It’s been a long summer. Supporters of all clubs have been thinking and talking of how their side will be able to improve. New recruits. Fresh faces. Some fitness guru who will ensure their club’s stars will be get on the park this season.
In Hawthorn’s case, much of the excitement comes in the form of its young list and better-than-expected progress last season. A finals victory and a sixth-place finish gives the Hawks hopes of a top four spot, and a shot at its 10th flag.
For Melbourne, there’s a new coach in former Port Adelaide assistant Dean Bailey, but pretty much the same old faces on the field that led the club to a very poor 14th position.
The two clubs will meet in a twilight encounter at the MCG on Easter Sunday with two different sets of expectations; a win for Hawthorn would signal the start of an expected attack on a finals place, while victory for the Dees would give their fans hope that this season won’t be as bad – or even worse – than last.
B: Guerra, Gilham, Birchall
HB: Ladson, Croad, Murphy
C: Dew, Mitchell, Young
HF: Rioli, Boyle, Bateman
F: Williams, Roughead, Franklin
FOLL: Taylor, Sewell, Tuck
I/C: Campbell, Ellis, Osborne, Stokes
EMG: Clarke, Kennedy, Morton
Hawthorn will be taking the field with several players out due to suspension or injury.
Key playmaker Luke Hodge, tough defender Campbell Brown, rugged midfielder Jordan Lewis and he experience of Shane Crawford will all be missing thanks to suspensions earned either in finals or in the NAB Cup.
Youngster Beau Muston may have been in contention if he hadn’t injured his knee during pre-season and required a third knee reconstruction by the age of 21, while Max Bailey is recovering from some minor knee surgery. Mark Williams, while being named to play, is in severe doubt having missed recent practice matches and having little to do at training.
Exciting draftee Cyril Rioli will debut in the Hawks’ forward line, and his ability to read the play and kick a running goal has the Hawthorn faithful expecting a solid first season, while Cameron Stokes will also make his senior debut, having been drafted at 54 in the last year’s rookie draft and impressing with his work rate in the pre-season games.
Tim Clarke is a surprise omission, but if Williams does not pass fit, Clarke would be the most credentialed emergency to come into the side.
B: Wheatley, Carroll, Garland
HB: Petterd, Bell, McDonald
C: Green, McLean, Buckley
HF: Bruce, Miller, Yze
F: Newton, Neitz, Robertson
FOLL: White, Davey, Jones
I/C: Johnson, Moloney, Morton, Weetra
EMG: Jamar, Bode, Frawley
The major player missing for the Dees is midfield linkman Colin Sylvia, who was suspended by the club last week for breaking curfew.
Apart from Sylvia, it is a relatively full-strength Melbourne side that will turn out on Sunday evening.
Cameron Bruce finally proved his fitness last week in a VFL practice match, putting fears he’d miss the start of the season to rest.
Two draftees have been named on the bench: Cale Morton (brother of Hawthorn’s Jarryd Morton) and Isaac Weetra made the final side, with Paul Johnson chosen ahead of Mark Jamar as Jeff White’s partner in the ruck.
Hawthorn’s forward line will be the biggest headache for the Melbourne coaching box, with several options and the spectre of Lance Franklin always on defenders’ minds.
As per last season, the biggest threats come at the tall end: Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Tim Boyle will stretch the best defences, which Melbourne certainly doesn’t possess. Add the possibility of Williams on his return, Rioli and Stokes buzzing around and you have to have a fairly versatile defence to match up on the Hawks.
There is no obvious match up for Franklin, with Melbourne full back Nathan Carroll better suited to marking the bigger Roughead. Daniel Bell will probably start on Franklin, but is unlikely to have the engine to keep up with his constant movement.
The Dees could swing Miller back to look after the third tall in Boyle, but that would deprive them of a second genuine tall up forward. Paul Wheatley might be relied upon for a more defensive than usual role, which will mean less of his potent disposal out of defensive.
It would appear that Melbourne’s defence – even if Miller made the trip down back – doesn’t have the required flexibility or talent to match Hawthorn’s diverse forward line.
In The Middle
Hawthorn’s midfield is missing some firepower, with Hodge, Crawford and Lewis all missing through suspension. But the Hawks still have reason to believe that they can win the midfield battle, with new captain Sam Mitchell the premier midfielder on the park, and best and fairest winner Brad Sewell getting around.
After impressing with his tenacity and ability to find the ball in traffic, Travis Tuck gets a rare start in the midfield, and the likes of Chance Bateman, Xavier Ellis and Clinton Young will more than likely go through the middle in bursts.
Tuck could be given a job on Melbourne’s Brock McLean, who will need to be at his best if the Demons are to have a chance. With Bruce probably too unfit to have a major role through the middle and Sylvia out with suspension, it will be up to McLean, the unheralded Nathan Jones and Aaron Davey to win the ball for the Dees.
Brad Green and Simon Buckley can certainly use the ball for Melbourne, but have as much chance of dictating a game as Chance Bateman or Clinton Young – not much.
Jeff White in the ruck gives the Dees a good chance to at least break even in the middle, though he has little back up in Paul Johnson. If Robert Campbell and Simon Taylor can neutralise White, and if Mitchell and Sewell can read the taps that White wins clearly, Hawthorn should come out on top.
David Neitz has caused Hawthorn a bit of pain in previous years, but his influence on games is waning in his declining years. While Neitz still commands the respect of Hawthorn’s top defender in Trent Croad, more will probably be expected of Russell Robertson, who is harder for the Hawks to match up on.
Stephen Gilham will most likely go to Brad Miller if Miller starts up forward as named, leaving the comparatively green Tom Murphy with Robertson – something that would give the Demon fans something to smile about, and Hawk fans bemoaning Brown’s absence.
Adem Yze and Bruce will need to be looked after when forward (both will probably see limited time in through the midfield), but what may concern Melbourne will be how they can stop the likes of Rick Ladson, Grant Birchall, Stuart Dew and Brent Guerra from hurting them coming out of defence.
It is unlikely we’ll see Neitz dominate a game against Hawthorn again, and if Robertson and Neitz can be kept to five goals between them, Hawthorn will not lose.
Unlikely many other games, the winner of the midfield battle may not prevail on the scoreboard. Even if Melbourne can win more of the ball out of the middle, it is more likely to be how they deal with Hawthorn’s forward line and whether they can take their opportunities that will dictate whether they have a chance of victory.
Even with Hawthorn’s rash of suspensions and considering the surprises that round one can throw up, it is hard to see how Melbourne can win the game. The loss of Hawthorn’s key players may give the Dees some hope, but it probably just makes what would usually be a 10-goal advantage a five-goal advantage.
Anything can happen, but the Hawks should be able to account for a side that will be in the race – the race for the wooden spoon that is.
Hawthorn by 43 points.