Footy Fix: Free-wheeling, ferocious and fun – how the Hawks are becoming the AFL’s most watchable team


On three consecutive sunny afternoons at the MCG on the last Saturday in September a decade ago, Alastair Clarkson and Luke Hodge’s Hawthorn built their dynasty.

So the 36,000 Hawks fans that attended their exhilarating win over Adelaide under similarly bright skies on Saturday arvo have already had a lifetime’s worth of enjoyment out of this particular timeslot.

What Sam Mitchell’s men did to the Crows doesn’t come close to comparing to a premiership, of course, never mind three: but all the same, there are few more enjoyable feelings as a supporter watching the day your team officially goes from a side full of promise starting out on a journey, to one where the rewards of labour are bearing fruit right in front of your eyes.

The Hawks have had better wins under Mitchell: they’ve thrice bested Brisbane at three different stadiums, and last season’s win over eventual premiers Collingwood was a seismic day in its own right.

But this performance was different: Hawthorn started favourites against a Crows side in excellent nick, comprehensively walloped them early, withstood a nervy challenge in the third quarter, and then powered home, only taking the foot off the pedal when the four points were safely in their keeping.

Along the way, they played an energetic, gorgeous brand of football, with ambitious decisions by foot leading to fast breaks galore, brutal stoppage work powered by a team of muscle-bound on-ballers empowered to try and break every possible tackle, and all feeding a forward line that is as dangerous at ground level as any in the league.

This was a clinical victory of the sort the Hawks made their brand in reaching six consecutive top-four finishes between 2011 and 2016; and the fact it wasn’t a surprise in the least is just about the most exciting thing for Hawthorn fans about it all. The footy world now knows what Mitchell’s men bring to the table, and it demands respect, if not a nervous glance at the fixture to see when one’s team next faces them too.

The Hawks have gone 4-1 in their past five matches, all impressive triumphs in their own right, with their one loss that last-second capitulation to Port Adelaide that might well end up costing them a September berth the way they’re going.

What has been fascinating to see is just how radically their scoring profile has changed in that time period, and how Mitchell has been able to harness an area the Hawks have always been strong under him and turned it into a potent source of points.

Jack Gunston celebrates a goal in his 250th AFL game. (Photo by Morgan Hancock/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

That area is stoppages: the Hawks piled on seven goals to four from clearances at the MCG on Saturday, with a staggering six of them directly from centre bounces. That’s a remarkable effort, not least because their number one spearhead Mitch Lewis, the man you’d expect to be the biggest beneficiary of the 6-6-6 rule in attack, was watching on from the stands as he has been for the majority of the season.

In 2023, the Hawks were just about the best team in the business at winning stoppages: they ranked third for centre clearances while giving away the fewest, and their average of 34.1 total clearances conceded was the lowest in the league. The strong bodies of Jai Newcombe, James Worpel and Conor Nash brutalised opponents of all shapes and sizes into submission, laid crunching tackles, shattered swathes of opposition ones, and continually broke free at the front of the congestion to drive the Hawks into attack.

It was powerful… but also misleading. For all that dominance, the Hawks actually ranked bottom-four for scoring from stoppages, averaging 28 points per game from that source – 3.5 points fewer per game than what they were shipping to their opponents. Especially considering it’s easier in theory to score from centre bounces, the Hawks’ most dominant trait, and that scoring profile is alarming – especially given their scores from turnover numbers rivalled the rabbles that were North Melbourne and West Coast.

Little changed about it across the Hawks’ first seven games of 2024, but things have changed drastically since their Round 8 win over the Western Bulldogs – and it’s not a coincidence that that was Will Day’s first match of the season on return from a foot stress fracture.

Day is the glue that holds the Hawks’ midfield together, a point of difference from the gritty bash-and-crash types that are Worpel, Nash and Newcombe, the former two especially. The defensive sweeper at centre bounces for large parts, he’s the outside distributor capable of winning his own footy but also at finding space on the outside once the footy is won by a brown and gold jumper.

The Hawks actually rank third-last in that time period for centre bounce wins, while they’re pretty much bang on the AFL average for total clearances. They’re only seventh-best at conceding centre clearances, too, while only five teams have given up more of them in total. Considering how that was basically their one wood in 2023, you’d think that would spell disaster.

Instead, the Hawks are now masters of efficiency: they’re equal-fourth at scores from stoppages in that time with 39.6 per game, right alongside Sydney, and well head of the scores they’re conceding from them.

As a result, they’re the seventh-highest scoring team of the last five weeks: last year, only West Coast and North Melbourne scored fewer points. They’re also sixth in the league for percentage of inside 50s ending with a mark, at 23.5 – including 12 against the Crows – up from 13th in 2023. That’s a seismic improvement.

There are a number of factors to attribute to this, but I’d argue the biggest is a major style change when delivering the ball into attack. Last year, the modus operandi for Newcombe and Worpel in particular was to crash through a tackle and then wallop the ball as long as they could to a predictable hot spot, usually on the head of Lewis.

You can’t play that way with Calsher Dear, Mabior Chol and a last-legs Jack Gunston as your key forward trio, so the Hawks have had to shake things up. Take this centre bounce win, for example: Newcombe wins the ball, breaks a Matt Crouch tackle, takes off with explosive speed into space… and then, rather than going long to the hot spot, he goes wider, attempting to hit up a leading Blake Hardwick in the pocket.

