Can Hawthorn Re-Emerge As A Force Under Sam Mitchell?

It’s been a big week or so in the history of the Hawthorn Football Club, but it’s one which for those involved directly through to rank-and-file Hawk fans, ended with an important reminder. Namely, that life goes on.

The simple length of Alastair Clarkson’s tenure as Hawthorn coach (17 seasons) and four premierships won over that period meant that its conclusion was always going to be a significant event, whether it was a moment arrived at by mutual agreement or not.

The identity of Clarkson’s successor was always going to be the subject of much discussion. And the state of the on-field stocks he was inheriting would naturally be the source of vigorous debate. And yes, as we’ve become accustomed to, much hyperbole.

On Friday, as the drama surrounding Clarkson’s re-negotiated departure at the end of this season was played out, the picture being painted was akin to the fall of the Roman Empire, Hawthorn having crashed from its lofty perch as a club, never to return.

But come late Sunday afternoon, there was Clarkson still sitting in the Hawthorn coaching box. And there was his team walking off the ground in Launceston happy and satisfied after having pulled off a considerable upset of a flag contender in Brisbane.

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Clarkson has another three games left in that role before Sam Mitchell assumes the reins, in which the Hawks take on Collingwood, Western Bulldogs and Richmond. It’s not inconceivable Hawthorn could win at least two of them. Which might make some of the forecasts of ruin being delivered last Friday look a little silly.

Not for the first time, former Port Adelaide player turned media commentator Kane Cornes was leading the way in the hysteria stakes. 

“Hawthorn is 18th in terms of what list I would want to be in charge of. Sam Mitchell has got nothing,” he said on radio. “I can't remember a tougher task for a rookie coach.” This is the same pundit, mind you, who only six weeks ago dubbed North Melbourne “one of the worst teams of the AFL era”.

But let’s deal with the second part of that healthy slice of audio clickbait about the Hawks first. You don’t even have to go back decades to find any number of examples of men in their first AFL coaching roles who will have bigger challenges ahead than Mitchell will at Hawthorn.

Think of Mark Neeld’s short and ill-fated tenure at Melbourne, for example. Or Brendon Bolton inheriting the rubble left at Carlton after Mick Malthouse’s messy exit. Even Matthew Nicks taking over a divided and unhappy Adelaide the season before this, or arguably even David Noble at North Melbourne after the way the Roos finished last year.

Now to the first part of that statement. Has Mitchell really got nothing to work with? Hardly.

Hawthorn’s win over Brisbane on Sunday was its fourth of five against a team currently in or in contention for the top eight, the others against Sydney, Essendon and GWS. There was also the draw against Melbourne a couple of weeks back.

There’s been some real promise shown among the tribe of inexperienced players Clarkson has continued to blood, the likes of dashing key defender Changkuoth Jiath, the cool-headed Will Day, small goalkicker Dylan Moore, key forward Jacob Koschitzke and Ned Reeves. 

Mid-season draft pick-up Lachie Bramble has already shown plenty, too, and in recent weeks, Hawthorn’s first draft pick last year, key defender Denver Grainger-Barras. Two more of Hawthorn’s top three picks, Connor Downie and Seamus Mitchell, are yet to even taste senior football. 

Sunday’s victory was a reminder, too, of what Hawthorn’s senior core is still capable of mustering.

Chad Wingard, widely criticised last week for publicly “chewing out” young teammate Koschitzke, was outstanding against Brisbane with 32 disposals and two goals. Luke Breust kicked three and helped set up the Hawks’ at one stage nine-goal lead.

Established midfield leaders Jaeger O'Meara, Tom Mitchell and James Worpel all had good games, and the Hawks might well have found another one to ply his trade through the midfield rotations in Conor Nash.

All that remembering that last year’s best and fairest winner Jack Gunston and the player many would regard as Hawthorn’s best, James Sicily, haven’t been part of the action at all this season, but will return.

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I’d go so far as to argue that for a team still potentially on the brink of its first wooden spoon since 1965, Hawthorn would be as well-placed for the following season as any bottom team we’d seen in the AFL era.

Whatever happens with the Hawks on-field, Mitchell will at least be given the same time and space to put his stamp on how the side comes together in the same manner Clarkson was when he assumed the reins in 2005.

Clarkson will be a source of speculation about the coaching jobs at both Carlton and Collingwood. I don’t think it’s beyond the realms the AFL itself throws its own version of the reserve bank at him to attempt to lure him to Gold Coast, a decade on looking no more advanced as a viable, thriving enterprise.

Hawthorn president Jeff Kennett is the subject of much supporter angst about Clarkson’s departure, but the odds are, being the consummate politician, he will survive any moves to tip him.

Yet even if he didn’t survive, and for all his bluster and provocative statements, Kennett will have at least nailed one important truth out of the past few weeks. That people at clubs, no matter how important, come and go. It’s the club which remains. And in this case, perhaps re-emerging as a force quicker than some seem to think.

*You can read more of Rohan Connolly’s work at footyology.com.au

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Rohan Connolly

Rohan Connolly, managing director of the footyology media brand, is one of Australia's most experienced and respected sports journalists. With a 38-year track record of observing a range of sports, primarily AFL football, at close quarters in print, online, and on radio and TV. A multi-AFL Media Association award-winner known for his passion, knowledge and love of the game, he's renowned for his hard but fair approach to football analysis, informed by facts not hyperbole.  

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