LANCE Franklin's long-awaited return from a hamstring injury and illness, along with the inclusion of former captain Sam Mitchell and Josh Gibson, gives Hawthorn an imposing look for the top-of-the-table clash with Sydney at the SCG tomorrow.
After six weeks on the sidelines, Franklin was named in the Hawks' 22 last night and is expected to play, unlike last weekend when he was a late withdrawal because of illness. He was having a good season, with 51 goals in 14 games, before he reported hamstring tightness after the game against Greater Western Sydney in round 15.
It is an extraordinarily long rehabilitation from a hamstring tweak, although in fairness, it was his second such injury this season, and the Hawks have prospered without him anyway. They will be on top of the ladder at the end of round 22 if they can topple Sydney tomorrow, and the return of Mitchell (calf) and Gibson (ankle) from minor injuries gives coach Al Clarkson close to his best team on the park.
He's back: Lance Franklin will return for the Hawks against Sydney. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
Only Cyril Rioli (shoulder) is missing from what would arguably be Hawthorn's best 22.
Franklin has a history of troubling Sydney, although when the Swans beat Hawthorn at Launceston earlier this year, Sydney defender Ted Richards kept him goalless. Their return bout will be one of the highlights of the match of the round. The All-Australian has had an interesting break from the game, losing his drivers' licence and having a car accident. But the Hawks will welcome him back tomorrow at a ground where he kicked six goals last year in the club's first SCG win in many years.
The Hawks' biggest omission was key defender Stephen Gilham, while they also dropped Chance Bateman and Shane Savage.
Sydney did not make a change to the team that flogged Western Bulldogs last weekend, with midfield veteran Jude Bolton thought to be a week away from returning from a knee injury. The Swans, who have a final-round trip to Geelong, can slide as far as fourth if they do not close the season strongly, but they will be hell-bent on securing a home final tomorrow.
Collingwood lost ruckman Darren Jolly (soreness) and captain Nick Maxwell (groin) for the trip to play West Coast in Perth, taking the shine off the return of the suspended Dane Swan. But veteran defender Ben Johnson is named for his first game since round six, after recovering from a shoulder reconstruction that threatened his career. Alan Toovey, Tyson Goldsack and Cameron Wood, the nominal replacement for Jolly, also are back.
The Eagles have rolled the dice with full-forward Josh Kennedy, who is named to play despite only recently returning in the WAFL from a long-term ankle injury. Kennedy has played just five games this season, but he is plainly among West Coast's best players; he kicked 59 goals in 2011.
Matt Rosa and Sam Butler are the other inclusions as West Coast dropped Bradd Dalziell, Ashton Hams and Jacob Brennan.
The other teams jockeying for finals positions had major changes, with Geelong losing captain Joel Selwood (soreness) for the game against Western Bulldogs. But the Cats named half-forward Travis Varcoe for his first game of the season, having recovered from a long-term foot injury.
Carlton, which needs to win both its games to have a chance of reaching the finals, lost midfielder Mitch Robinson (eye) for the game against Gold Coast, but called up hard-nut David Ellard, who was outstanding in the VFL last week.
Meanwhile, out-of-form Essendon lost Dustin Fletcher (hip) and Paddy Ryder (knee) and dropped Sam Lonergan amid five changes for tonight's match against Richmond.
St Kilda did not bring back captain Nick Riewoldt for tomorrow's home game against Greater Western Sydney and also lost Sam Fisher (toe) and David Armitage (soreness) among its five changes.