Hawthorn's Defenders Have Thrust Them Into Premiership Contention
“Forwards win Coleman Medals. Midfielders win Brownlow Medals. But do not underestimate the importance of defenders in winning premiership medals.” Malcolm Blight’s famous anecdote rings true of Hawthorn in 2018.
The 2017 AFL season beheld a fabled Hawthorn side dramatically but expectedly fall from the lofty heights of their six seasons previous. More shocking was the complete collapse of their defence, having slumped to the fifth-worst defence in the competition, conceding an astonishing 94 points per game.
Critical former premiership players failed to contribute as they once did.
Injuries and poor form plagued Josh Gibson’s final season in the AFL. James Frawley only managed eight games. Four-time premiership player, Grant Birchall managed to string only five games together for the season, and his output decreased from the past five years. The previously durable Ben Stratton also only played eight games.
The Hawks of 2018 have recaptured much of what made them perennial contenders.
Following the completion of round 21, Hawthorn has manicured a defensive group, which on average concedes a measly 74.6 points per game.
The new-found proficiency ‘down back’, is the result of growth in Blake Hardwick, James Sicily, and Kaiden Brand, in addition to the reestablishment of stalwarts; Ben Stratton and James Frawley. Of which, Hardwicks’ progression has been particularly noteworthy.
The Eastern Rangers product has ripened into one of the AFL’s best small defenders, losing only a quarter of his defensive one on ones and producing 8.6 defensive half pressure acts a game.
Against the Cats on Saturday afternoon, Hardwick proved his worth, regularly restricting Daniel Menzel and Tim Kelly’s impact on the game. Hardwick finished as Hawthorn’s second most contested possessions, with 12 at 84%.
Playing 20 games in 2018, Hardwick has brought much-needed solidity to the Hawks defence, which was at a premium in 2017.
Structurally, the Hawks forward line has subsequently benefitted immensely from the backline's rediscovered solidity.
Despite kicking at least 50 goals in the three years, previous, Jack Gunston was required to apply his services in defence in 2017. The former Crow has been released back forward in 2018, with damaging results, kicking 42 goals his 19 games.
Similarly, players such as Taylor Duryea, Brendan Whitecross, Daniel Howe, Ryan Burton, and Shaun Burgoyne have rotated forward at times, reviving the flexibility that defined the Hawthorn premiership teams of the past.
Much of the AFL community attributes Hawthorn’s resurrection in form to the proficiencies of Tom Mitchell or Luke Bruest, but their success is the result of a much-improved defence.
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