Midfield mix source of Hawthorn's struggles
Hawk midfielders (from left) Brad Sewell, Sam Mitchell, Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis. Photo: Pat Scala
THE Hawks didn't chuck it in last weekend. Nor did they "dog" it. They are instead wrestling with a number of issues that has them in a position they wouldn't have envisaged as they began their season five weeks ago.
For the Hawks, starting the season off with a flyer would have been at the very forefront of their minds following last year's heartbreaking finale. The players say the pre-season has been particularly punishing; "the hardest ever", according to one of their superstars. In horse-racing parlance, they were very forward in their preparation.
Six losses in the first seven games of the 2010 season was a low watermark that was never to be repeated under Alastair Clarkson. The preliminary final loss to Collingwood last year had a devastating impact on everyone at the club. It was to be the motivation to drive them two steps further this year.
But after five very tough weeks of football, the Hawks, unexpectedly, are behind the count, with two wins from five games. It is a long way from disastrous, but enough of a concern, especially given how buoyant they were going into the first game.
The biggest worry for the Hawks is getting the mix right in their midfield. In many ways their greatest strength, inside ball-winners Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis, Luke Hodge and Brad Sewell, is also one of their weaknesses. While they are all magnificent ball winners, they are one-paced, and although they can chug along for an entire game, none could be described as elite endurance athletes. Breakaway pace is lacking.
And if, for whatever reason, they are unable to get the game played on their terms, as my colleague Robert Walls suggested was the case against the Swans last Sunday, and dominate contested possession and clearances, they are all extremely vulnerable to an aggressive, quick, hard-spreading midfield.
Experienced track watchers would tell you, for example, that Carlton's midfield group of Chris Judd, Marc Murphy, Kade Simpson, Heath Scotland and Andrew Carrazzo would run quicker and stronger for longer than Mitchell, Lewis, Sewell and Hodge.
Clarkson is acutely aware of the problem. It was hoped Cyril Rioli's move to the midfield would alleviate the problem but it has stalled at a time when his pace and ability to "spread" is badly needed. He simply has not, for varied reasons, injury included, been able to develop the sort of tank needed for an extended time on the ball. And while they continue to use him for periods in the middle of the ground, the question being asked is whether these forays are impacting on his ability to provide the inside-50 magic that sets him apart from almost every other AFL player. His moments of brilliance have been punctuated by longer periods of idleness.
Isaac Smith is Hawthorn's best endurance athlete. He has the stamina and leg-speed mix that Hawthorn needs. He can run and create but also has the speed to help cover the "spread" of opposition clubs. His absence in the past three weeks has hurt them and while his development and improvement will continue, opposition clubs are well aware of his capabilities and he will be the subject of very close attention.
Chance Bateman has been a renowned "gut" runner, but age and form is taking its toll. Clinton Young is another who fits the category but he also has struggled to string games together. Xavier Ellis' progress has slowed and while Shaun Burgoyne has been a very good pick-up from Port Adelaide, he is another who doesn't make the elite category in terms of endurance.
Liam Shiels, Shane Savage and Brendan Whitecross are the sorts of players who may need to be given more time in the middle, to enable the Hawks to find the right balance. While everyone in football admires the various abilities of Lewis, Mitchell, Sewell and Hodge, having any three of them in the square at one time is putting all of the proverbial eggs in the one basket.
Buddy Franklin has the physical attributes that set him apart from the others, so it is understandable why the Hawthorn coaching staff have been keen to get him into the midfield. They have even gone to the extent of using him in the centre square. In a structure-heavy set-up, injecting an instinctive player into the group won't work. It is, however, a sign of how much they recognise the need to change the "mix" in the middle.
Maybe it's time to park the "Cyril and Buddy to the midfield" experiment and get them back to doing what they do best. A forward line of Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and David Hale, with Rioli at their feet and Luke Breust, Michael Osborne, Whitecross and Shiels sharing the load, shapes as one of the most dangerous in the competition.
In round 21 last year, Port Adelaide felt the full wrath of a Franklin/Rioli onslaught. Eight goals to Buddy and six to Cyril was a joy to behold. I'm sure St Kilda coach Scott Watters would prefer to see the two champs working outside the 50-metre arc tonight, rather than inside it.
The other key ingredient missing for the Hawks in recent weeks has been Grant Birchall off half-back. He is every bit as important to Hawthorn as Sam Fisher is to St Kilda or Bryce Gibbs to Carlton. The Hawks want to set everything up from half-back and Birchall is the man. Precise kicking and hard running is their mantra. Birchall is the embodiment of this. His return cannot come quick enough.
The Hawks will rebound hard in the coming weeks. It is not inconceivable that they will turn at the halfway mark with eight wins and three losses. Whether the torrid pre-season will tell later in the year remains to be seen.
They need to find variety and balance in the middle of the ground, settle their match winners in the most dangerous part of the ground and hope that Birchall and Smith have an injury-free run for the rest of the year.
Clarkson is a dangerous man with his back to the wall. The Hawks are still very much in contention and we will be reminded why in the next two months.