For the first time since the 2005 season Hawthorn head into the year without both Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis on their playing list. The Hawks let go of two club legends in the offseason and as a result, the team is in a state of flux for the moment as new recruits Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Mitchell and Tyrone Vickery look to make their mark at the club, while the younger home grown talent look to fill some enormous shoes.
Here’s what I think Hawthorn’s ideal starting 22 looks like heading into season 2017.
B: Josh Gibson, James Frawley, Taylor Duryea
Hawthorn’s defence will live and die by Josh Gibson and James Frawley’s ability to stay healthy. Both players are getting on in age and the Hawks cannot afford to lose them as they are the backbone of their defensive structures. Gibson’s ability to zone off and help fellow defenders in one-on-ones is unmatched, and the arrival of James Frawley has allowed him to play a more attacking role out of the backline recently.
James Frawley is the Hawks’ number one key defender by a fair margin at this point. Kaiden Brand and Kurt Heatherly both played last season and showed signs that they could become solid players in the AFL eventually, but at the moment Frawley is arguably the Hawks’ most important player. His strength in one-on-one contests allows him to compete with dominant power forwards like Tom Hawkins, while the luxury of having Josh Gibson zoning off next to him means his less than stellar footspeed isn’t too much of a problem.
Taylor Duryea has taken over the spot once manned by premiership players Brent Guerra and Matt Suckling. 2017 is now the year to make this role his own. Duryea’s greatest asset is his ability to be damaging with the ball by foot out of the back half, and with how Hawthorn like to play, he is a crucial link in the chain. Look for a greater amount of responsibility to be thrust onto Duryea this year, with many of Hawthorn’s attacking defenders coming towards the tail end of their career.
HB: Shaun Burgoyne, Ben Stratton, Grant Birchall
What can you say about Shaun Burgoyne that hasn’t already been said? He crossed to Hawthorn for the 2010 season with a busted knee and most critics writing him off. Since then he has gone from strength to strength and has played some of the best football of his career. “Silk” is an apt nickname for Burgoyne as he’s still one of the slickest ball users in the competition and a deadly weapon when the Hawks kick their way through defensive zones. Burgoyne is also a player made for big moments. Too many times throughout his career at Hawthorn he has produced gold during crunch time moments, and Alistair Clarkson’s trump card of unleashing Burgoyne into centre bounces at the end of games has won Hawthorn many tight contests.
Arguably the most underrated player at Hawthorn, Ben Stratton is now in his eighth season with the Hawks. Stratton has never been flashy, and being surrounded by defenders like Gibson, Frawley and Brian Lake means he’s never received much credit throughout his career. However, Stratton’s ability to play as the second or third tall defender depending on the opposition, as well as his ability to manage much smaller, quicker players shouldn’t be ignored.
Grant Birchall is in the twilight of his career, but despite that, he still has a knack of racking up disposals across half back and slicing through opposing teams with his left boot. Birchall has never been a stellar defender and at times is a liability if a team singles him out, however his rebound attack makes up for all his defensive deficiencies.
C: Isaac Smith, Luke Hodge, Billy Hartung
There will be a lot of pressure this season for Isaac Smith to take his game to another level now that Bradley Hill has moved on from the Hawks. Smith’s linking run between half back and half forward helped mask the lack of speed from the Hawks last season, and his ability to hit the scoreboard, which fell away last year, is a handy weapon. In a league dominated by zone defence having a player like Smith who can break lines and catch defenders out of position is gold.
Luke Hodge heads into a season without Jordan Lewis or Sam Mitchell by his side for the first time in his career. Hodge has also stepped down as captain, which will allow him to put all his focus into trying to put together a solid, consistent season. Much was made of Hawthorn’s older, slower midfield brigade last season, but with Mitchell and Lewis being replaced by Jaeger O’Meara and Tom Mitchell, Hodge’s mature body is now an asset. While Hodge has a lethal kick on him, there will be a greater expectation placed on him this year to feed the ball out from contests to the quicker midfielders.
With Bradley Hill leaving Billy Hartung can finally cement his spot in this Hawthorn side. So far Hartung’s career has been stop-start, struggling to string multiple games together thanks to the Smith-Hill wing duo. Hartung has all the tools to become one of the best wingers in the league. He’s lightning fast, but he also has an enormous tank; he broke the combine beep test record in 2013 when he recorded a 16.6. That combination is tantalising, and if he can start racking up more of the ball while keeping his disposal efficiency steady he’ll be one of Hawthorn’s most damaging players.
HF: Jack Gunston, Tyrone Vickery, James Sicily
With Jarryd Roughead’s unfortunate situation last season Jack Gunston was forced to become the number one option in Hawthorn’s forward line. Opposition teams put more effort into him than ever and as a result, his output was slightly down from 2015. However, having had that experience will only help Gunston improve going forward. With the return of Roughead and the addition of Tyrone Vickery, Gunston will match up on worse defenders than he did last season and will continue to be a nightmare for backlines. Last season and during the JLT Community Series Clarkson experimented with playing Gunston up on the wing and across half back, which is an interesting tactic, but don’t expect it to be a regular thing.
Tyrone Vickery may be the most polarising player in the AFL. At times it seemed like everybody, including Richmond supporters, hated Vickery. Despite all the hate and criticism, it’s clear that Vickery does have the capacity to be a good footballer. Across his 119-game career he’s averaged 1.3 goals per game. This is a better rate than David Hale had for his career, and considering Vickery has been brought in to play the back-up ruck role to Ben McEvoy, and there’s a lot of potential for Vickery to be a huge asset. The major thing will be if Vickery is able to do away with the brain fades that plagued his career with the Tigers.
