Wild and woolly
Take that: Cameron Bruce spoils a hirsute Buddy Franklin at training. Photo: Paul Rovere
Against hot Hawthorn, Carlton has one last chance.
THE Hawks sit sixth on the ladder, but still are second favourites to Collingwood for the premiership. It is something Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson wouldn't appreciate. He would want all the attention to go to Sydney, the Eagles, Crows and Bombers. But of course, when you have the competition's leading goal kicker, ''Buddy'' Franklin, looking ominous, captain Luke Hodge to return in the second half of the season, along with ruckman Max Bailey and speedster Xavier Ellis, then the Hawks can't be ignored.
Bottom line is there is enormous upside to a team that is already the most prolific scorer with the best percentage. The Hawks have had two bad losses this season, to Sydney and Richmond, but beyond that have done a lot of things right.
The loss to Sydney in round five taught the Hawks a lesson. The need for speed was highlighted. The midfield engine room of Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis and Brad Sewell is tough and aggressive. But they can't provide the outside run that today's slingshot football requires. Since that game, the coach has encouraged his team to play through speedsters in Isaac Smith and Shane Savage, and has added to the quickness with the inclusion of Clinton Young and eye-catching cameos from Brad Hill.
After the 10-goal loss to Richmond in round nine, there was criticism of the way in which Franklin was being played. The big fellow was kick chasing all over the ground. He was also being used at centre bounces. Perhaps the idea was to free him up, but Buddy is most dangerous playing within kicking distance of goal because his eyes light up whenever a scoring opportunity presents itself.
Buddy averages more than seven scores a game and is second for score assists in the AFL. He also puts on more tackles than any other tall forward. It makes sense that he plays close to goal, and in the past three games he has, with a return of 22 goals and nine behinds. It's scary stuff.
Four years ago, the Hawks won a flag. More than half that team won't be playing tonight against Carlton. In their place will be nine players who have yet to reach the 50-game mark. The Hawthorn coaches have done a fine job introducing new talent into the team. Luke Breust has become a regular goal kicker. Paul Puopolo is a fierce tackling, lock-down forward. Matthew Suckling, Ben Stratton and Ryan Shoenmakers are learning to play in defence, while Savage and Smith are finding their feet in the midfield. Liam Shiels, who has just passed the 50-game mark, has become a valuable tagger. Tonight, Chris Judd and Kade Simpson can expect to see him.
Should Max Bailey, who has just 22 senior games to his credit, return to the ruck, it will open up exciting prospects for the coach. It will free up David Hale and Jarryd Roughead to spend more time up forward. Those two, along with Franklin, would be the most formidable tall-forward trio in the game, and few teams would have three quality tall defenders who could contain them.
Clarkson privately will be licking his lips at the favourable prospects that lay ahead. Publicly, he will continue to push the case of just how good the Magpies and those other teams above the Hawks on the ladder are.
Tonight will be a real test for Clarkson's men. They will be favourites to beat the Blues, but they should meet a Carlton that will be desperate. The Blues, who were once premiership favourites, have lost five of their past six games. Their last two losses were gallant, but a loss is a loss. They just have to win one of their next two games (Hawthorn and Collingwood) or they can forget finals. If finals do become a lost cause, planning for 2013 should being immediately.
That means dropping Jeff Garlett if his form doesn't improve. Make him appreciate what senior AFL is all about. Try Chris Yarran in the midfield to let him realise where he has to take his level of fitness. Also give Eddie Betts time in the midfield to develop new skills. Permanent small-forwards have lots of quiet halves. Best to add another string to his bow. Decide where they want to play Bryce Gibbs for 2013 - is it back, mid or forward? - and play him accordingly. Stop playing Brock McLean, he won't be there next year so give Kane Lucas more exposure.
Tell the recruiters to focus on prospective tall forwards and consider trading the injury-plagued Jarrad Waite. Keep Michael Jamison at full-back, as he struggles elsewhere, and persist with Andrew Collins; he is smart and has a future.
Players such as Aaron Joseph, Bret Thornton, Paul Bower and Jordan Russell have had plenty of time to prove themselves. If it's believed they are not good enough to be part of a top-four team, they need to be released. Because if they are kept, the temptation is to play them. Best to start again with fresh talent.