Hawthorn are already the team of the year

Date: August 1, 2014 / Posted by Glenn Mitchell

To date, without doubt, Hawthorn has been the AFL’s most impressive performer this year.

Prior to the season getting underway the general consensus from the experts around the country was that Fremantle and Sydney were the likely grand finalists. Hawthorn was on the third line of betting with many.

One of the big question marks over the Hawks was how they would function post-Buddy.

The loss of Lance Franklin to Sydney shaped as a problem for Alistair Clarkson’s side up forward. The super-talented left-footer had kicked 580 goals in nine seasons in the brown and gold. Just what sort of dilution would the Hawks suffer on the scoreboard?

As it has turned out …. very little.

After 17 rounds this season Hawthorn is averaging 111 points per game. Last season to the same point it averaged 118, just seven-points higher.
Last season at this point the club’s percentage was 141 compared with 138 this year.

In Franklin’s absence the goal kicking load has been shared primarily by three players – Luke Breust (45), Jarryd Roughead (44) and Jack Gunston (41).

At times during Buddy’s stint at the Hawks there was a feeling that they were a little too one-dimensional. That reliance changed last season when Roughead became more of the go-to-man. It may have been a case of Clarkson looking to the future with the knowledge that Franklin was likely to leave through free agency.

Nonetheless, losing a player of his ability would be seen as a blow to any club.

But the loss of Buddy was only one of the serious issues that Hawthorn has faced this season. The other has been injuries, with many of them ruling out key players for extended periods.

Sam Mitchell, a four-time best and fairest and an All-Australian last season, has been sidelined for eight weeks this year. His ability at stoppages has been one of the primary weapons in Clarkson’s armoury in recent seasons.

The reigning best and fairest, Josh Gibson has, like Mitchell, played just nine games. Since joining the club from North Melbourne in 2010 he has been a linchpin in defence. His ability to play on opponents of varying sizes has provided Clarkson with much-needed flexibility down back.

Brian Lake, the Norm Smith medallist as best afield in last year’s grand final win, has spent more time in rehab than he has on the ground.
Restricted to just five games through injury and suspension the loss of his experience in the last line of defence has required some deft handling.

Brad Sewell has also missed a lot of football – ten games in total – with his running ability and ball use sadly missed.

Talisman Cyril Rioli has once again been plagued by hamstring problems. He has missed six weeks and is not going to be back in the near future. A dynamic small forward he has been a match-winner on numerous occasions not just through his goal kicking prowess but also his strong defensive tackling and chasing.

In the aftermath of last year’s premiership Max Bailey decided to retire. The big fella had battled several knee reconstructions and after just 43 games he chose to go out on a high.

In an effort to bolster their depleted ruck stocks the Hawks recruited Ben McEvoy from St Kilda. The plan was for him to shoulder the bulk of the ruck duties this season however the football gods had other ideas. In his first season with his new club injury has restricted him to just nine games.

An injury toll like the one Hawthorn has endured this year would prove fatal for many sides yet the team sits second on the ladder, just 0.8 per cent behind Sydney – the team it beat in stirring fashion last weekend.

Somehow the club has found a way to paper over the cracks this season.

Its performance has been testament to the quality of the coaching staff – and even there there have been issues. Clarkson was sidelined for five weeks due to illness with Brendan Bolton having to step-up in his absence mid-season.

As good as Sydney has been this season it is hard to go past the Hawks.

At present the bookmakers have the Swans at $3.00 favourites to take out the flag. Hawthorn is next in line at $3.50 followed by Fremantle ($5.00) and Geelong ($7.00).

Should the Hawks injury woes be largely behind them come September they will be a formidable force.

And win, lose or draw the club will have performed incredibly well given the problems that have beset it this season.

First published on The Roar – www.theroar.com.au – on 31 July 2014