The kick doesn’t find him, but it’s still a good option: Hardwick hits the ball at breakneck pace, the Crows’ defence is scrambled, and as the Hawk turns his back towards goal, Dylan Moore has timed things perfectly. Having sprinted back to goal as fast as he can go, forcing Brodie Smith to bust a gut to keep up with him, he turns at the optimum moment, completely wrong-footing the Crow, and leads back up at the ball-carrier, and is honoured by Hardwick.

Moore is another big reason for the Hawks’ newfound forward line efficiency: I’m honestly not sure any small forward in the AFL has had a better season than his.

The 24-year old’s career has been one of the great stories: delisted at the end of 2020 but re-drafted on the rookie list, Moore understandably plays every game as if it might be his last, even now he is permanently entrenched in the side and one of the first picked.

His role in the team has taken on many forms: from a pressure small forward good for a goal a game, to bit-part midfielder, and now in the toughest spot in footy, the free-ranging half-forward who pushes up to stoppages to create an outnumber and is then expected to work just as hard running back towards goal as an option for his midfielders.

It’s a role the speedy Moore plays perfectly, and in no game more so than Saturday’s: his 27 disposals included a game-high 12 score involvements and two goal assists, with his set-up of Gunston’s final-term goal a prime example both of his sublime skills and the Hawks’ new desire to lower their eyes and hit up targets inside 50 at every opportunity.

It had to be Jack ????

The icing on the cake in game 250.#AFLHawksCrows

— AFL (@AFL) June 1, 2024

Little wonder Gunston, who looked washed for many of the early rounds, has experienced a renaissance of late with the quality of ball coming his way: much like late-career Jack Riewoldt, his footy smarts are second to none, and his knowledge of where the ball is going to go next supersedes any defender he’s likely to meet, even if he’s not a match for most of them athletically anymore.

Moore’s own accuracy is another major factor: it took until late in the third quarter on Saturday for him to finally miss a set shot for the first time this season, and it’s not like he’s only taking high-percentage shots either. He’s an all-round beauty of a footballer.

The Hawks are running riot at the MCG, as Dylan Moore kicks his third in just over a quarter! ????

???? Watch #AFLHawksCrows on ch. 504 or stream on Kayo:

— Fox Footy (@FOXFOOTY) June 1, 2024

Jack Ginnivan is a similar story: he too plays high up the ground in a linking half-forward role, with his excellent foot skills making him a handy player to have delivering the ball to the deeper forwards – he had eight inside 50s on Saturday, equal-most on the ground along with another beautiful ball-user in Jarman Impey.

That positioning also makes it easier for a player with his footy IQ to lose a defender going back towards goal, as he does here with Smith again the poor soul left watching on from well behind.


— AFL (@AFL) June 1, 2024

Lowering their eyes from stoppage takeaways. Getting the ball in the hands of the best distributors when kicking into attack. It’s simple stuff, but for a young team still learning their craft, the rewards have been bountiful now that it’s clicking.

The Hawks’ new scoring potency is obviously their greatest strength and source of improvement, but defensively they’re a much tighter ship too: where in 2023 only North Melbourne and West Coast conceded more points, over the last five rounds they’re up to a respectable 10th – all the more impressive given they’ve played three of last year’s five highest-scoring teams in the Crows, Lions and Power.

Hawthorn leaked like a sieve in 2023: only the dismal Eagles gave up more goals per inside 50, while their scores from turnover numbers were again only superior to the Eagles and Kangaroos.

They’re two goals better at conceding from turnovers over the last five weeks, and a big part of that is kicking efficiency: they’ve made the third-fewest clangers in that time period, and 59.6 turnovers per game is the best in the league. All that with their nominal best kick, James Sicily, missing two of those games through injury.

Karl Amon’s move to the backline has been an inspired choice, with his (mostly) calm disposal and decision-making key to repelling attacks, while Jarman Impey is quietly having a career-best season in a similar role. They’re both sensible distributors by foot, which is oh so crucial in the most dangerous region of the ground to turn it over.

Just as importantly, the Hawks have improved from second-worst in the league at losing defensive one on one contests, ahead of only Port Adelaide, up to fourth-best in the last five rounds, with a loss rate of 28.8 per cent dwindling to 21.7. And again, Sicily’s absence makes this all the more remarkable, given he was easily the Hawks’ best in this regard in 2023.

Sam Frost’s improvement has been colossal in contributing to this: he has lost just six of his 29 contested one-on-ones in defence, with his rate of 20.5 per cent well down from 27.3 per cent in 2023, when he lost nine of 33.

The Hawks’ number one key defender due to James Blanck’s pre-season knee injury, and with Blake Hardwick spending most of his time up forward, Frost has had to shoulder a lot of responsibility in defence, and he’s doing an outstanding job, with Darcy Fogarty the latest opponent to be comfortably shaded by the much-maligned backman. He’s done similarly good jobs on Max King, Joe Daniher and Charlie Dixon as well.

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This is a young team on the rise just now starting to realise how good it can be: and while their peaks in 2023 mostly came as surprises, we’re starting to see more consistently excellent results from Mitchell’s Hawks.

Only time will tell how long this rich vein of form lasts, but at the time of writing, they are just two games and percentage outside the eight, with three games against Richmond and North Melbourne in their last 11.

Don’t discount a remarkable if unlikely run to September, although I’d recommend Hawks fans not worry about any of that right now. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, because at the moment, it’s one hell of a captivating one to watch.

Melbourne Demons
Fremantle Dockers
AFL : Head To Head
Sun, 2 Jun 2024, 13:00

Gold Coast Suns
Essendon Bombers
AFL : Head To Head
Sun, 2 Jun 2024, 16:00

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