Milestone: Jarryd Roughead is chaired off the ground after his 200th match. Photo: Getty Images
It goes without saying that Hawthorn is the most successful club of the past 50 years, 10 of its 11 premierships won since 1971, a strike rate of one flag every 4.3 seasons. That's phenomenal consistency over a sustained period.
Which of those flags has been the most satisfying is subjective. Many Hawthorn people would argue 1989, the side that delivered back-to-back premierships to the club for the first time. Others would contend the unexpected triumph of 2008 with the AFL’s youngest list.
Which represents the Hawks’ greatest achievement is another question and another matter of opinion. But the closer this season inches towards its climax, the more the evidence mounts that if they earn consecutive premierships a second time, it might actually be that of 2014.
The Hawks have had better teams than their current model, certainly a few more star-studded. But it’s arguable that any have had to face the sort of odds the club has battled this season through a toll of injuries and suspensions that have taken, at some stage, virtually every key player, and, at one stage, even its coach Alastair Clarkson.
Saturday night’s epic win over Sydney - in close to the best game we’ve seen this year - was a timely reminder of just how good the Hawks. Not surprisingly, it was a performance delivered with one of their strongest line-ups of the season. And even then, a win still achieved without Brian Lake, Cyril Rioli and Brad Sewell.
But that quality of absentee has just been par for the course for Hawthorn in 2014, virtually every game contested without at least one and usually more of their most important players.
That the Hawks, for all that, remain less than one per cent off top spot on the ladder having dropped just four games, all to teams in the top six, says pretty conclusively before we even reach September that this is the most even combination they have had at their disposal.
How many of their predecessors, not to mention contemporary rivals, would have coped this well with so many casualties?
If that sounds hyperbolic, consider the following. The top four in Hawthorn’s best and fairest last year were Josh Gibson, Jarryd Roughead, Sam Mitchell and Ben Stratton. That quartet on Saturday night played as a group for just the third time this season.
If you throw Lake, a Norm Smith medallist, into that mix as well, it’s just one game together. Add Rioli and Sewell and you have a list of seven players who’d be among the first 10 picked at virtually any club. Yet only Roughead of that group has played more than 11 games this season, and he and Rioli are the only ones even in double figures.
Hawthorn just finds ways to cope. Against Sydney, Lake’s absence loomed as particularly damaging, and there were times in the first half when Lance Franklin and Kurt Tippett threatened to run amok.
Yet Gibson’s return to the line-up forced Franklin to work hard for every touch. Ryan Schoenmakers at least provided a strong contest against Tippett.
And so hard did Hawthorn’s midfield work that in the end, no matter how dangerous they looked, Franklin and Tippett simply couldn’t find enough opportunity. The Swans average 56.3 inside-50 entries a game and 9.5 more than their opposition. Against the Hawks it was 49 and six fewer.
The stars all stood up on Saturday night, Roughead, Mitchell, Jordan Lewis and Luke Hodge all pivotal. But not necessarily any more important than the consistently underrated Liam Shiels, who managed to curb the effectiveness of Sydney’s Josh Kennedy, nor Jonathan Simpkin’s job as a defensive forward on critical Swans rebounder Nick Malceski.
The hard Hawthorn midfield bodies did the trick even without Sewell, and Rioli’s run and X-factor was more than adequately compensated by a great game from Isaac Smith. A continuation of what’s happened all season.
In the ruck, Jonathon Ceglar has in turn kept more senior men Ben McEvoy and now David Hale out of the line-up. Angus Litherland has slotted in beautifully off half-back. Will Langford made an important contribution early in the season, and has again forced his way into the 22. As Matt Spangher was holding down a key defensive role until injuring his ankle.
Some of those names will be stiff indeed to be dropped or passed over come the returns of Lake, Rioli and Sewell, all of whom will be back with one or two home-and-away games to spare. But more than most seasons, they will be able to console themselves in having played a crucial part in their team’s fortunes.
Back-to-back premierships in the AFL era given the intensity of and toll taken by the competition are significant indeed, more than a decade having now passed since Brisbane’s hat-trick.
A Hawthorn outfit that delivered that prize for only a second time in the club’s history, whatever the circumstances, would rightly earn a prominent place in AFL history. But to do so given the adversity the Hawks have been up against would make them, even by a successful club’s lofty standards, a very special group indeed.
And while I'm at it ...
SUNS STINK IT UP
Has a side in recent memory with as much on the line played as poor a first quarter as Gold Coast did on Saturday?
If the complete domination of Brisbane wasn’t obvious enough, the statistics from a dire 30 minutes for the Suns had to be seen to be believed. And even then, looked at again to make sure there hadn’t been a printing error.
Try these on for size. Disposals: 126-36. Marks: 22-1. Contested possession: 50-21. Clearances 18-6. Inside 50s: 23-4. They’re the sort of numbers you’d expect to see in a lopsided under 12s game, not the AFL. Little wonder Suns’ coach Guy McKenna was still too angry to talk to his players when he conducted his post-game media conference.
If Gold Coast was hoping to finally shrug off the “no Ablett, no Suns” talk, it couldn’t have gone about doing so any worse than the lacklustre effort against the Bulldogs, and Saturday’s failure to turn up at all. And with games still to come against an improved Carlton, Port Adelaide and Essendon, the sun is rapidly setting on its hopes of a first finals appearance.
BRIGHT TIMES AHEAD FOR BRISBANE
Brisbane, in contrast to the Suns, produced its best performance of the season, one that not only highlighted the quality of its gun midfielders Tom Rockliff and Pearce Hanley, but just how many relatively raw Lions continue to make good progress, Jack Crisp, in his first game of the season, another good example.
No fewer than 14 of the Lions’ 22 on Saturday had played 58 games or fewer, including those who now pass for senior faces, such as Dayne Zorko, Rohan Bewick, Ryan Harwood and Ryan Lester.
It’s youth on a mass scale, and few of those who’ve been tried haven’t shown some very positive signs under first-year coach Justin Leppitsch. Indeed, Brisbane, for a side still in the bottom four, and with half as many wins as last year, has plenty of light at the end of the tunnel.
As have the other teams anchored near the foot of the ladder. Even for the also-rans, 2014 will finish with at least something over which to enthuse.
It’s had plenty of air-time already as an issue, but if any weekend has driven home how far AFL scheduling has missed the mark in 2014, surely it’s the last two in the supposed heartland of the competition.
Sure there’s fewer games on offer in a split round, but not only has Melbourne hosted just four games across two Saturdays and two Sundays, three of them have come in the “deadest” time-slot of all, that of 4.40pm, neither a day game nor night, and as good as an open invitation to stay home and watch on TV.
Saturday night’s Hawthorn-Sydney classic in a now-traditional 7.40pm setting drew the sort of crowd becoming increasingly scarce in these parts. What a shame the next bit of action came nearly 24 hours later with too many fans already having tuned out again.