Cats an acid test for Hawks
The Kennett Curse
Kennett's Curse is still alive as Hawthorn walk off the MCG after their tenth consecutive loss to Geelong. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
THERE'S been something particularly ruthless about the way Hawthorn has attacked its football over the past month or so.
Already boasting a handy percentage before it took on Greater Western Sydney in round 15, the Hawks boosted it by another 14 points that afternoon, slamming on 17 goals to two rather than take the foot off the gas.
Against Collingwood, with a point to prove, they made the Pies look as pedestrian as they have appeared for some time with an eight-goal third-quarter burst. Last Friday night, they beat up on a hapless Essendon, any semblance of a contest shot to ribbons by the first change.
Familiar tale: The Cats celebrate their round-two victory over Hawthorn, their eighth in a row. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
As preparation for what's ahead, it's been tremendous. And for this Friday night's clash with Geelong in particular, perfect. For ruthless is exactly the mindset Hawthorn will need.
If there's one remaining hurdle for Hawthorn to clear on the way to overwhelming flag favouritism, it's not injuries, and certainly not form. It's the psychological hold the Cats have had on them ever since that famous upset in the 2008 grand final. And the Hawks won't get a better testing ground in which to blow that to smithereens.
The AFL's best latter-day rivalry is on again, and while the stakes always seem high when these two meet, they'll be higher than usual on Friday night.
Hawthorn has a top-two spot to protect, and the opportunity to avoid an interstate final. For Geelong, it's about shoring up a spot in the eight, which, while its present form suggests will be maintained comfortably, its ladder position and remaining draw make far from certain.
The Cats have recaptured enough of their best qualities over the past fortnight. The devil's advocate, though, would argue that was against a weakened Essendon and, last Saturday, at home against an Adelaide that still managed to haul back a five-goals-plus gap to creep within two points in the last quarter.
We'll certainly know just how fully Geelong's mojo has returned once it has dealt with the tsunami Hawthorn has been of late. And by the same token, how sick and tired the Hawks have become of lugging around their Geelong millstone.
In five of the eight straight defeats the Cats have inflicted on Hawthorn in the past four years, it's been the Hawks who led at three-quarter-time. And the most recent of those, in round two, had the greatest capacity to inflict significant psychological scarring.
In difficult conditions, the Hawks built a more-than-handy lead, and won the contested ball, clearance and tackle counts, the best indicators of the hardness required against the Cats.
Yet they still ended up on the wrong end of the result, the chances missed along the way in a goalless last quarter raising the spectre of that dreaded football word ''choke''.
Of course, it's feasible, even if eight losses on end becomes nine this week, that with Geelong unlikely to edge its way into the top four, Hawthorn won't even face the Cats this September. But another defeat would at the very least prick the bubble of near-invincibility that currently surrounds Alastair Clarkson's team, and offer a lot more hope to the Hawks' other finals rivals.
To that end, you'd think it more likely Hawthorn, while not gambling unnecessarily, will be selecting Lance Franklin after a three-week hamstring injury.
And vindicates the three quarters of senior game time pumped into skipper Luke Hodge last Friday night when many expected him to have another run or two in the VFL.
Geelong's loss of Joel Corey, a clear best-on-ground until his injury against Adelaide, is untimely, to say the least.
The Cats do, though, have Matthew Scarlett returning to the ranks, and the opportunity to get James Podsiadly back into the mix after an uneventful return through the reserves in Saturday's curtain-raiser.
He and Tom Hawkins, brilliant against the Crows, have played pivotal parts in the past couple of wins over Hawthorn, stretching a defence that, while competent, isn't overly endowed with height. Indeed, Podsiadly has 14 goals in his last three outings against the Hawks.
They are structural issues that Clarkson and co can address. Harder to remedy is the aura surrounding Geelong seemingly any time it takes on the brown-and-gold.
The longer those mental shackles remain, the harder they'll be to cut through. The coach knows that, and his players know it, too, whatever line Hawthorn pursues publicly this week in the lead-up to this massive clash.
You wouldn't normally suggest that one home-and-away game is worth more than any other, but in purely psychological terms, this might be worth several.
For both a reigning champ sensing its own mortality and desperate to prove there's life in the old bones yet.
And for its would-be successor. Defeat these mental demons, and it's hard to see anything, or anyone, defeating Hawthorn.
Poll: Who was the player of round 18 in the AFL premiership season 2012?
- Matthew Suckling (Hawthorn)
- Tom Hawkins (Geelong)
- Sam Gibson (North Melbourne)
- Scott Pendlebury (Collingwood)
- Kieran Jack (Sydney)
- Marc Murphy (Carlton)
- Nathan Fyfe (Fremantle)
- Lenny Hayes (St Kilda)
- Nic Naitanui (West Coast)
Total votes: 7769.
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Poll closed 3 Aug, 2012
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