Hawks Under Pressure

We should have known better. We should have seen the warning signs. On reflection, they were there all summer.

Hawthorn were all over the media talking about how much that Preliminary Final loss to Collingwood last year ate at them. Luke Hodge. Jordan Lewis. Josh Gibson. It still hurt.

Hawthorn fans were expecting a better start - http://www.flickr.com/photos/mikecogh/

They had Collingwood first up, and although the Pies were somewhat undermanned, take nothing away from the Hawks. Hawthorn had some demons to exorcise, and they did so in impressive fashion.

Over the next four weeks, Hawthorn would play three genuine premiership contenders. And while losing to good teams is not reassuring, it’s not a panic ensuing situation in itself.

What should be troubling for the Hawks is that in those three games, every time they were put under pressure, they folded.

And when you think about it, the reasons that Hawthorn cannot win the premiership are starting to pile up.

First and foremost is their reaction to pressure.

Sure, Hawthorn play a game predicated on running into space and the undoubted kicking skill of their playing group. However, if the last few weeks have taught us anything, it’s that it’s easy to be clean by foot when you’re kicking over a stationary man guarding the mark, but it’s a little tougher when you’re under intense physical pressure.

Pressure comes in many forms, but the pressure that comes with finals has now, on further reflection, become one that Hawthorn can’t seem to manage. Your faithful correspondent, in one of his zanier moments, actually suggested that Hawthorn were September specialists last year. How hollow that claim now seems.

TOUGH

The fact is that probably Hawthorn have won two tough finals since they returned to September in 2007. In the first one, they played an Adelaide side more inept at winning finals under pressure, and a masterclass from Lance Franklin saw them over the line. Barely.

The other win was the 2008 Grand Final, which is looking more like a statistical outlier the longer it fades into the distance.

Over that time, they have won comfortable finals victories against the Doggies and the Saints in 2008, and Sydney last year. But they’ve also lost finals when under pressure against North Melbourne in 2007, Fremantle in 2010, and Geelong and Collingwood in 2011.

Only in the Collingwood game did Hawthorn give a good account of themselves; in the other three games they were never seriously in the contest.

Add to that list the Round 22 2009 game against Essendon, which was for a spot in the finals, when Matthew Lloyd fired up his team and sucked Hawthorn in, as the Hawks went the man instead of the ball for the entire second-half and secured the earliest exit for a defending premier since Adelaide in 1999.

Going back to that 2008 Grand Final, and the difference between then and now is subtle but noteworthy.

In 2008 Hawthorn’s game plan, except for its kick-in strategy, was not based solely on accurate kicking to maintain possession, but rather “Clarko’s Cluster”, which was a 14-man, full ground zone which strangled sides’ ability to spread and find open team-mates.

PUNDITS

Now it seems the only unique thing pundits can say about Hawthorn’s game plan is their tremendous kicking efficiency and high number of uncontested possessions. It has long been an article of faith in footy that uncontested footy isn’t the kind of footy that wins finals.

Another thing going against Hawthorn is the amount of players they have at their club that have come from other clubs. Except Geelong’s extraordinary example, all clubs have someone on their list who is not playing for their first AFL club.

Since Sydney broke the mould in 2005, winning a premiership with six recycled players, only Hawthorn have won a premiership with more than three in their selected side, and the Hawks’ four recycled players included Trent Croad, who had returned to Hawthorn, where he started his career, after a three-year stint with Fremantle. Geelong had only one last year in Brad Ottens.

Fast forward to 2012, and Hawthorn’s most recent side had six recycled players in it, with Cameron Bruce, Jack Gunston and Stephen Gilham sitting on the sidelines. So, to say the least, it would be a trend-buckling premiership if the Hawks were going to win it with so many players from other clubs on their list.

Despite Hawthorn not having too many older players, Sydney still had the three youngest players in the game on Sunday. It is gospel in today’s footy that you need to keep introducing youth into your side, unless your name is Ross Lyon.

Sydney only had an older average team on Sunday because it had four 30-year olds playing (who kicked seven goals between them – go figure).

HYPE

In the season of hype that is 2012 (Carlton will win the premiership! Carlton are pretenders!), perhaps we all got sucked in about Hawthorn. They’ve had a tough start to the season, and it’s not about to get much easier.

What faces Hawthorn this weekend is perhaps a stern test. St Kilda haven’t done particularly well this season when tested, but they won when tested last week.

With Josh Gibson under an injury cloud, Nick Riewoldt could have a large influence, especially if he is picked up by Ryan Schoenmakers or Jarryd Roughead (in what would be the ultimate “rob Peter to pay Paul” move).

St Kilda have a proven record over a long period of time of being a tough team to beat, and they rarely get blown out. Except for a brief period at the start of last year, they are not a fun team to play against, and wins against St Kilda are well earned.

Based on what we have seen previously, if St Kilda bring finals-like intensity and pressure to Saturday’s game, then Hawthorn will lose, and their obvious skill advantage will be rendered redundant.

For such a talented team, surely the time has come for Hawthorn to stand up and start winning important games under pressure.

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