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Hawks search for answers

Date

Rohan Connolly

Big dance: Swan Mike Pyke and Hawk Jarryd Roughead during a ruck contest.

Big dance: Swan Mike Pyke and Hawk Jarryd Roughead during a ruck contest. Photo: Paul Rovere

Sometimes there is no science to losing on the big stage.

IT'S remarkable how often in recent AFL history a team officially the best-performed over the course of a season has failed to emerge with the prize the previous six months have suggested it would.

But for one bizarre bounce of a football away from St Kilda's Stephen Milne on grand final day 2010, the past five AFL premierships would now have been won by teams which hadn't finished the regular season on top of the ladder.

Hawthorn's demise on Saturday at the hands of Sydney put it in company it would rather not keep: Geelong in 2008, St Kilda the following year and Collingwood 12 months ago - all sides that had headed their rivals to the end of the regular season only to emerge four weeks later with nothing to show for it.

At least those examples should give the shattered Hawks heart that there's still a flag chance or two left in them; the Cats rebounding to win a flag in 2009, St Kilda reaching a grand final again within 12 months.

Perhaps, more significantly, they're also all good examples of, in football terms, not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

You can analyse, theorise and pore over all the science you like in football, but sometimes, like on Saturday, the explanations are nothing more complex than some missed chances, or a handful of players who've been solid contributors in 20-plus previous games having a poor day when it matters most.

The statistics from the grand final make for plenty of Hawthorn frustration. There are not too many games you're going to lose having won the inside-50 count 61-43, the clearances 58-35 and contested possession 170-144, an accepted equation for victory on the scoreboard as well.

Perhaps the most pivotal stats for the Hawks, though, were a form of cause and effect, Sydney racking up 109 tackles to 83, Hawthorn also losing the uncontested ball count, seldom allowed to get its run, flow and precise kicking game going. That impacted on the scoreboard, too, enough of those sprayed shots at goal coming under fierce pressure.

The problem for Hawthorn as it picks through the wreckage of its premiership hopes is those flaws on Saturday are hardly ongoing issues. In fact, anything but.

The Hawks ranked No. 1 in the AFL for uncontested possession, No. 1 for points scored, and while only 10th for accuracy, were second only to Adelaide for percentage of goals from inside-50 entries, in which they also ranked a clear No. 1.

Yes, they could perhaps spend even more time on goal-kicking practice, but sheer weight of opportunity has almost been enough to see them home.

And there are plenty of forwards who'll tell you that all the goal-kicking practice in the world can't adequately replicate the circumstances of match day, particularly one as big as Saturday.

Nor is it any coincidence that the losing of the uncontested battle came on the back of relatively quiet days from the likes of Grant Birchall, Matt Suckling, Clinton Young and Isaac Smith. Up forward, meanwhile, Paul Puopolo completed a poor finals series, while Jarryd Roughead couldn't exert enough influence either on the scoreboard or in his mobile rucking role.

Those were the grand final Achilles heels for Hawthorn we hadn't counted on. And the most frequently discussed potential concern for the Hawks in the lead-up, key defender Ryan Schoenmakers, ended up having a decent afternoon.

Another big-bodied defender wouldn't hurt, though. If the Hawks decide to invest more faith in junior ruckman Max Bailey, Roughead could feasibly play that role, or at least return to the forward line on a more permanent basis. But it's not as though there are obvious holes in the Hawthorn structure.

The Hawks' biggest challenge now will simply be one of psychology. Of finding a way to will themselves through another pre-season slog and six months of competition knowing that like 2012, they could do just about everything right and still fall at the final hurdle.

But Geelong, the side they usurped in 2008, managed it.

The Cats' despair then might have been even deeper than Hawthorn's now, having lost just one game of 24 until the biggest of all. Instead, it became a driving force, pushing them over the line in another nail-biting finish against St Kilda 12 months later.

Channel that, and there's no reason Hawthorn can't also turn the pain it feels now into something a lot more palatable.

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