HAWTHORN won't have a clear picture regarding Will Day's return date for another fortnight, but if the reigning Peter Crimmins Medal winner misses the start of the season, there is a silver lining at Waverley Park.
Day is recovering from a stress fracture in his foot after reporting the issue on the first day back following the Christmas break and is still in a moonboot, 46 days out from the club's season-opener against Essendon.
The 22-year-old produced a stunning breakout season in 2023, putting an injury interrupted start to his AFL career behind him to win his maiden best and fairest, stamping himself as one of the premier young midfielders in the land.
Day is scheduled to meet with specialists again next week and set to start weight bearing exercises in the coming days, but given his long-term importance to the Hawks, the club won't be rushing his return and haven't put a round one goal in his mind at this stage.
If the former first-round pick misses the first fortnight or first month of the season – the club doesn't anticipate Day to miss any longer than that – two players who were selected at pick No.7 in consecutive drafts are ready to be exposed to more midfield minutes early in the season. And more importantly, ready to play there on a more regular basis in 2024.
Cam Mackenzie played 14 games in a debut season that showed glimpses of his prodigious talent, but a second summer in an AFL program looks set to bring out more from the 20-year-old this winter.
Mackenzie has completed the full program across November, December and January and was one of the standouts during Hawthorn's 40-minute match simulation session at Waverley Park last Thursday morning, thriving against mainstay midfielders Jai Newcombe and James Worpel.
"Since day one of the pre-season his fitness levels have at least doubled where he was this time last year. He has had a really good summer. He had some exposure last year and is one we expect to get some good runs on the board this year," Hawthorn midfield coach David Hale told AFL.com.au on the club's pre-season camp in Torquay.
"His lateral ability is really good, his kicking is really strong, he has plenty of really good qualities as an inside mid, but it takes them a year or 18 months when they come out of the under-18s to feel comfortable and calm enough at a stoppage to just play on instinct. He will be one at stoppage that can complement Newcombe, Worpel and [Conor] Nash and these guys. Outside the stoppage, hopefully he can be damaging with his foot."
Josh Ward has laid the foundations across his first two seasons in the AFL to become a more permanent fixture in Sam Mitchell's midfield, adding 16 appearances in 2023 to the 14 games he featured in across his debut season.
The Northern Knights product left the track early last Thursday with a minor foot concern but showed no signs of the issue on day one of Hawthorn’' pre-season camp on the Surf Coast on Monday, banking a full session at Deakin University in Waurn Ponds as he looks to make his mark in his third season.
"'Wardy' had an interrupted pre-season last year, but his biggest weapon is his running and getting contest to contest and then making good decisions with ball in hand. He is so self-driven and is always looking for ways to improve, always seeking out ways to get better," Hale said.
"If we can utilise his kicking ability, especially centre forward to hit targets, he is going to be very important for us. Watching guys like Errol Gulden last year and his capacity to be able to run and get from contest to contest is a really important role in footy. 'Wardy' brings that to the table. He is one we are really excited to watch his development across the next 12 to 18 months."
Henry Hustwaite earned two games in the final fortnight of last season, showing his talent as a late inclusion on debut by kicking two goals from 15 disposals against Melbourne at the MCG in round 23, and has continued to develop his game across the pre-season.
"His skillset in terms of stoppage is really high. He is deceptively tall, a big inside mid, similar to 'Nashy'," Hale said. "He has really increased his fitness base. I think his AFL stoppage work and his hands are at an AFL level, but if he can keep building his running capacity it will help him get to the next level. He always looks like he has time with ball in hand, even in confined spaces. He is so relaxed and calm. Playing those two games at the end of last year would have given him a lot of confidence."
Connor Macdonald has played 41 of a possible 45 games since arriving at the club via pick No.26 in the 2021 AFL Draft and quickly found his feet at AFL level playing across half-forward.
But after making inroads during the off-season and banking the full pre-season to date, the Haileybury College product has built his tank to be trusted with more frequent midfield bursts in 2024, around his usual attacking role as part of a new-look forward line that now includes Mabior Chol, Jack Ginnivan, Nick Watson, returning veteran star Jack Gunston and defender-turned-forward Blake Hardwick.
"He spent most of last summer working in the mids but this summer he hasn't done as much with the intention of blooding the forward line to get to know each other," Hale said. "He is a guy that has played 40 games and his speed and burst out of stoppage are really valuable in AFL footy. The [Jordan] De Goey and [Christian] Petracca types. You can't fit nine guys into three spots, but him and Dylan Moore will definitely spend time in there across the year."
Former Geelong midfielder Cooper Stephens is another option in the Hawks' engine room this year, following a strong pre-season on the track from the 2019 first-round pick.
The 23-year-old moved to Hawthorn at the end of 2022 in the three-way trade that included Tom Mitchell, but didn't feature at senior level despite 20 appearances for Box Hill.
Hawthorn finished 16th last year with one less win than in 2022, but the club felt it made substantial inroads during Mitchell's second season at the helm. A key part of that belief was the midfield improvement led by Day, Newcombe, Nash and Worpel.
Newcombe finished runner-up in the best and fairest for the second straight year and was more widely recognised with selection in the 44-man All-Australian squad in just his second full season in the AFL after being selected from Box Hill, via Poowong, in the 2021 AFL Mid-Season Rookie Draft.
Nash established himself as one of, if not the best Irishmen in the AFL last year, finishing third in the Peter Crimmins Medal after playing all 23 games, thriving under Mitchell's watch after being at the crossroads in 2021.
Worpel reignited his career in 2023 by returning to the form that saw him win the best and fairest in 2019, finishing in fourth spot, just ahead of skipper James Sicily, in a season where he re-signed with the club.
After so much midfield growth by a group aged 25 and under last year, can Mackenzie, Ward and others add to a growing onball unit in 2024? If they do, it will accelerate the rebuild at Waverley Park.