(Clockwise from left): Sam Mitchell, James Sicily leading the Hawks out, Mitch Lewis and Jai Newcombe. Pictures: AFL Photos

WHEN Hawthorn made bold list management decisions last October, it was hard to see 2023 being a palatable watch for Hawks supporters. 

But after 21 rounds, the rebuild project under senior coach Sam Mitchell, GM of football Rob McCartney and list manager Mark McKenzie has made the early progress they would have hoped for when they committed to this plan inside Waverley Park. 

The cold reality is the Hawks have spent the entire season in the bottom four of the ladder but have occupied 16th spot since round 10, putting a clear gap between themselves and the bottom two – North Melbourne and West Coast – for all of winter.

But it isn't about wins just yet. Saturday's shock result over Collingwood was arguably the biggest upset of 2023 and could prove to be a landmark victory in the rebuild project, just like the win over Brisbane in round 13. They are two top-four scalps that prove the plan is on track. 

The decision to trade away Jaeger O'Meara and Tom Mitchell in the same Trade Period they lost Jack Gunston has proven to be the right decision when you look at how the young midfield has coped. Jai Newcombe has put himself in All-Australian squad contention. Will Day has arrived. And James Worpel has returned to near his 2019 best. 

Harry Morrison celebrates a goal during Hawthorn's clash against Collingwood in round 21, 2023. Picture: Getty Images

James Sicily has been an inspired choice as captain, even if he was the clear and probably only option. The skipper should finally be rewarded with an All-Australian blazer, despite missing four games due to suspension. 

And then there is the exposure of youth. Collective experience is the key part of any rebuild. Hawthorn has banked plenty of games in plenty of young guns. 

AFL.com.au has identified seven areas where the rebuild has made progress in 2023.


This year was never going to be about wins. Hawthorn won more games last year – eight to six currently – but feel further advanced than it was last October. Progress can be measured in the exposure of youth. The Hawks have the youngest average age (24.33) of any side and the least experienced list in terms of average games played (70.4) in 2023. 

Some clubs define youth differently, but at Hawthorn it looks at the bracket 24 and younger as the key pieces in the rebuild. That includes Mitch Lewis, Dylan Moore and Worpel. Below that trio is a group that have played plenty of football in 2023 in Newcombe (20 of 20 games), Day (18), Connor Macdonald (18), Tyler Brockman (15), Josh Weddle (14), Cam Mackenzie (13) and Josh Ward (13). 

Hawthorn would have liked to see Denver Grainger-Barras and Sam Butler play more senior football this year, but overall, the decisions they made at the end of last season to trade away O'Meara and Mitchell – plus not offer Liam Shiels another contract – has been justified. Hawthorn has had 15 players aged 24 and under play at least eight games in 2023 – the most of any side – and seven of those players have a relative rating (the measurement of performance against expectation) of at least +10%.


Age (Dec 31)



Relative rating

Josh Weddle


Gen Def



Jai Newcombe





Dylan Moore


Gen Fwd



Josh Ward





Connor Macdonald


Gen Fwd



Will Day





James Worpel






When Hawthorn made the bold decisions to trade O'Meara to Fremantle and Mitchell to Collingwood, there were fears the young onball brigade at Waverley Park wouldn't be able to stand up across 2023. Hawthorn put plenty of thought into those decisions, as well as the call not to offer Shiels another deal. The proof has been in the pudding. The Hawks' midfield has actually drastically improved, winning much more of the ball, more centre bounce clearances and using the ball far more efficiently. 

Hawks midfield







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Contested Possession Diff 





Disposal Efficiency





Clearance Diff





CB Clearance Diff 





After bursting onto the scene across the first 18 months of his career, Newcombe has led the way and should be leading the Peter Crimmins Medal after round 21. The 22-year-old is equal 17th in the coaches' award, level with reigning Brownlow medallist Patrick Cripps, polling votes in 11 of 20 games. Newcombe deserves to be included in the All-Australian squad at a minimum. Worpel has returned to somewhere near the level he produced across 2019 when he won the best and fairest, after dealing with a challenging 2022 campaign. 


It has been a tremendous season of growth for Day. Hawthorn invested heavily in the South Australian in 2019 when it used pick No.13 on the skinny half-back flanker. Day turned his back on lucrative offers in April and committed to the rebuild, signing a four-year contract extension that will take him through to free agency in 2027. That was a significant signature in this rebuild, especially on the back of locking away Lewis and Sicily last year. 

Day has averaged 25.7 disposals, 9.3 contested possessions, 5.4 score involvements and 4.2 clearances from 18 games. The Hawks had only made two first-round selections in a decade between the 2008 premiership win and the Day pick. They need those picks to work. Day is working. Expect the 191cm midfielder to challenge Newcombe and Sicily in the best and fairest. At 22, Day has now laid the foundations to explode in 2024 after overcoming some of the injury interruptions that have hampered him in the past.

