Illustration: Mick Connolly.
WHAT Hawthorn needs to ascertain, as soon as it can, is whether Lance Franklin is following the Gary Ablett example, the Chris Judd scenario or if he is merely in the Travis Cloke boat and testing the market in order to get the absolute best deal from Hawthorn.
Collingwood's season suffered for the Cloke distraction, in large part because Cloke himself lost form. Geelong had a troubled 2010, in which the coach [Mark Thompson] and Ablett weren't on great terms - and both were leaving. West Coast, perversely, was so afflicted with what were quaintly called ''cultural problems'' (of the powdered variety) within the 2007 team that Judd's eventual departure cannot be said to have hurt it much.
None of those teams, which had all won flags and or played off in the preceding 12 months, reached the grand final in their rocky ''is he going or staying'' season. Hawthorn's strategy, thus, is to stay sweet with Franklin, avoid internal conflicts and treat him as if he's under contract for the next few years. It can discreetly point out the scrutiny that players receive in Perth, buckle up for the media storm and hope he stays.
That said, the Hawks have no choice but to have a contingency plan in place for Franklin leaving, even as they try valiantly to keep him. This means they must entertain, meet and - conditionally - covet players from other clubs. They won't admit this. But it must happen.
This is the way of free agency. You lose some, but gain others. Should Franklin leave, the Hawks will have a hole of close to a million dollars. They cannot start searching for prospective replacements - such as a homesick Gold Coast or GWS gun - in October. The best players are on a club's radar long before it lands them, and there are signs that clubs are willing to drop some of the traditional subterfuge, edging a centimetre closer to rugby league, where you can let a club know you're going mid-season without rancour or hysteria.
First Judd, then Ablett and potentially Franklin. Should Franklin leave, then it could be said that the game's three biggest names have all left their original clubs, for love or money. The loyalty era, which began in the 1990s and lasted until Ablett's exit, can be declared dusted if that happens.
It's hard to imagine that Franklin could be in the Ablett position of 2010. In that event, then he's already virtually gone. If so, the industry presumption is that the destination would be Fremantle, which went hard for Cloke, have Matthew Pavlich turning 32 at year's end and happen to be based in Franklin's home state. But Franklin's manager, Liam Pickering, has been adamant in telling Hawthorn that the Dockers have not made any offer. The Hawks, whose coach is both a close friend and client of Pickering, believe him.
In the Ablett example, Franklin would be leaving for money, a monstrous offer that he knows the Hawks cannot match. Given that the Dockers have a normal salary cap, unlike the Swans, it's hard to see how they - or, indeed anyone besides GWS - could pay him more than $1.2 million or $1.3 million a season, including (capped) marketing money.
The Judd scenario ends with the same result, but with a different motivation. Judd left the Eagles to go home, to be closer to his family and friends. While he did extremely well financially, he would not have done much worse had he stayed in Perth; despite the Pratt presence, his decision was driven by a wish to get back to Melbourne.
Franklin's family are from Western Australia, yet are living in Melbourne.
In football circles, there is already jesting that he wishes to be reunited with Sharrod Wellingham [West Coast], his old housemate in what was presumed to be a house of the rising fun. It may be that the family wants to move back, with Buddy in tow. Who knows. The Hawks don't.
Then, there's the happy ending, as with Cloke and countless others - still the majority of elite players, lest we forget - who stay the course, even in an adopted state and see out their careers with the club that made them.
Franklin may be playing the Cloke and swagger with his contract, in the knowledge that if Hawthorn has offered four years - our assumption - someone else will put up five; that if the Hawks are still slightly under a million a season, as this column believes, he will not find it hard to get an offer for $1.2 million.
Someone will always offer him more. How much does he need? The most worrisome part of this for the Hawks is that Franklin has never tested the market before. He consistently has signed a new contract well in advance of its expiration.
We will know the answer to what is a slightly mysterious question by September or October.
Hawthorn needs to find out far sooner.