Cyril Rioli's lack of consistency has been highlighted by his teammates' apparent lack of willingness to contest possession. Photo: Paul Rovere
HAWTHORN has lost the desire to win the contested ball.
In the final stages of last weekend's loss to Sydney, the Hawks looked completely dispirited as they went through the motions and waited for the final siren to put them out of their misery.
The Swans were good, but the Hawks were embarrassing as they rolled over to concede the last seven goals of the game.
There was a time when an opposition ball-carrier would be swamped, but the Hawks' statistics in hard-ball gets and contested possessions have plummeted. Photo: Paul Rovere
With just two wins to their credit, and sitting 11th on the ladder, the Hawks face a tough but not impossible climb to reach top spot - a position many felt they could achieve just six weeks ago.
They have to change their ways if they are to play in this year's grand final. The opposition has negated their game plan. Last year, Alastair Clarkson's men finished the season running hot. Going into the preliminary final against Collingwood, they had won 16 of 19 games. They lost the preliminary final by three points, in a game Clarkson believed they should have won. He was angry because he felt his players weren't desperate to the end.
Their success was built around a game plan of possession. They denied the opposition the ball by executing bold, bullet-like short passes. When a Hawk had the ball, his teammates would run into space and dozens of uncontested marks were being taken all over the field. And when they had sliced their way through the opposition's forward press, Lance Franklin and Cyril Rioli finished off with aplomb.
The return of captain and general Luke Hodge is one promising sign for the lacklustre Hawks. Photo: Paul Rovere
Stoppages were not a problem, either. The Hawks were much better than average at winning the hard ball and forcing clearances. Sam Mitchell, Brad Sewell, Jordan Lewis, Luke Hodge and Liam Shiels led the way in grunt accumulation. In short, they were smart, skilful and tough.
But over summer, too many Hawks, it appears, thought that winning easy uncontested ball was the way to go. They lost the hunger for the contest.
And, of course, the opposition has realised you can't let the Hawks run free. You have to be accountable on them. Now, they are going one-on-one against the brown and gold, instead of setting up zones.
It came to a head on Sunday when Sydney, the most disciplined, accountable team of all, refused to give the Hawks space, and ensured that if they were to win the ball, it had to be in a contest situation. A lot of Hawks didn't like that. By game's end, Franklin had conceded to Ted Richards, his opponent for the day, and Rioli did the same to Rhyce Shaw.
The stats tell the story. Last year, Hawthorn was first for short kicks and uncontested marks. This year, it ranks seventh. Average short kicks per game have fallen from 109 to 77. And marks taken on the lead have dropped from third best to second worst.
What will also be alarming to Clarkson and his coaching staff is the massive drop-off in clearances, contested possessions and hard-ball gets. Last year, the Hawks were top six in all of these areas. In 2012, they are bottom six. Clarkson has reinvented himself as a coach several times before. In his eighth year at the helm, he has to do it again.
The good news for Hawthorn is its captain, Hodge, is back after missing the first month of football. He will lead the way in aggression and giving all-out effort.
Also, for the first time in a long time, the Hawks will be on notice that they need to play hard football.
Who would have thought? That nasty, unsociable premiership team of 2008 just got too nice and comfortable.