Will Day handballs during Hawthorn's clash against Collingwood in round 21, 2023. Picture: Getty Images


Hawthorn lost 1046 games of experience in the form of five key players last year. O'Meara, Mitchell and Gunston – the club didn't want to lose Gunston but granted his trade wish after a challenging year – all left during a chaotic end to the Trade Period, after Ben McEvoy and Shiels retired. It meant the six players in the leadership group – captain Sicily, vice-captains Luke Breust and Moore, plus Lewis, Sam Frost and Jarman Impey – were new to the roles, having never previously been included in a leadership group. There have been challenges at times, but internally the club has been thrilled with the growth made across the winter. 

Sicily was the obvious choice to replace McEvoy, but the reigning best and fairest has been an inspired choice. You can argue that no player has a greater impact on their side than Sicily. The Hawks lost all four games when Sicily was out suspended. He has been best on ground in almost five of the six wins. After being overlooked by the All-Australian selectors twice in the past, the 28-year-old should finally be rewarded in 2023. Tom Stewart missed five games last year and was still picked in the team. 

James Sicily celebrates Hawthorn's win over Collingwood in R21, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Breust is unlikely to be around for the next premiership push, but the veteran small forward – who started the season as the only player at Waverley Park north of 30 – has thrived as vice-captain this year. The 32-year-old is also making a compelling case to be considered for All-Australian selection for the third time. He has 42 goals on the board, two less than Charlie Cameron and seven more than the next best small forwards in Tom Papley and Izak Rankine. The three-time premiership player is already one of the best goalsneaks to ever play the game, but he isn't done just yet.


You need some landmark wins in the early stages of a rebuild to know what you're building is on the right track. The Hawks have won 14 games under Sam Mitchell across his first 44 games at the helm. Easter Monday was big last year, as was the win over Brisbane down at University of Tasmania Stadium in 2022. But the two key ones are the two huge upsets this year. Both were against top-four sides. 

The first was the 25-point win over the Lions in round 13 that continued Brisbane's horror run at the MCG. The second was the most recent, Saturday's 32-point win over Collingwood, the biggest upset of the season to date. Hawthorn led from start to finish against the premiership favourite, absorbed a few challenges, before putting the Magpies away in the last to seal a win that showed they are on the right path. With the Western Bulldogs, Melbourne and Fremantle to come, all three sides will be nervous facing Hawthorn in the closing rounds of the season.

Mitch Lewis celebrates a goal during Hawthorn's clash against Brisbane in round 13, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos


Key forwards are hard to find. If you don't have one, they cost a fortune. Hawthorn plucked Mitch Lewis out of nowhere with pick No.76 in the 2016 AFL Draft. After producing a breakout season last year, when he kicked 37.15 from 15 games, the 24-year-old has overcome an ACL scare in the pre-season to prove that 2022 wasn't a flash in the pan. Lewis is now up to 35.19 from 14 games in 2023. Only five players – Charlie Curnow, Taylor Walker, Toby Greene, Jeremy Cameron and Nick Larkey – have averaged more goals per game this year.

Hawthorn is yet to settle on the best option to partner Lewis in attack and is understood to be surveying the market for a readymade option. Fergus Greene has kicked 15 goals from 11 appearances. Jacob Koschitzke has seven from nine and mid-season recruit Brandon Ryan kicked three goals in his second game on the weekend. All three are yet to sign a deal beyond October. Securing Lewis until the end of 2026 last year should prove to be one of the key signatures in this rebuild. 


Average goals

Total goals

Accuracy %

Player ratings

Charlie Curnow





Taylor Walker





Toby Greene





Jeremy Cameron





Nick Larkey





Tom Hawkins





Mitch Lewis






You need some wins that not even the best list managers plan for to help accelerate a rebuild. Conor Nash is one of those unlikely wins. The Irishman has played 41 of 42 games since Sam Mitchell became senior coach, quickly becoming the next gun import from the Emerald Isle. Nash made inroads last year, but not many saw his 2023 season coming. The 198cm, 94kg midfielder has blended roles on the inside and outside with run-with jobs on the opposition's best player across this year. The 25-year-old had only ever amassed 20 or more disposals five times before round one. He has reached that figure 15 times since round three, including four 30+ games to average 23.9 disposals, 4.9 tackles and 4.4 clearances per game. Nash was huge against Collingwood last weekend and has been huge all season long. Seamus Mitchell is the other. Hawthorn delisted the former second-round pick last year and he had to wait until the end of November to be added via the Rookie Draft. Now the dashing defender has played 14 AFL games and proven he can add something to Hawthorn.