In just four short weeks the 2017 AFL Premiership season has already shown itself to be an absolute cracker, and it appears we have one of the most even and engrossing seasons of AFL football ahead of us.
The first four rounds have been full of surprises, not least being Richmond sitting third on the ladder undefeated, or reigning premiers the Western Bulldogs going down to lowly Fremantle in Round 3.
What has surprised many fans and experts alike is the fortunes of three of last season’s finalists, in particular perennial powerhouses Sydney and Hawthorn – two of the most consistent and dominant sides of the last decade. Both the Swans and the Hawks, along with fellow 2016 finalists North Melbourne, find themselves rooted to the foot of the ladder without a victory after four rounds.
North Melbourne’s slide has not been unexpected as the Kangaroos were tipped to struggle after off-loading several stalwarts including superstars Brent Harvey and Daniel Wells. After failing to make it past the first week of finals last year Brad Scott and the North Melbourne management knew their premiership window was closed for now and it was time to rebuild their list with an investment in youth. North will hope to reap the rewards of this investment in the next few seasons, and despite being winless this season they haven’t been uncompetitive.
While North Melbourne’s demise may have been foreseen, if you say you knew Sydney and Hawthorn would be winless after four games, well you’re probably lying.
Sydney have been one of the most consistent teams in the league over the last decade, missing finals just once since 2007 but find themselves facing the very rea l prospect of being 0-5 after this weekend as they take on fierce rivals Greater Western Sydney who have won three in a row.
The Swans poor start can be attributed to injuries to several key players including Kurt Tippett, Jarrad McVeigh and young star Isaac Heeney. Despite missing some stars through injury coach John Longmire wouldn’t have expected results to go as badly as they have and the Swans are quickly running out of time to resurrect their season. If they go down to the Giants on Saturday night it would take a near miracle to play finals football in 2017, and that would be a shock for last year’s grand finalists.
The biggest surprise of this season so far has without a doubt been the fall from grace for the mighty Hawthorn Football Club. The greatest side since the Brisbane Lions of the early 2000s have been so accustomed to winning, as four flags from 2008 to 2015 shows. In the off-season Hawthorn decided to trade away long-serving champions Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis, who finished one and two in the club’s best and fairest, to make room for Jaeger O’Meara and Tom Mitchell. Not only did the Hawks trade away two of their greatest players, they also traded away their highest draft picks to bring O’Meara and Mitchell to the club.
In addition to the midfield duo Hawthorn also recruited Richmond’s Ty Vickery in a bid to strengthen their forward and ruck stocks. After four rounds of misery it appears Alastair Clarkson’s best laid plans have misfired and the Hawks seem bereft of ideas and confidence as they languish in last place.
In their era of dominance Hawthorn regularly sacrificed draft position to top up their list with established names such as James Frawley, Brian Lake, David Hale, Ben McEvoy, Josh Gibson, Jack Gunston and Shaun Burgoyne to name a few. This method of list management was obviously extremely successful as Hawthorn achieved a coveted hat-trick of premierships.
However, no team can stay at the top forever, and Hawthorn’s list management and recruiting strategy has left them with a dearth of young talent on their list – no doubt the reason they decided to trade away Mitchell and Lewis in a bid to build their list around younger stars O’Meara and Tom Mitchell.
More concerning than the younger players not stepping up is the form of the more senior stars, all of whom were at the forefront of Hawthorn’s extravagant success. While new skipper Jarryd Roughead can be excused, as it is a wonderful achievement that he is back out playing AFL football at all, the likes of Gunston, Burgoyne, Gibson, Cyril Rioli and Luke Breust have all been well below their imperious best. Questions are being asked, are these players as good as we thought? Or were they made to look good by great teammates? That could be argued for the likes of Breust and Gunston, but there must be other reasons for the poor form of Gibson, Rioli and Burgoyne.
While Rioli is only 27, Burgoyne and Gibson are both on the wrong side of 30. Perhaps Hawthorn chose the wrong veterans to let go?
It is definitely too early to write off a champion side like Hawthorn, especially with some of the names on their list and a master coach like Clarkson at the helm but it seems highly unlikely the Hawks will play finals football in 2017. Just how much of their season they are able to salvage will determine how far the once feared Hawks have fallen.