THE hot and hungry Hawks should be too good for the mediocre Magpies. The Pies have dropped intensity, lost four of their past nine games and are far from firing on all cylinders. They have got problems in defence, attack, the ruck and you can question the motives of Brownlow medallist Dane Swan. The Hawks, on the other hand, are settled, in form, playing selfless football and have had two good final lead-ups against Sydney and West Coast.
Most of the Hawthorn players have played in most of the Hawks' games this season, so they are confident in, and predictable to, each other in the way they play. Best of all, they are coached to always put the team first.
AFL Finals Team List: Week One
AFL Finals Team List: Week One
Top-liners Luke Hodge, Brad Sewell and Jordan Lewis readily lock down on assigned opponents when directed to by the coach. Full-back Josh Gibson is prepared to leave his direct opponent to help out co-defenders with his strong, aggressive spoiling. Week-in, week-out, Liam Shiels will go all-out to negate one of the opposition's best midfielders. Last week it was Eagle Andrew Gaff. This week, perhaps Dayne Beams.
Up forward, the Hawks readily share to put a teammate in a better scoring situation. Five Hawks, Luke Breust, Lance Franklin, Lewis, Cyril Rioli and Sam Mitchell are in the top 15 ''score-assist'' players in the AFL.
Their ruck division is strong. David Hale does the bulk of the work, with Jarryd Roughead giving terrific support. Hale's mobility and marking strength means he can also play deep forward. Roughead, when moved into the ruck, gives the Hawks another midfielder, as he averages close to five clearances a game. It is a winning combination.
Too casual? Too carefree? Collingwood's Sharrod Wellingham. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
At ground level, the Hawks have really picked up this season. After a slow start, they are ranked second for clearances behind the Crows, as Mitchell, Sewell and Lewis have come to the fore. But, above all, it's the elite kicking of the Hawks that makes them so dangerous. No team moves the ball as quickly and efficiently from one end of the ground to the other. The Hawks are No. 1 for kicking efficiency, short kicks and uncontested marks, which ties in with their preparedness to pull the trigger and fire bullet-like passes to any teammate in any space.
After a shaky start, the Pies got onto a roll and won 10 games on the trot. But over the past two months they have faltered. Their much-heralded midfield is a concern. Sharrod Wellingham's kicking efficiency rate is 52.3 per cent. It's a disgrace for someone of his talents. Too casual? Too carefree? Too content? Swan, who copped a two-match, club-imposed suspension for doing his own thing off field, is perhaps doing his own thing on field, too.
He averages more disposals a game (35.6) than anyone. But at what price? Has that become his focus? In the nitty-gritty stats of clearances, contested possessions and hard-ball gets, he isn't in the top 16. But he is top seven for handball receives and uncontested possessions. And Swan averages just 3.2 tackles a game, a long way down from North Melbourne skipper Andrew Swallow, who sets the benchmark of 7.2 a game.
Beams and Steele Sidebottom have had huge development seasons, but have trailed off in recent weeks, while Scott Pendlebury and Dale Thomas have had good but not great seasons. Darren Jolly has been solid, but not spectacular in the ruck and finding a back-up ruckman has been a nightmare for coach Nathan Buckley. Chris Dawes has been mediocre in that role, while Cameron Wood lacks mobility and presence.
Surely, we won't see Nick Maxwell rucking as we did last week. As a result, Collingwood has been a middle-of-the-road clearance team. This has put more pressure on the defence and given fewer opportunities to the forwards. With more and quicker ball going into the Magpie defence, Harry O'Brien and Ben Reid have been found wanting in one-on-one contests. The midfielders need to push back with greater urgency to help out, and the attacking Heath Shaw has had his wings clipped by having negating forwards like Lewis playing ultra-tight on him.
The Magpies finally dropped Dawes last week and Travis Cloke responded. Without Dawes he had to cover more ground as a lead-up forward, rather than predominantly being the full-forward, as he has been previously. It suits Cloke to motor. He took 16 marks, kicked five goals and, importantly, thumped the ball into the forward 50 seven times - twice his usual number. Dawes has been recalled, but the Pies don't need him in attack. Andrew Krakouer and Alan Didak will give a better return.
Cloke needs to fire for the Pies to win. Ryan Schoenmakers will get the job on the man-mountain, but he has to have support from Gibson and the rucks. If Cloke gets damaging, expect Hodge to position across half-back to put the squeeze on him. Swan may be allowed to run unchecked, as a lot of his disposals are meaningless. Pendlebury and Beams are more creative and may be tagged by Sewell and Shiels. Winning the clearances is all-important. If the Hawks get on top, quick ball to goalkickers Franklin, Breust, Rioli and Roughead will put unbelievable pressure on the Magpies defence. Expect Mitchell, Sewell, Hodge and Lewis to be kamikaze-like at the stoppages.
Over the season, the Hawks are No. 1 for inside-50s and the Pies are 11th. If the Hawks get on top with the clearances, the Pies may try to play an extra man in defence. If they do, I doubt Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson will allow that and will be prepared to play a seven-man forward line. The Hawks will spread wide when they gain possession and back their kicking skills. If the Pies drop off in accountability, they will be cut to pieces.
Rioli was eased into last week's game as a substitute. He looks ready to explode. He delivers the ball into the forward-50 area better than anyone. I doubt the Pies have a player who can control him. Pendlebury can be a creative genius. When ''on'', he has more time and space than any of his teammates and can control the tempo of games.
The Hawks to withstand an early burst of pressure and then pull away for a comfortable win.
Hawthorn by 30 points.