Hawthorn's back six has a need for speed

Written by Brandon Marlow (@SauceMarlow) on 20 April 2017   

Bob Dylan once wrote, "the times, they are a-changing" and it is clear this season that the ever-evolving game of Australian Rules has caught out Hawthorn's defensive six.

What was once one of the Hawk's biggest strengths during their premiership years has now become a liability.

Alistair Clarkson built his defensive unit on the foundation of great kicking, which he masterfully used to break down opposing zones.

However, the game seems to have evolved past this and Hawthorn has found themselves lagging behind the rest of the competition.

One thing almost all the top teams in the past year have had in common is a dangerous half-back who can break lines with their speed.

The most obvious example of this is Jason Johannisen, who had a stellar 2016 with the Western Bulldogs that ended in a premiership and a Norm Smith Medal for his 33 disposals out of defence. 

Johannisen was an integral part of the Bulldogs success, with his ability to break lines and quickly move the ball from inside defensive-50 to an attacking position, being so damaging to opposition teams.

Rory Laird of the Adelaide Crows is a player who is succeeding in a similar role this season.

At the moment Hawthorn doesn't possess a player who brings to the table the same skillset of a Johannisen or Laird type, and it's starting to really show.

Their best half-back of the past decade has been Grant Birchall, but he's never been exceptionally quick, and his game has been mostly built on precision kicking.

In the game against Geelong, they started Ryan Burton and Shaun Burgoyne on the half-back flanks.

Burton isn't a run-and-carry player, and while Burgoyne is the prototype for the kind of player you want playing at half-back in 2017, he has started to age, and also spends a significant time playing in the midfield.

James Frawley, Ben Stratton, Kaiden Brand and Josh Gibson made up the rest of the Hawks' back six.

Every single one of these players is a medium-sized or key defender.

The average height of Hawthorn's starting defenders against the Cats was 191cm, which seems exceptionally tall considering how modern forward lines are put together. 

Clarkson is putting his team at an immediate disadvantage by trotting out five key defenders against a team playing only one recognized key-forward.

It's no surprise smaller forwards like James Parsons (21 disposals, 2 goals) and Daniel Menzel (3 goals) were able to get off the chain.

Is it really necessary to play Burton, Brand, Frawley, Stratton, and Gibson all in the same side when they each range from 189cm to 198cm tall?

Why was 198cm Brand brought in to replace Birchall, who at least offers the Hawks a bit of run?

The Hawks' attempted to play their classic chip through the zone gameplan on Easter Monday, but it was clear to everybody watching that the kicking talent of past years just isn't there to execute it.

Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis are huge losses in this aspect as they were able to execute Clarkson's gameplan to a tee, while Matthew Suckling's field kicking is also something the team is beginning to miss.

The players being asked to make these picture-perfect passes just aren't able to at the moment, or aren't the right fit for this gameplan.

Tom Mitchell and Will Langford are not precision kicks of the football, Jaeger O'Meara is only just finding his feet again and Ryan Burton has literally played 5 games at AFL level.

These are the guys who are being tasked with such a precise gameplan and it's not meshing well with them.

Unfortunately, they don't seem the have the required players to execute a run-and-gun style of ball movement out of the back half at the moment either.

Taylor Duryea, who has a bit of pace in his legs and his been seen as a successor to the Brent Guerra and Grant Birchall role at half-back has been banished to the VFL this season after a poor opening game, and outside of him, there doesn't seem to be many options.

Perhaps it's time for Clarkson to experiment with some players in a half-back role.

Clarkson has tried both Jack Gunston and James Sicily in half-back roles and neither worked, but that doesn't mean he should stop trying to find somebody that does.

Cyril Rioli has had a poor start to the year, so why not try pushing him to a back flank to get him involved?

It gives Rioli the chance to be around the ball more and who knows, maybe you find out that he's perfect for the role.

Similarly, they could opt to play Ricky Henderson more permanently in the backline, or bring Jonathan O'Rourke into the team and try him at half-back instead of as a midfielder.

Alternatively, Clarkson could use this spot to continue giving experience to the kids on the list.

Why not rotate Daniel Howe, Kade Stewart, and Teia Miles through there and see if something doesn't stick?

With the team at 0-4, Clarkson needs to be proactive with experimenting and trying to find what will and won't work going into the future.

It's clear that Hawthorn's defensive structure needs a lot of work, but luckily the team has 18 more games to tinker and find something effective for seasons to come.

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