Keen: Hawthorn's Max Bailey and David Hale. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
A WEEK ago, people were preparing to hand the premiership cup to Hawthorn. The bookmakers continue to have the Hawks as the favourites; a notion not necessarily welcomed by the club that would rather the focus fell somewhere else.
The defeat by Geelong at the weekend, albeit with an on-the-siren goal by Tom Hawkins, opens up all sorts of questions. It is a reminder that in footy, we all have short memories. Suddenly people are questioning Al Clarkson's team. Is their defence sound? Can they afford to have three ruckmen (Max Bailey, David Hale and Jarryd Roughead) along with Lance Franklin?
What is about to happen is we will find out. Franklin, who has missed four matches with a recurrence of a hamstring tweak, is champing at the bit to play in Launceston this weekend against Port Adelaide, and Bailey will be available, too.
The Hawks have been conservative with Franklin after being burnt last time - he passed testing and talked himself up to play but then broke down in round 15 - but Franklin is keen to resume. ''It'll be determined at training this week, but he's training pretty well,'' said Hawthorn's general manager football operations, Mark Evans. ''We're pretty hopeful he plays this week.''
Thursday's main session will tell the tale with Franklin. ''I know what he's like,'' said Evans. ''When he's away from the side, he's pretty keen to get back in there.''
As for the rucks, Bailey's withdrawal from Friday night's team with an illness has clouded the issue a little longer. The injury-plagued ruckman did not play with Box Hill on Saturday either, but has recovered.
Hawthorn insists the removal of Bailey last Friday was not tactical; that he was genuinely ill.
Hence he becomes a likely ''in'' for this weekend to join Roughead, who has had such a fine season as a free-running second ruckman who has kicked plenty of goals up forward as well.
The Hawks like to have Bailey in the team with his deft palming and good hands. As Evans points out, he and Hale played together in the same team last year along with Roughead, so the issue - if it is a problem at all - is not new.
Hale has had a good season as first ruckman, although he struggled in the first quarter against Orren Stephenson on Friday. Although he is widely regarded as a forward-ruck rather than a ruck-forward, this is based on experience. He is actually 201 centimetres and 102 kilograms, big enough.
Whether he is a bona fide No. 1 ruckman in a premiership team is the bigger question. You would go back a long way to find a premiership team without a suitably big, powerful and good ruckman.
As for Bailey, it is only injury - he played just six senior games in his first five seasons in the AFL, having three knee reconstructions - that has kept him from making more of an impact. He has had two operations on his left knee and one on his right, and a wrist problem prevented him from playing any football in the first half of this year. ''We know his talents,'' said Evans. ''He's a good ruckman, and even in the pre-season, we felt he's progressed.''
Clarkson has been non-committal. ''It's hard to say,'' the coach said on Friday.
''All you can go on is the form we've currently got, and that [two utility ruckmen] is the best mix we've been able to use. But having said that, Max has been unavailable to play for us until last week, so with him available maybe our mix changes over the last … rounds of the [home-and-away] season.
''We were really pleased with the contribution he [Bailey] made last week … that's why at some point in time over the next few weeks we'll explore playing all three of them.''
One structural difference Bailey will make, if he secures his spot in the run home, is Roughead could remain as a permanent forward.
As Dermott Brereton has suggested, it would also free him up to go to a key defensive role if the Hawks are torched by an opposing tall forward just as Hawkins did on Ryan Schoenmakers. Yet Roughead seems to love the second ruck-forward role; it has taken the pressure off him to kick big swags of goals every week.
Hale told a media conference yesterday the weekend defeat would fire his team.
''Our last loss against Richmond was a bit of a kick in the pants and got us to focus on a few things. I'm sure after we go through it [the loss to Geelong] today, it'll help us reset our target and hopefully go through again until the end of the year.''
There are other areas where answers are to come. For instance, Luke Hodge's ability to have an impact on games after his long absence. The captain, who plays his 200th game this week, was substituted out of the Geelong game after being quiet; yet he kicked five goals and was crucial in his return game against Essendon the weekend before.
But Hodge has played only four senior games this year because of injury. ''A lot of people struggle in their second game,'' said Hale.
''It's going to take him a couple more weeks to get going to match fitness and [adjust to] the speed of the game.''