L-R: Blake Hardwick, Nick Watson, Jack Gunston. Pictures: Hawthorn FC, AFL Photos

WHETHER Blake Hardwick's shift to the forward line is permanent or ad hoc remains "up in the air" for Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell, who is pleased with his improved goalkicking ensemble ahead of 2024.

The Hawks bolstered their forward half in last year's trade and draft period, adding Collingwood premiership player Jack Ginnivan, Gold Coast tall Mabior Chol, returning flag hero Jack Gunston and then using pick five to select dynamo Nick Watson.

On top of that, Mitchell has also sent trusty defender Hardwick, who is a free agent this season, to the forward half, where he has trained throughout summer. It is a throwback for Hardwick, who was originally drafted from the Eastern Ranges as a medium goalkicker before transforming into one of Hawthorn's most reliable defenders, with Mitchell saying it remains undecided if Hardwick was locked in as a forward. Hardwick has kicked eight goals in his 147-game career. 

"That's up in the air at this stage. When I look at Blake Hardwick, I look at the skills he has and I've spoken to him a lot about it. He considers himself a forward who plays back. If we have to move him back, we know he can do that, he's played close to 150 games almost exclusively as a defender," Mitchell told AFL.com.au.

"He's played back for a couple of our sessions and he just looks like he's never left there. We know he can move back if that's what's required but he'll give us great flexibility across the season being able to play both positions. 

"Now that he's done a full pre-season as a forward, we know there's certainly something there we can work with in the future whether that's in round one against the Bombers or consistently across this whole season or something we go to. It's still to be determined."

Blake Hardwick in action during the R21 match between Hawthorn and Collingwood at the MCG on August 5, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Hawthorn won seven games last season, including victories over Grand Finalists Collingwood and Brisbane in the second half of the season. However the Hawks remained lumped near the bottom of the ladder, finishing 16th and recording the third-fewest points for across the home and away season. Mitchell said it was important they added to their scoring power in the off-season, having battled better than expected last season with an inexperienced midfield unit. 

"We were quite often pretty strong in a front-half game but weren't able to put a score on the board against the better opposition teams. And when we were able to we could actually set the game up in a better way. Unfortunately we couldn't put a score on the board so we knew we had to make some changes in front of the ball," he said.

"How that fits at the moment might take a while to gel and figure out the best mix and who plays where and how they work together. There's some positive dynamics working so far.

"My office sits next to the lift and I see 'Mabs' and 'The Wizard' (Watson) walk down for a coffee after just about every session so they're waxing up a little bit and I notice they do kick to each other a little bit. There's a few little connections which is what good clubs have." 

Mabior Chol in action at Hawthorn training in January 2024. Picture: Hawthorn Football Club

Watson was the Hawks' prized top pick, with the club knocking back significant offers for the selection to draft the Eastern Ranges product, having seen him up close during training stints at the club over the previous two seasons. His livewire goalkicking skills, marking and speed have shone since arriving, with Mitchell saying Watson had formed a strong connection with Ginnivan.

"He's had a good pre-season. He's an exciting young lad but I've been really pleased with how he's come in. He hasn't come in and thought 'I'm going to run the show', he's quietly gone about his business. I'm almost keen for him to be a bit more cheeky and all of those things but then as soon as the games come he's got this X-factor about him and he's quite exciting," Mitchell said.

"He was quite strong in our match play [last week] and I looked at the possession count and I was like 'I can't believe he's only had eight or 10 possessions' but he was actually really quite exciting in the game. Him and Jack Ginnivan together, it's not just the impact they have on the goals and the scorecard, but I think their influence to cause trouble on the opposition. They're going to be important players for us."

Jack Ginnivan and Nick Watson at Hawthorn training at Waverley Park in January 2024. Picture: Hawthorn FC

Ginnivan, too, has settled into his new club after the whirlwind end to last season that saw him become a Magpies premiership winner and weeks later be traded to the Hawks. Mitchell said he had kept an eye on the small forward knowing he grew up a Hawthorn fan.

"He'd been a Hawthorn supporter and I'd seen photos that were more of a laugh of him being out at Waverley at family days and things like that. Somewhere in the back of your mind you know about that and I had heard he was a Hawks man so I'd always watched him and kept an eye on him," he said.

"Like most I'd been frustrated with him as an opposition player because he would get under your skin and then you think if we had the opportunity to have him on our side he's the kind of player that would help us. He's clever, he has great game understanding. I knew he had good game sense and game awareness but I didn't quite realise how good, and his game sense and knowledge of how different people play from different teams – he's a real footy nut. 

"He knows every team, every player, left or right foot, knows if they like to kick short or long. He's been a great acquisition for us in the front half."