There’s an enormous upside to Hawthorn’s chances of challenging Collingwood and Geelong for the mantle of genuine flag contenders.
Firstly, the Hawks have a number of key players with scope for improvement – primarily Luke Hodge and Lance Franklin.
That Hodge is being hampered by a heel/achillies tendon issue is denied by no one. That he is still as influential at 60%-75% is testament to how important to the Hawks as he is.
It is also testament to why he is, in the eyes of some, the best player in the competition.
As he gets managed back to full fitness his influence will only increase, and will ease some of the pressure on one of Jordan Lewis, Shaun Burgoyne and Sam Mitchell.
Lewis, Burgoyne AND Mitchell are damaging enough to change the course of the game and few teams have either the depth, structures or discipline to cover all three (as well as Hodge) when the Hawks have the ball.
Some may see Lance Franklin as close to his best already. Franklin currently lies second on the Coleman Medal table after nine rounds. He trails Richmond wunderkind Jack Riewoldt by a solitary major.
As we head into round 10 though, Buddy’s kicked 32.29. That’s too close to 50% for a sharpshooter of his calibre. He’s not taking as many contested marks and a good percentage of his goals are coming from opportunities on the run.
Jarryd Roughead’s move on to the ball in spurts co-incides with two gutsy Hawk wins in recent weeks.
The jury’s still out as to whether this signals the end of Hawthorn’s Lennon/McCartney partnership, but early doors, it’s appeared to have given Franklin extra space to operate [successfully] in.
I’m not denying that he’s good already, but should Buddy lift that goals-to-behinds ratio and start getting set shots closer to goal (and on more favourable angles) a 100 goal season isn’t beyond the realms of possibility IF he improves on his current output.
Anyone want to argue that he’s already producing his best?
The Hawks also have far from the most difficult of draws.
Hawthorn only faces Collingwood once (round 15), and tidies up its last clash with Geelong for the season in round 12.
Even if the Hawks drop both of these games, they don’t have to face either flag favourite for eleven weeks.
That’s eleven weeks for Hawthorn’s coaching staff to evaluate and analyse where they need to improve.
Be it the emotion of the passing of Bob Davis or the intensity of Carlton last Friday night, Geelong seem to be moving further away from their best. If Hawthorn are to roll the Cats, it seems that round 15 may provide that chance. Only time will tell.
Time will only tell in regards to Collingwood as well.
While on one hand, putting together the most scintillating quarters of footy to down Adelaide last Sunday, the win had an element of switch flicking to it.
The win also echoed Essendon’s memorable comeback from near 12 goals down to roll the Kangaroos in 2001.
It was, in a sense, the beginning of the end for the Bombers. Again only time will tell if the Pies are getting by with their best yet to come, or the rigours of such a brutal running game may be catching up with the reigning Premiers.
That said, Hawthorn’s defence will need a miracle to overcome the Magpies forward press and I’m inclined to believe that the Hawks are more likely to conquer the Cats than Collingwood.
As regards the rest of their draw, Hawthorn only travel once more to Perth to take on the Dockers and don’t come up against the West Coast again this season.
They have their two remaining matches in Tasmania to come (Brisbane and North Melbourne) while they face Carlton at Etihad and the Bulldogs at the MCG. The Hawks get two cracks at the Gold Coast and an easy kill of Port Adelaide at the MCG.
If that’s not a top four draw, what is?
The final ace up Hawthorn’s sleeve is a young bloke you may have heard of named Cyril Rioli.
Rioli has nearly 30 games of added experience under his belt since September 2008 and in my opinion is the real key to the Hawks fortunes this year.
Cyril is currently on his way back from a serious hamstring tear. Like Hodge, he is to be managed back into prime condition as the season progresses.
Given that – and no disrespect to opposition teams – Hawthorn can play him in bursts as he recovers, he should be cherry ripe by round 18 or so.
There are few – if any – opposing teams that can stop him when he’s at his best.
Should he overcome his current injury concerns, he will become the benchmark by which all indigenous players will be graded; Michael Long, Phil and Jim Krakouer and his Uncle Maurice included.
He was devastating in his debut season and it’s the game’s loss that he has failed to consistently replicate that form, or show us just how much he’s improved since then. We’ve seen glimpses and if the Hawthorn medico’s can get him right, look out.
There’s absolutely no doubt the Hawks have been given the short straw injury wise, but Brent Renouf is making his way back into selection contention.
Rick Ladson, in the eyes of impartial judges, continues to rack up best a-field performances in the VFL and Max Bailey has cleared possibly his biggest hurdle of all: getting through an AFL match unscathed.
They’ll struggle given their backline woes, but responsible gambling week, be damned!
One could do a lot worse than a couple of speculative shekels on a Hawthorn/Collingwood Grand Final quinella.