James Sicily announced himself as a player with serious potential last season. He showed poise when he slotted the set shot goal late in the game to beat the Western Bulldogs, and in just his third year on an AFL list and his first extended run of games he kicked 30 goals. With Roughead out Sicily found himself as the second tall option at times last season, but with Vickery and Roughead’s inclusion, he now falls all the way back to the fourth option.
F: Cyril Rioli, Jarryd Roughead, Luke Breust
He’ll no doubt run through the midfield at times during the season, but it’s beyond a shadow of a doubt that Cyril Rioli’s at his most damaging when up forward. Rioli had one of his most consistent seasons in 2016 and kicked a career-high 47 goals. Rioli’s forward pressure is unrivaled, and his ability to create something out of nothing means even the worst forward 50 entries in his direction need to be respected. He also seems to have put his injury woes behind him, playing 24 and 21 games in the past two seasons.
This is one of the feel-good stories of the year. Jarryd Roughead will line up for the Hawks after battling cancer for all of 2016. Not only that, but he will also take over the role as captain from Luke Hodge. It’s hard to know what to expect from Roughead in 2017, as he’s getting on in years and just sat out an entire season. Observing his JLT form shows us that at the very least he’s going to be a very similar player and that Alistair Clarkson is going to still use him through the midfield at times. The biggest advantage of Roughead’s return is that he’ll draw away the opposition team’s best defender, allowing Vickery, Gunston, and Sicily to exploit matchups.
Luke Breust had another solid season in 2016, finishing the season with 47 goals. Unfortunately, his disposal efficiency took an alarming drop from 74 percent in 2015, to 65 percent last season. Breust spends a sizable amount of time in the midfield and provides extra pace around the ball, but he becomes a liability if he’s running at such a poor efficiency. In front of goals is a different story, however, as he continued to be one of the sharpest shooters in the league. Breust only needs three or four opportunities inside forward 50 per game to do a whole lot of damage.
R: Ben McEvoy, Jaeger O’Meara, Tom Mitchell
With the loss of Jonathan Ceglar to an ACL injury, it’ll be up to Ben McEvoy to shoulder a heavier load in the ruck this season. While this could seem like a daunting task, McEvoy is one of the fittest players on Hawthorn’s list and he should have no problems. One of McEvoy’s biggest flaws at the Hawks has been that he doesn’t have an offensive, goal kicking side to his game, which was a major problem considering Ceglar has the exact same flaw. With Vickery now taking over that backup role, McEvoy can focus all his effort into his ruck work around the ground.
The Hawks got their man in the offseason, but despite the fanfare, it’s unrealistic to expect the world from Jaeger O’Meara this season. Coming back from a horrendous knee injury that has sidelined him for what feels like an eternity, O’Meara just being out there for the start of the season is a win. O’Meara provides the Hawks with pace on the outside, but he also comes with a mature body that will allow him to dominate contested ball. He looked good in the limited run he received during the JLT series, so watch out for him to steadily improve throughout the season.
Tom Mitchell was the second of Hawthorn’s marquee midfield signings and is the spiritual successor to Sam Mitchell. The way he plays is quite reminiscent of Sam Mitchell, and although he doesn’t have quite as good a kick on him, Tom Mitchell is a midfield machine. He was 20th in the league last season for contested possessions per game (12), which was ahead of every single player on Hawthorn’s list. He also had a knack for kicking a goal, something Sam Mitchell did not provide.
INT: Paul Puopolo, Liam Shiels, Ryan Burton, Ricky Henderson
Paul Puopolo rounds out Hawthorn’s incredibly impressive forward line. Puopolo had a brilliant 2016, finishing with 34 goals, the most of his career, while also averaging 5 tackles per game which tied the career high he set in 2015. The forward pressure he provides when paired with Rioli is almost unstoppable and is the perfect complement to the Hawks’ tall forwards.
Alistair Clarkson doesn’t use a traditional tagger, but if there’s somebody on an opposing team that needs to be shut down, Liam Shiels is his go-to man. Shiels flies under the raider due to being surrounded by such big-name talent and his non-flashy style of play, however he’s a crucial cog in this side. He’s the second-best clearance player at the club behind Tom Mitchell and averages the second most inside 50s behind Isaac Smith. His disposal efficiency plummeted to 56 percent in 2016 though, which is something he’ll need to drastically improve in the coming year.
Ryan Burton got a taste of AFL level in 2016 and it seems he’ll see even more time at the top level in 2017. Clarkson initially used Burton as a forward, however late in the year he returned to the side as a defender. The prospect of using Burton as a defender is tantalising. He stands at 191cms and in his four games last season he ran at an efficiency of 82 percent which would make him right at home in the Hawk’s backline.
Ricky Henderson could be the surprise acquisition of the year. Henderson was cut from the Crows at the end of 2016 and was never able to cement a position in the side despite averaging 22 disposals per game when he did get a game. Based on his pre-season form, Henderson seems to be taking his career lifeline with both hands. His most impressive performance came against North Melbourne, where he racked up 17 disposals in the first half. Alistair Clarkson loves versatile players and Henderson’s physical attributes mean he could be swung forward, back and play throughout the midfield.