Are the 2008 Hawks back?
This is the question that has moved from the back of the brain to the tip of the lips of the Football public over the last few weeks. There are many good reasons for optimism, however if you look closely big concerns remain evident.
The major concern is an inability to close the deal, yes its an obvious flaw after 2 close losses to Geelong and now the agonizing 'interchange infringement' draw with the Saints. What is concerning though is that too many people are happy to make excuses for the Hawks and praise them for their guts, and extol their virtues for getting so close, but all this conveniently forgets that this team won the Premiership just 40 games ago.
Nor should we forget that this was no end of an era premiership, Hawthorn had the youngest list in the competition on that magical September afternoon. Croad and Crawford are the only losses from the Premiership 22, and with Rioli, Franklin, Roughhead, Mitchell, Hodge, Sewell and Lewis all with their best football in front of them it so much looked like the eighties were coming back for Hawthorn fans you nearly expected the team to run out with permed mullets.
Now just 18 months later the media, plus more worryingly the coach are seeing the 'positives' in close losses, giving them credit for gutsy efforts the same way I talk about my nephews under 12's football team. So what happened?
Firstly, although I may have brushed over it before, the loss of Croad was bigger than any of us could reasonably have foreseen, the big weakness in that Hawthorn team was lack of depth in the tall defenders, and not just depth but quality. Losing Croad robbed us of both, with no-one there to take his place and the other injuries we sustained in 2009 last years letdown was understandable, though not acceptable. Now though the concerns in defense have been somewhat solved with the fantastic late round pick Stratton giving us a quality defender who uses the ball well while neutralizing an opposition key forward. With the ever dependable Gilham alongside him the Hawks now have 2 tall defenders who might not be dominant in the Lake/Scarlett mold but are genuine AFL standard players in a key position for any premiership contender. To go alongside these two, we have the underrated Clinton Young and his amazing foot skills and the ever dependable Guerra filling the rebounding role admirably.
Secondly, the midfield is back to its 2008 best, in many ways even better. In 2008 Rioli was a rookie who gave us moments of inspiration but could not run 4 quarters through the midfield, now he is a genuine blue chip talent with the ability to dominate games in full, rather than have moments of impact. Hodge is a true superstar, in many observers opinion, including my own, he is the best player in the competition. Ablett and Judd are great at stoppages and providing burst on the edges, but Hodge not only matches them on the edges with his precise and penetrating disposal by foot providing the same impact as the bursting runs of Judd/Ablett, it may not look as spectacular but is just as effective. Where Hodge surpasses them both however is with his work inside. Mitchell continues to be the Greg Williams of his era and the recent reminder to Sewell that he is a hard working blue collar midfielder seems to have got him back to his roots and is producing his best football again. Hodge and Rioli remain the key, my friend Matty recently said how happy he is that for the first time since Darren Jarman his favourite player to watch is a Hawk, and many people agree with the sentiment. Hodge and Rioli give the Hawks a potentially dominating tandem in the midfield, both players who can dominate stoppages or open play. All this without mentioning the silk of Burgoyne, the toughness of Lewis or the pleasant surprise that is the ruckwork of Wade Skipper to finally have someone to help Renouf. Tell me again why people praise close losses for this team, that should be a midfield that backs itself to not just compete but potentially dominate any midfield in the competition, then when they get it into the forward 50 we have what should be the Hawks trump card.
The one-two punch of Roughhead/Franklin.
Buddy is a player of freakish ability who is playing well if not back to his dominant 2008 form. However Buddy has won games for the Hawks this year and terrifies opposition match committees like no other current day footballer. Also, he has the trouble of having to beat his opponent and the umpires every week, the most frustrating thing for him and the fans is the way he is crucified by the Umpires, is it racism that he gets so hard done by, whilst the blond haired blue eyed Riewoldt gets decisions Buddy can only dream of. Roughie is the issue, every time he gets the ball 30 metres out, you basically chalk down the behind before he even staggers in nervously to poke the ball wide. Yes he gives a contest and he is probably a better overhead mark than Franklin, but it appears that he is just missing, I dunno, something. That's the frustration with Roughhead, its so hard to put into words what the issue is, but is clear to anyone that he is not playing to anywhere near his potential. Saying that though, the fact remains he is an asset and alongside Franklin provides the Hawks the two pronged attack that is the envy of the competition.
Which is what makes the last 4 weeks so frustrating. I will admit going into this stretch of games I would have been content with a 2 and 2 record, so I should be happy with 2-1-1 but after beating the Bulldogs, and getting so close against Geelong, 4-0 feels like it should be recorded history, come finals time, close enough is never good enough, add to that the frustration that other results went our way and that closing the deal in those games means we had a realistic shot at a top 4 berth then the acceptance of the losses frustrates fans even more.
Many of this team were around for the infamous 'line in the sand game', a game which we lost. Now it is time for another line in the sand to be drawn, yet this line needs to be drawn not in a center square brawl, but instead on the scoreboard, the process is important, but from now on, for these Hawks, the result is all that matters.