Did Hawthorn Just Blow A Major Re-Build Opportunity?
Hawthorn took a solid hand to the AFL’s 2021 draft and free agency period but blew a golden opportunity to hasten their rebuild.
For the Hawks the last few years have been barren finishing bottom-5 for a second-straight season, a fate this phenomenally successfully club had suffered just twice over the preceding 50 years.
In fact, 2021 was so bad that after round 19 they were equal last on the ladder, separated from the Roos by percentage only while internal drama had engulfed the club to such a degree that the 17-season, 4-premiership tenure of Alistair Clarkson was liquidated.
While the Hawks did avoid a first wooden spoon in 56 years, losing just once over its last six games, this was a club who struggled almost everywhere ranking 14th for clearance differential and 15th for inside 50’s.
Despite averaging more disposals per match than any other club in the league in 2021 the Hawks ranked just 17th for total marks inside-50 and were just 16th where turning those inside-50s into scoring shots was concerned.
While Hawthorn’s game-style and results took on a more positive sheen towards the end of the season the reality is those small gains only papered over the numerous cracks at Waverley Park, most of which relate to a playing list that at this stage is at the very back of the premiership queue.
Most alarmingly however is that Hawthorn had a massive chance to improve the future state of this list but for a variety of reasons made an absolute meal of it.
To their own detriment the Hawks were were very public about the fact that all of Chad Wingard, Jack Gunston, Luke Bruest, Tom Mitchell and Jeager O’Meara were available for the right price. All five players are either in the prime or only just past it, while all five would find a meaningful role upon any team in the league.
They are however depreciating assets and whose contacts will all expire within the next two seasons. None will be around the next time the Hawks are in a position to contend for another flag while the club’s public willingness to let them go greatly reduced their bargaining position, so much so that all five will report for Sam Mitchell’s first pre-season in charge.
It’s of course unclear what (if anything) was offered to the Hawks in exchange for this talent, yet there’s no chance a first round pick was on the table, while a second round pick might have also have been a stretch. Nonetheless the Hawks should have still thought very seriously about moving some of these players on, making the kind of hard decisions other rebuilding clubs have had no choice but to embrace.
In the last few years the the likes of Adelaide, North Melbourne and Collingwood have all parted ways with brilliant players such as Alex Keath, Ben Brown and Adam Treloar often accepting underwhelming deals in the interests of aiding desperately needed list improvements.
However clearly Hawthorn was unwilling to make similar type cuts and now runs the risk of remaining in the doldrums over the foreseeable future.
The Hawks needed to be a lot more realistic about a rebuild that’s desperately crying out for an infusion of young talent, the likes of which is currently among the shallowest in the league.
At their recent Best and Fairest the only sub-24 year olds to find their way into a top-10 spot were Dylan Moore, Changkuoth Jiath and James Worpel. For comparison’s sake North Melbourne had seven such players fill their top-10 with Jy Simpkin winning it all and and with the likes of Tarryn Thomas and Luke Davies-Uniacke set to explode.
At North, Nick Larkey and Cameron Zurhaar finished first and second in their goal-kicking combining for 73 majors while the club was bold enough to also bring in Callum Coleman-Jones. Hawthorn’s goal kicking meanwhile was led by 30-year old Luke Breust for a third time in four seasons.
Hawthorn’s refusal to bite the bullet and improve their draft hand will result in immense pressure for first year coach Sam Mitchell who’ll already have his hands full implementing a completely different game-style to that of Clarkson. In addition he’ll carry the pressure of making sure he further develops the talent he does have at his disposal while they’ll be an increased strain on the recruiting team who’ll need to absolutely nail the picks they do have.
And speaking of the draft, this hasn’t been an area the Hawks have exactly covered themselves in glory in recent years.
Being in the premiership window so long afforded the club the luxury to toss away prime draft assists to bring in established talent and while that approach paid off handsomely, they’re decisions which are being sorely felt now.
Over the eight drafts between 2011 and 2018 the Hawks had a grand total of two first-round draft picks which they used on Ryan Burton (who has since been traded) and Kieran Lovell who has been playing in the Tasmanian state league since 2019.
Thankfully their last two first-round picks in Will Day and Denver Grainger-Barras have looked promising while the likes of James Worpel and Jacob Koschitzke were later round steals in 2017 and 2018 and loom as important figures at the club over the next decade.
At this stage Hawthorn will have three top-24 picks at the draft beginning with selection 5. It’s a decent hand but by no means earth shattering, especially when you consider the Tigers will have five top-28 picks, or in compassion to last year’s draft where Adelaide, Collingwood and North Melbourne combined for a mammoth 14 picks over the first two rounds.
It’s obviously incredibly easy from the outside to suggest Hawthorn ought to have been more ruthless over the trade period, especially in light of how nuanced such transactions usually are. With that said, Hawthorn appears to be a club struggling to come terms with their new status in the league and one that appears reluctant to accept the reality of what a genuine, fully-fledged rebuild encompasses.
What’s not helping is that their core business of getting back into contention is being hampered by their carnival barker of a club president who actively undermined their trade approach this off-season.
Hawthorn hasn’t won a single September game in six years which is their longest drought since the late nineties. Their limp trade period suggests this drought won’t be broken any time soon.
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