Hawthorn’s troubles look as though they’re here to stay for a while | Craig Little

Craig Little
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Compounding matters for Hawthorn, the day is not too far away when the club’s leadership and culture has a Luke Hodge-shaped hole.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images</span>
Compounding matters for Hawthorn, the day is not too far away when the club’s leadership and culture has a Luke Hodge-shaped hole. Photograph: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Deep in the bowels of Launceston’s York Park on Saturday afternoon, Alastair Clarkson was radiating discontent. He already has the look of a coach who has tired of losing, but losing is surely not tired of Hawthorn.

The essayist Adam Gopnik once wrote about Paul McCartney: “All artists have fat years and leaner ones after. They just hope that the lean years don’t turn into a famine, and that there’s enough seed corn left over for sweet if stressed fruit. To have had a rich harvest more or less guarantees a comedown later. The issue is the grace with which you fall.”

There was no grace in the Hawk’s biggest loss in Launceston. If anything, the 75-point margin against a fervent Saints outfit flattered a team that lacked for both effort and structure. No confidence. No zip. No pressure.

The statistics from Saturday’s game read like the typical laundry list of issues for a side that has won just once in six weeks of football. Crushed in the contested ball. Smashed in the tackle count. Hammered on the scoreboard.

Without “catastrophic change”, which Clarkson warned might soon be necessary, Hawthorn’s story does not build from here – it evaporates. The Hawks’ first-round pick in the 2017 draft is headed to St Kilda, while its second-rounder has been gifted to the Gold Coast Suns. Hawthorn does have a second-round pick from Greater Western Sydney, but as things currently stand, the Giants – currently second only to a frighteningly good Adelaide in what appears to be a premiership race of two – will go to the draft table twice before the Hawks make their first selection.

This dilemma is further compounded if you take it as read that the value of players such as Luke Breust, James Sicily, and Jack Gunston is dropping by the day, trading back into the draft is not as easy a task as it may have been seven months ago. And given he turns 33 this June, the day is not too far away when Hawthorn’s leadership and culture has a Hodge-shaped hole.

While there were pundits who prophesied a drop-off from the Hawks, this season has been something else entirely. Only a month ago it was still difficult to convince yourself that the Hawthorn malaise would be a sustained one. But today you don’t even have to make any pretence of an argument anymore. The Hawthorn era is done and 2017, if not catastrophic, is at the very least a shitstorm.

And the Hawks have familiar company. Also selling disappointment in 2017 is their modern-day rivals, the Sydney Swans. The Sydney era has not reaped a Hawthorn harvest, but it does include the 2012 premiership, which is what this whole mad enterprise is all about. Since then, the Swans have played in 12 finals, including a further two grand finals.

Nobody predicted the Swans’ run would end like this – that they would start the season with six losses. It was difficult to find anyone who had them outside the top four. But after a colourless 19-point loss to Carlton where Alex Silvagni shaded Lance Franklin, anything you can say about Sydney for 2017 is bound to sound like a eulogy.

By any measure, particularly premiership points, it is an incredible fall from grace – particularly when you consider Saturday’s side featured 14 players who played in last year’s premiership decider.

Like Hawthorn, what would concern Sydney fans most is that the Swans appear to be playing without heart, at least not one that pumps blood. Speaking after Saturday’s game, coach John Longmire said the “brand” of game Sydney was playing was unacceptable.

“It takes a long time to develop a brand and a reputation as a team and it doesn’t take long to lose that,” said Longmire, his face is pushed down after another defeat. “At the moment we’re not playing anywhere near the football we can and should play.”

However, any forecast of a lean period turning into famine for Sydney is tempered by a list that includes Isaac Heeney, Will Hayward, Callum Mills and Tom Papley, all aged 21 or under. A likely top five draft pick and the potential bounty of the Sydney Swans Academy also function as a standing rebuke to the fatalism, gloom and portent of “catastrophic change” at Glenferrie.

Sydney’s youngsters can at least be relied upon to provide something that Hawthorn sorely lacks, particularly with Cyril Rioli’s absence, and that is spark. It is something the Saints had on Saturday, and what a desperate Collingwood rediscovered on Sunday. It is seen in Adelaide everywhere you look.

One mentions this not to knock a wilted Hawthorn or celebrate the end of what is arguably the greatest era of the modern game, but to point out that the energy – the spark – to regenerate and reinvigorate is so much more difficult after the fat years. With little “seed corn” it may be beyond even the greatest coach of his generation.

To paraphrase McCartney, Hawthorn’s troubles look as though they’re here to stay… for a while at least.

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