Grant Birchall. Photo: Getty Images
A perusal of the list of AFL's leading possession-winners this season gives a clear indication as to why Hawthorn is yet to suffer badly from the absence of defensive playmaker Matt Suckling.
Among the likes of Jobe Watson, Dane Swan, Gary Ablett and Andrew Swallow sits Grant Birchall at number seven overall with 145 disposals in five matches. What makes Birchall conspicuous is that the rest of the top 20, with the partial exception of Geelong's Mathew Stokes, are midfielders who have greater opportunity to win the ball.
Birchall's ranking was even better before the weekend, as he was averaging just over 30 disposals in the opening month. The fact he gathered only 19 disposals was primarily due not to a slide in effort but because North Melbourne forward Sam Wright played a negating role, a tactic flagged last week by Kangaroos coach Brad Scott.
"He has to be [a focus]," Scott said of the Tasmanian, 25. "You can't pick the All-Australian side after round four, but [if you did] he'd be odds-on at the moment for an All-Australian position at half-back. He's a super player ... absolutely critical to the way Hawthorn play."
While Birchall is ranked second in the league for uncontested possessions – only Port Adelaide's Kane Cornes (121) exceeds his tally of 110 – what has made that more significant is his ability to use it precisely, a key strength of knee-injury victim Suckling.
Birchall's disposal efficiency of 84.1 per cent is conspicuously high for someone who gets the ball so regularly. Among players who have averaged at least 15 disposals a match this season only Jimmy Bartel (88.8 per cent), Alipate Carlile (86.3 per cent), Colin Garland (85 per cent) and Bachar Houli (84.2 per cent) rank above the Hawk.
The resilient Birchall – he has played 157 of a possible 170 matches since his drafting in 2005 – agreed he was pleased with Hawthorn's defensive form but sought to deflect credit for that.
"Obviously with Suckers (Suckling) going down it was going to be pretty tough, but we feel as though we've got a number of guys who can go down there and fill the void. Having Mitch [Sam Mitchell] and Hodgey [Luke Hodge], in particular, down there is pretty handy because they're pretty good players," he said.
"We've got a range of players who can play down there. It's just so happened that I've had a good couple of weeks so it worked out pretty well."
Birchall said he was impressed with new full-back Brian Lake's first appearance for the Hawks on Sunday.
While Hawthorn may struggle to find an obvious match-up for Lake against Adelaide this week, given Crows spearhead Taylor Walker's season-ending knee injury, Birchall said he was confident both Lake and Josh Gibson – who like Lake can excel in intercepting and rebounding – can play in the same team irrespective of how opponents structure their forward line.
"It'll depend each week on the match-ups. We wanted Brian to play on the deepest forward yesterday. We feel as though those guys can play on both smalls and talls," he said.
Birchall said midfielder Brad Sewell would be "fine" to return for the trip to face the Crows after missing the Hawks' past three matches with a strained hamstring.