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Footy Fix: grand final preview

Rohan Connolly previews the AFL grand final blockbuster between Sydney and Hawthorn.

PT5M35S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-26l80 620 349

REGARDLESS of the grand final result, Hawthorn is in a strong position to continue its reign at the top of the AFL in the next few seasons, according to a host of former club greats.

A former Hawthorn coach, a two-time club best-and-fairest and a Brownlow medallist are all united in their belief that tomorrow's showdown against Sydney does not have to be the end for the core of this Hawthorn group, which is aiming for its second premiership in five years under coach Alastair Clarkson.

Terry Wallace, Peter Schwab and Shane Crawford - who together share seven Hawthorn premiership medals - all think their old club is capable of challenging for multiple flags in the next few years.

Hawthorn stars Cyril Rioli (left) and Buddy Franklin (wnd left) during the Hawks training session at Waverley Park. Thousands of Hawks fans turned out for the Hawthorn family day ahead of the AFL Grand Final against Sydney on Saturday.
27 September 2012. 
Picture by PAUL ROVERE / THE AGE

Hawthorn stars Cyril Rioli and Buddy Franklin. Photo: Paul Rovere

But Wallace, who has conducted a forensic analysis of the Hawks' list, stresses there are no guarantees.

''The state of their list certainly gives them the capabilities of putting multiple premierships together,'' said Wallace, the Hawks club champion in 1981 and '83.

''It's three points. Firstly, they've got the stars in the right age group, that 23-to-26 age bracket,'' he said.

''Secondly, you've got another group of guys, who are still only 21 and under, but already are good enough to be in your best side.

''They will have natural improvement.

''And then thirdly, you've got no 'drop-off' factor because you've only got two players who are 29-plus.''

The view contradicts a theory pushed by some this week that the pressure is on Hawthorn to beat Sydney and ensure its run at the top does not end with only one premiership.

The trio baulked at suggestions Clarkson's team could build a dynasty capable of rivalling Hawthorn's golden era in the '80s. But if this group wins tomorrow, and then adds one or two premierships in the next three years, it might still be ranked with the greatest teams of the modern era.

''But what the crystal ball can't tell us is - do they get comfortable with two flags if they win on Saturday? Do blokes naturally develop? Who gets injured?'' said Wallace, who tracks and analyses every AFL list. ''What we're suggesting is that the age of the Hawthorn core group is right.''

The Hawks have a cluster of established players - some bona fide match-winners - in a prime age bracket. Explosive small forward Cyril Rioli (23), new All-Australian Grant Birchall (24), superstar goal-kicker Lance Franklin (25), key position star Jarryd Roughead and midfield ace Jordan Lewis (26) could form the basis of a top-four team for years to come.

Of the 22 players that will run on to the MCG on Saturday, 10 fall in that same category.

With that star core to build on, Hawthorn has already shown what can be done by surrounding those players with experienced recruits from other clubs - such as Josh Gibson, David Hale and Shaun Burgoyne - and giving youngsters the chance to fast-track their development by playing with the likes of Franklin, Rioli and co.

''I think the Hawks have proved in the last few years that they can trade and recruit as well as any club,'' said Schwab, who coached the Hawks between 2000-2004.

''But it's all about your opposition, can you stay in front of the pack and how much do they improve? That's why it's so hard to win premierships one after the other.''

The Hawks are also youthful at the bottom end, with five players - Isaac Smith, Luke Breust, Ryan Schoenmakers, Liam Shiels and Shane Savage - aged 21 - and emerging forward Jack Gunston - aged 20.

At the other end, Sam Mitchell and Shaun Burgoyne are the only Hawks in this year's grand final team that will be 30 by the start of next season. Defender Brent Guerra, who will miss the game with a hamstring injury, is already 30.

Compare that to their grand final opponents, Sydney, which will have seven players in its grand final team aged 29 or older.

Some players from the club's last premiership in 2008 - such as former Hawk Campbell Brown - have admitted that flag ''may have come a year or two early''.

It has been four seasons since the club has reached another grand final, although it came painstakingly close in 2011.

Crawford said the Hawks will have learnt from how it managed their list after the 2008 victory, and believed this team was better placed to attempt an assault on back-to-back flags. ''A lot of surgery happened over the next few months [after the 2008 grand final], and young players missing a bit of pre-season, it really does put them behind the eight ball,'' the 1999, Brownlow medallist said.

''But I think if Hawthorn are to have success on Saturday … I'm sure they will learn from that and come out and have a very good year the following year,'' he said.