HAWTHORN v GEELONG
HAWTHORN'S bolstering of its ruck depth for tonight's match against Geelong has coincided with the reigning premier having to field its weakest ruck division for the year.
The boosts provided to the Cats by the return of Matthew Scarlett (suspension) and James Podsiadly (injury) have been undermined by the loss of first-choice ruckman Trent West with a knee injury.
This will leave Andrew Mackie as the Cats' only player to have played every match this season.
In West's absence, Geelong will have to primarily rely on mature-age recruit Orren Stephenson to compete against Max Bailey, the fit-again David Hale and possibly even Jarryd Roughead.
Geelong lost midfielder Joel Corey to a hamstring strain, as expected, and dropped Cameron Guthrie. Livewire forward Steve Johnson was named despite suffering concussion last Saturday. Hale's inclusion for Shane Savage was the Hawks' only change.
Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson is not liberal with self-congratulation, so for him to volunteer yesterday that Hawthorn had improved this year was either out of character or simply stating the obvious.
Much focus on tonight's match at the MCG has been on the Hawks' inability to beat the Cats in eight attempts since their 2008 grand final triumph.
But Clarkson said he was more concerned with gauging his second-placed team against the Cats, at present sixth on the ladder, with an eye to the finals.
"The big difference is the sides are just so different," he said yesterday. "We're a very, very different side even to the side that played [Geelong] in round two this year. We don't put any great weight on [our losing streak to them].
"We were really competitive last year . . . but the whole football world probably knew Geelong and Collingwood were the better sides in the competition. This year, we're wanting to test whether or not we've actually made up some ground.
"The ladder positions at the current time suggest we have; our clashes with Geelong haven't suggested that yet. We need to get a scalp . . . hopefully that's tomorrow night."
Hawthorn's desire to prove its premiership mettle did not sway it to recall Lance Franklin. The gun spearhead
has missed the Hawks' past three matches because of a hamstring injury and will miss his fourth tonight.
Clarkson said he was hopeful the Coleman Medal leader's stint on the sidelines would not extend to five next weekend.
"He's nearly there but we just want to make sure he's completely over this little niggle," he said.
Hawthorn's two-point loss to Geelong in round two was one of only two instances this season, alongside Richmond's round-16 capitulation to Gold Coast, where the team that led in all three of contested possessions, disposal efficiency and tackles did not also win the match.
Clarkson said the changes in both teams since round two, for both personnel and game style, had been significant.
"I don't want to blow our own trumpet . . . we've just been happy with even the contribution we've had from a whole heap of players," he replied when asked how the Hawks had improved since their previous meeting with the Cats. "We've been able to cope really well without [Luke] Hodge for the bulk of the year and 'Buddy' [Franklin] certainly over the past three weeks. To be able to have an even contribution [despite those injuries] is probably the most pleasing thing."
With Hawthorn on an eight-match winning streak but now having to face recent nemesis Geelong — whose tackling ferocity has conspicuously surged in its past two matches — Clarkson said he expected the match tonight would be a "fierce battle".