Hawk predators given hope
No easy way... Hawthorn's Jack Gunston battles with the Sun's Jeremy Taylor. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
A SUNDAY twilight match between the premiership favourite and a barely competitive expansion team would appear to be the very definition of a game not worth watching.
Yet, this apparent mismatch between Hawthorn and Gold Coast last Sunday turned out to be a game well worth seeing for Hawthorn's rivals at the top.
While the flyweight Suns were never going to win, they did find a way to stymie and frustrate them, to the point where a game that had been expected to be a regulation 100-plus point massacre was 12 goals to eight at three-quarter-time.
When Jarryd Roughead botched a kick, leading to a goal to Alik Magin at the other end in a surprisingly competitive third quarter, Hawk coach Alastair Clarkson's frustration was plain; his team was not playing well and while it did not have three stars in Sam Mitchell, Cyril Rioli and late withdrawal Lance Franklin, the Suns, too, were far from full strength.
The final margin was 64points - half of what had been anticipated. Hawthorn was sloppy, but this was only part of the story. The Suns' match committee employed an unorthodox method, which may not be borrowed by more able teams in September, but is worth examining.
Hawthorn's elite kicking capacity is what separates it from the competition, offensively. Teams often seek to restrict the Hawks' ability to take uncontested marks - to avoid being sliced by foot. Increasingly, they are abandoning the zone for old-style man-on-man defence.
But the Suns didn't worry about how many marks the Hawks took in space, via those lethal left feet. Their concern was only where those uncontested marks were taken. Thus, they devised a plan that would see Hawthorn's players allowed space deep in defence, and then "pressed" - crowded and invaded - for any kick around the midfield.
The Suns let the Hawks take marks - not manning them up at all when within 30 to 40 metres of the goal Hawthorn was defending.
However, once Hawthorn looked for an open man in the midfield, it found a proverbial galaxy of Suns swarming that area. The intention was, ideally, to force a midfield turnover or, at worst, to slow the Hawks' ball movement.
Since the advent of the forward press, teams have defended all 160 metres of the field, sending their players forward to seek to trap the ball in their scoring territory.
The Suns can't apply an effective forward press for the duration of a game because they lack the distance running ability of a mature team; so they didn't bother. They resolved to defend no more than 90 to 100 metres or so of the MCG's length.
In 2012, there has been heavy emphasis on stopping teams from "switching" across the ground in defence to open up loose players further afield. But the Suns were happy to let the Hawks kick the ball backwards or sideways when the flag favourites were on the last line of defence, figuring that the kick-and-mark to clamp down upon would be the critical "next one" after the switch; for once Luke Hodge, Matt Suckling and co get the ball in the midfield, under minimal pressure, the opposition is anaesthetised on the surgeon's table.
The Suns found a way to compete, scoring goals "out the back" - in an open forward line - from turnovers. It is unlikely the Swans will follow this template tomorrow, since the dimensions of the SCG demand a different approach - allowing the Hawks any marks, even 140 metres from goal, is fraught on a short ground where one Suckling kick from half-back could be a mark inside forward 50.
The Suns, though, did follow famed Hawk coach John Kennedy's exhortation to "do something." Rivals such as Sydney can gain from a game that was far from meaningless.