HAWK Paul Puopolo was the only small forward in the AFL last year to rank in the top handful in forward-50 groundball-gets, forward-half pressure points and tackles.

That's largely why Alastair Clarkson picked the now 32-year-old every week despite kicking only 10 goals – his lowest tally since his first season at Waverley Park in 2011.

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In fact, the triple premiership player, drafted from SANFL club Norwood in 2010, only weeks before he turned 23, has played at least 20 matches in all bar one of his 10 AFL seasons.

With so much emphasis on teams scoring from their 'forward-half game', footballers such as Puopolo aren't judged purely on the goals they kick themselves.

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However, the scenario is a bit different for him now – and Clarkson and co. have, or had, a big decision to make ahead of Thursday night's clash with Richmond.

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Jaeger O'Meara is primed to return from a facial fracture to bolster a midfield the four-time premiership coach admitted was "smacked" on Friday night.

Blake Hardwick was back in the line-up last week, too, while fellow defender Jarman Impey looks likely to be ready by July after undergoing a knee reconstruction almost 12 months ago.

What O'Meara's inclusion will mean is Shaun Burgoyne won't have to pinch-hit in the midfield as much as he did against Geelong, while Chad Wingard can spend more time in attack as well.

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At the same time, 21-year-old Ollie Hanrahan continues to blossom offensively, albeit still with work to do defensively, and has played 11 consecutive matches from his senior debut in round 15 last year.

Hanrahan must play and was one of only four Hawks aged 23 or younger selected against the Cats, including reigning club champion James Worpel, Harry Morrison and Hardwick.

Impey will probably snatch Morrison's defensive spot if the latter can hold his place until then.

Beyond Hanrahan, there are also other small or pressure forwards desperate for a chance, such as Dylan Moore, Conor Nash and Darren Minchington.

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Luke Breust and Burgoyne have both kicked four goals this season, and Hanrahan has slotted one in each of the opening two matches.

Puopolo, on the other hand, is yet to score even a behind, in part because he doesn't have a single groundball-get inside 50, after steadily averaging about two a week for his career.

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He's also won a modest total of 17 disposals so far.

The even bigger problem is the rest of Puopolo's arsenal isn't making up for his lack of scoreboard impact. 

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After averaging no fewer than four tackles per game in the past seven seasons and almost six in 2017, Puopolo has laid just five across two rounds this year.

Breust and Burgoyne are not only outdoing him offensively but also in the defensive numbers, which have taken a significant dive for 'Poppy'. 

PAUL PUOPOLO BY THE NUMBERS

STATISTIC

2013

2014

2015

2016

2017

2018

2019

2020 R1

2020 R2

TACKLES

4.4

4.4

5.0

4.5

5.8

4.2

4.5

2

3

PRESSURE ACTS

21.5

22.2

17.9

19.0

21.2

19.6

22.0

13

17

PRESSURE POINTS

50.7

48.6

42.6

45.8

51.1

45.1

50.2

27.3

35.4


Puopolo is understandably one of Clarkson's favourites and one of the club's greatest draft gems of the past decade. 

He is eight games short of playing his 200th, so it will be interesting to see if that's a factor.

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Hawthorn great Jarryd Roughead, also aged 32 at the time, lasted until round seven last year before Clarkson sent him to the VFL.

The fork in the road might come a tad earlier for Puopolo.