YOU CAN trace the renovation back to those frenzied final few minutes of trade deadline day when Hawthorn secured Gold Coast key forward Mabior Chol and executed a deal to bring Jack Gunston home after a season at Brisbane, hours after luring Collingwood poster boy Jack Ginnivan to Waverley Park.
And the off-season forward line overhaul continued back at Marvel Stadium on night one of the 2023 AFL Draft in November when the Hawks did what clubs have been historically reluctant to do: select a pure small forward with a single digit pick in the form of 170cm livewire Nick Watson.
With just 51 days between now and the club's season opener against Essendon on March 16, Hawthorn showcased its new-look attack across four 10-minute quarters of match simulation on Thursday morning. Competition for spots will be fierce across the next two months.
Chol partnered star key forward Mitch Lewis in the first-choice forward line and made an impact by kicking a couple of goals – including a memorable one after laying a brutal chase down tackle on Cam Mackenzie – and providing a target between the arcs.
The former Sun and Tiger arrived at the club at the end of November with a PCL injury he suffered in the VFL Grand Final and completed a modified program across the first half of the pre-season, but has reintegrated back into full training this month, just in time to bank the full match simulation block ahead of the practice matches.
Lewis was rusty after missing last week with an ankle injury but is well placed to build on returns of 37 goals in 2022 and 36 in 2023 – both from 15 games – after completing a decent training block in the past month. It is 12 months to the day scans revealed the ACL sprain that derailed his pre-season and delayed his start to 2023.
Ginnivan also converted two set shots, drawing a high free kick for his second, much to the amusement of Hawthorn supporters at Waverley Park, but not some of his new teammates who didn’t waste the moment to give him some well-intentioned stick. The 2023 premiership player is understood to have made a seamless, no-fuss transition across to the club he supported growing up and has banked most of the pre-season to date.
Watson was quieter than Ginnivan but had a couple of moments that demonstrated why he was taken at pick No.5. The Eastern Ranges product had to deal with an early match-up on captain James Sicily, who was the most dominant player on the ground in the first half, but has put himself on course for an early season debut across the past couple of months.
Gunston trained away from the main group pre-Christmas alongside three-time premiership teammate Luke Breust, with the club carefully managing the veteran forwards following injury concerns last season. But since returning from the break, Gunston has done the full program and will be hoping he can start his second stop at the Hawks the way he finished it last time when he kicked 17 goals from the final five rounds of 2022.
Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell was on the track on Thursday and almost fully recovered from the nasty bout of pneumonia that hospitalised him in New York during the Christmas break. He has been trialling gun defender Blake Hardwick in attack across the pre-season and used the ultra-reliable backman there again, like the club has done at times in the past.
Time will tell if the Hawks persevere with the move when premiership points are on offer, but they are using match simulation time to see if Hardwick can add a ruthless defensive dynamic to the new-look forward line in 2024.
Co-vice-captain Dylan Moore has established himself as one of the premier half-forwards in the competition in the past couple of seasons and is set to play a key role forward of centre and through the middle in the months ahead.
Connor Macdonald has cut his teeth at AFL level playing predominantly across half-forward, racing to 41 games since being selected at pick No.26 in the 2021 AFL Draft. But after building his tank across the off-season and pre-season to date, the Haileybury College product is poised for more midfield time this year.
The 21-year-old was a clear standout in Thursday's 40-minute session, finding a stack of the ball and dominating around stoppages to put his hand up for Will Day's spot in the event the South Australian doesn't recover in time to be available in the early rounds.
Mackenzie, who played 14 games in his debut season after being selected at pick No.7 in 2022, was the other player to mount a case for that spot – and for greater opportunity in 2024 – after impressing with his precise foot skills and calm decision making in traffic.
Since the end of last season, plenty has changed in attack for Hawthorn. Jacob Koschitzke has moved to Richmond, Brandon Ryan was traded to the Lions and Fergus Greene was delisted. But if Hawthorn is going to take the next step in the rebuild, they need more goals from more options after averaging the equal second fewest goals in 2023. Breust (47 goals) and Lewis (36 goals) were the only two players to reach 20 goals last year.
Can Chol and Ginnivan recapture their 2022 form? Can Gunston slot back in? Will Lewis go to the next level and push for All-Australian honours? How quickly can Watson adjust to the next level? Time will tell, but Thursday was a step in the right direction.