2016 season preview: Hawthorn

Last season

Even by the lofty standards of the most successful football club in the modern era, 2015 proved to be Hawthorn’s greatest year. The Hawks won three premierships in a row for the first time in their history, becoming only the second team to three-peat since 1958, and the fifth in VFL/AFL history.

It wasn’t smooth sailing for the Hawks, however. They dropped games to Essendon, and Greater Western Sydney early on, allowed Port Adelaide to do the double over them,  and found themselves needing to use the double chance after being comprehensively beaten by West Coast in the qualifying final.

But cometh September, cometh the Hawks. They dispatched Adelaide with ease in the semi final, and got on a plane to Perth for the second time in three weeks to face a Fremantle side who got to put their feet up the previous weekend. But it didn’t matter: the Hawks became the first Victorian club to win an interstate preliminary final and earned themselves a second date with the Eagles – this time it was at Hawthorn’s house.

From the opening minutes it was the reigning premiers who settled first, and West Coast never recovered, the Hawks running out comfortable 46-point winners. Cyril Rioli put on a clinic, keeping up a family tradition set by his uncle Maurice to win the Norm Smith Medal.

It was the usual suspects – skipper Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Josh Gibson, Jarryd Roughead and Cyril Rioli – who did the job week in, week out. But it was in the preliminary and grand finals when they really stood up in the glare of must win contests. Meanwhile Isaac Smith, Luke Breust and Jack Gunston inched ever closer towards the elite bracket.

Comings and goings

After the fireworks of previous seasons, it was rather surprising (and no doubt relieving for other clubs) to see the Hawks sit relatively pat over the off-season.

That doesn’t mean Hawthorn’s 2016 squad will be the same as last year’s edition; the Hawks lost experienced premiership players Brian Lake and David Hale to old age and Matthew Suckling cashed in on his sweet left foot by heading west to the Bulldogs via free agency.

The Hawks traded want-away youngster Jed Anderson to North Melbourne, who had shown enough in his limited appearances over the past three years to suggest the Hawthorn hierarchy will be disappointed he chose to flee rather than fight for a senior spot. Sam Grimley and Jonathan Simpkin were delisted, but found themselves opportunities at Essendon as top-up players.

The replacements for the lost players will have to come from within, with former Melbourne tall forward Jack Fitzpatrick the only player to join the Hawks from another club over the summer. Of the new draftees, Blake Hardwick is most likely to get an opportunity at senior level in 2016 after his impressive efforts over the pre-season.

Strengths

There’s a lot you could list here, but a major hallmark of each of the three premiership teams that have eventually made their way to the top of football’s mountain is they’ve all been able to overcome adversity – particularly in September.

While none of the three grand finals were thrillers, and two were blowouts, the road to the big dance was rocky on each occasion. In 2013 the Hawks overturned a 20-point deficit at the last change in the preliminary final against Geelong to break the ‘Kennett Curse’; in 2014 they battled through a season so affected by injury that even coach Alastair Clarkson missed a chunk of games, and nearly blew what should have been a comfortable lead against Port Adelaide in the last term of the preliminary final, the siren blowing as the Power was attacking in search of the game-winning goal; and in 2015 the Hawks racked up the frequent flier points in September, traveling to Perth twice and missing out on what is usually considered the vital week off.

There is not a situation this group doesn’t believe it can haul itself out of. What’s more, opposition teams know it. And if the Hawks reach another grand final, the stuffed and mounted heads of three fancied grand finalists would be a warning to their opponent about Hawthorn’s ability to deconstruct excellent teams and leave them looking nervous wrecks on football’s most pressurised day.

Weaknesses

That all said, there are chinks in the armour. They’re vulnerabilities more likely to be exposed before September, but which could make Hawthorn’s path to a fourth flag in a row that much more difficult.

While there is an undercurrent of talented young players taking over more responsibility (and gaining premiership experience and medals while they’re at it), there’s no escaping that the very best and most relied upon Hawks are on the wrong side of 30. Luke Hodge, Sam Mitchell, Josh Gibson, Shaun Burgoyne are already there, and Jordan Lewis turns 30 next month. While their output as a group to date has been exemplary, history shows the end can come very quickly indeed for players freshly into their third decade.

There’s also the matter of replacing three 2015 premiership players, and a fourth if you include Jarryd Roughead, who will miss at least the first half of the season with a knee injury. The Hawks will have to promote from within, and there are question marks on whether talents like Billy Hartung, Daniel Howe, James Sicily, Tim O’Brien, Jono O’Rourke and Kaiden Brand can step into the senior side permanently without the team suffering a drop off.

This changing of the guard is going to be most felt in defence, with the loss of man-marker Brian Lake and Matthew Suckling’s laser left foot. Hawthorn will be hoping that James Frawley’s grand final is an indication he can be relied on, because much of his form before that was not.

What to expect in 2016

The word ‘Fourthorn’ will be a thing (I’m sure Hawthorn has already trademarked it), and if you thought the talk of a dynasty was strong last year, it’s going to be something else if the Hawks are thereabouts come August. We went through this in 2004 with Brisbane, but with the Lions not being a big Victorian club and the growth in 24-7 football media since, it’s hard to see they hype being comparable.

There will be new faces tried out as Hawthorn works through options to replace the departed or injured premiership players of years past. This probably means, like last year, they drop games to teams they really shouldn’t – the question is whether they lose enough of them to put them outside the top four and make a premiership run even more difficult than last season.

Best 22

B: Taylor Duryea – James Frawley – Josh Gibson
HB: Grant Birchall – Ben Stratton – Shaun Burgoyne
C: Isaac Smith – Luke Hodge – Brad Hill
HF: Jack Gunston – Jarryd Roughead – Cyril Rioli
F: Luke Breust – Ryan Schoenmakers – Paul Puopolo
FOLL: Ben McEvoy – Sam Mitchell – Jordan Lewis
INT: Jonathon Ceglar – Liam Shiels – Daniel Howe – Billy Hartung

The verdict

It’s difficult to see a team with the pedigree of Hawthorn not being thereabouts again this season. Yes, there are some players who need to be replaced, but they weren’t players the Hawks couldn’t live without when they missed games last season.

Winning one premiership is hard. Winning two is incredible. Three? Legendary. But there’s a reason why only one team has ever won four – to do it in the modern age would leave Hawthorn without peer in the pantheon of  “greatest team” discussions in the papers and pubs around Australia.

The question isn’t whether Hawthorn is good enough – we know they are. It’s whether any of their rivals can get good enough to beat them, and do it when it matters most.

We have Hawthorn finishing first after the home and away season, giving themselves every opportunity of earning the ‘Fourthorn’ tag.