar job in containing some of the best small forwards in the competition. His impeccable accuracy and efficiency make him a key cog in this defence, and his hardness around contests makes it hard for opposition forwards to score easily from contests.
He played 19 games in 2017, averaging 14 disposals at 85%. I am tipping that he will stay in defence for 2018 and add more to the defensive side of his game learning from some of the more experienced returning players.
6 James Sicily
Sicily was moved to the backline due to indifferent form up front, and showed a remarkable turnaround, blanketing some good opposition forwards while also collecting plenty of football himself. Sicily’s aerial abilities enable him to play a lot taller than he is, and he is also a good user of the footy.
He also reads the play well as reflected by his intercept marking statistics in 2017. While he is a genuine forward, I think Sicily will be used as a swingman in 2018 depending on what the situation calls for.
7 The others
While Ryan Burton and Daniel Howe played in defence early on in the season, I think they will play roles similar to the ones they essayed in the latter part of the year. Howe found his niche as a negating midfielder, and should continue to ply his trade as one.
Burton is versatile, has good hands and is surprisingly athletic for his size, which makes him a handy player running down the wing, or playing up half-forward. He might also swing back into defence as required but I see him playing a majority of his footy in an attacking capacity.
Conor Glass and Harry Morrison should get more games in 2018, rotating through half-back, providing rebounding run into attack. Kurt Heatherley might be the Angus Litherland of 2018. Unfortunately, Hawthorn’s list as it stands means he may not get as many games unless injury strikes.
Despite fighting admirably in the latter part of the season, the Hawthorn defence will be grateful to have the likes of Frawley, Birchall and Stratton return from injury, especially given the departures of Hodge and Gibson. While they are both big shoes to fill, Hodge is the bigger loss of the two purely for his leadership in the backline and his impact on the youngsters.
I feel that the Hawks will struggle against a taller side given they play quite small in defence. While they did get caught on the rebound early on in 2017, I attribute this largely to the inexperience of newer players and the lack of collective team experience. I think this will be another year of learning and adapting for the Hawks, but the defence shapes up well given the returning players and the experience added in 2017.
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