NEW BLUE Marc Pittonet will face his old side Hawthorn for the first time on Friday night.

In isolation, the 24-year-old ruckman – who's doubled his career games tally by playing seven times for Carlton this year – flying the coop may be the least of the Hawks' problems. 

However, the familiar decision-making that prompted Pittonet's departure offers an insight into how Hawthorn's found itself with one of the oldest lists in AFL history.

 

That's not necessarily an issue if the list is contending. In the Hawks' case, they've missed the finals in two of the past four years and were 0-4 in post-season matches across the other two.

They've also lost four consecutive games in the same year for the first time since starting the 2017 season with that many defeats.

Coach Alastair Clarkson told Fox Footy on Monday night he would "go to the grave really happy" if he was "guilty" of hanging onto some of his premiership stars for too long.

That's admirable but the problem seems to be more that Hawthorn hasn't struck enough of a balance elsewhere between the long term and its win-now approach.

Here are five examples where the Hawks, rightly or wrongly, prioritised the present over the future. 

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Case one

AFL.com.au revealed Brisbane's interest in Hawk Jon Ceglar on August 15 last year. The Lions' approach spooked Hawthorn enough that it offered Ceglar (who turns 30 in February) a three-year deal, which he accepted a month after that story. In the same week of the original article, the Hawks blindsided then-No.1 big man Ben McEvoy by telling him they were going to trial him as a key defender. It's a role McEvoy continued into this year and one he's generally performed well in, before switching into the ruck again in Ceglar's injury absence. However, the repercussions were many and varied – not ending with McEvoy's positional change at age 30. Marc Pittonet was sick of being a third-string ruckman and spoke to several rival clubs before accepting a two-year deal at Carlton. Pittonet, still only 24, is going well in the No.1 job at the Blues and shared the honours with in-form North Melbourne big man Todd Goldstein last week. On top of this, McEvoy's switch into defence resulted in promising backman Jack Scrimshaw being pushed out. Scrimshaw, 21, was eventually a late inclusion in round three for Paul Puopolo and has stayed in, except for a fortnight out with injury. The Hawks also belatedly offered veteran Grant Birchall a contract before he signed with Brisbane last year, so that could've impacted Scrimshaw's opportunities, too.

COMPARE THE TRIO

Player

Hitouts to advantage

H/O to adv win rate

Disposals

Contested possessions

Centre Clearances

Clearances

Score launches

Jon Ceglar

5.0

10.8

10.7

7.0

0.8

3.8

1.3

Ben McEvoy*

4.5

14.2

9.5

5.5

0.8

1.5

2.2

Marc Pittonet

7.9

13.3

8.7

6.1

1.6

3.7

1.6

* McEvoy's numbers include only rounds five to eight, when he played more ruck time but still averaged only 31.8 ruck contests to Pittonet's 58.9 and Ceglar's 46.2.

Case two

The Hawks waited until after last year's Telstra AFL Trade Period but elected to retain triple premiership forward Paul Puopolo. Puopolo's offensive game plummeted in 2019 but his defensive numbers remained excellent. The 32-year-old played in round one but has been dropped at least once since and he's had little on-field impact with or without the Sherrin. Puopolo might have played his last match despite this season being only halfway through. Keeping him on the list for another season at least partly meant leaving young defender Changkuoth Jiath as a Category B rookie. Having said that, they signed Darren Minchington on season eve – after Will Golds' season-ending knee setback – when they could have upgraded Jiath then, too. Ricky Henderson's knee injury two weeks ago, plus an AFL rule tweak, has finally seen Jiath promoted to the primary list. With Puopolo playing early, there was one less spot for an up-and-coming small forward, alongside Luke Breust, Chad Wingard and evergreen Shaun Burgoyne. Hawthorn's tried Ollie Hanrahan, Josh Morris and Minchington at different stages, while Dylan Moore is waiting in the wings.

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Case three

Recruiting Jon Patton. There was nothing wrong with the price – a future fourth-round selection was enough to pry the injury-prone key forward from the Giants. But that's never the full story. Mitch Lewis, a 21-year-old forward, put together the best run of his career from rounds 16 to 21 last season before a shoulder injury that sidelined him and required surgery. Lewis' surge in form coincided with the Hawks' strong end to 2019. However, rather than playing Patton, Lewis and Tim O'Brien together, they left Lewis out (even after he recovered from a minor ankle complaint). None of those three targets has played well in 2020, and all were injured at different times. Clarkson's spoken about his players being down on confidence, and it looks obvious that's the case for Lewis, who hasn't been helped by Hawthorn's slow ball movement and ordinary kicking inside 50. Either way, Lewis is a shadow of the player we saw at the end of last season. Meanwhile, 27-year-old Patton hasn't had more than seven disposals or one goal in any of his four appearances. 

Mitch Lewis by the numbers

Season

Disposals

Goals

Contested marks

Marks inside 50

Score involvements

2019 R16-21

14.2

2.2

2.5

3.3

6.2

2020 R4-8*

5.4

0.4

0.4

0.0

1.9

* Lewis' 2020 numbers are multiplied by 1.25 to reflect normal game duration

Case four

The Hawks' successful pursuit of Chad Wingard two years ago divided the fanbase. Wingard hadn't been the same player he once was, after being a dual All-Australian by age 22 in 2015. However, Cyril Rioli's premature retirement and the club's modest small forward options and lack of midfield dynamism made him appealing. Getting that deal done was costly. They packaged Ryan Burton – their most promising prospect at the time, even after an underwhelming 2018 – and their first-round pick as part of the complicated trade. Port Adelaide selected young gun Xavier Duursma with that choice, while 23-year-old Burton's also proven a good addition down back. This is more difficult to assess, given Hawthorn acquired tall defender Jack Scrimshaw in the same exchange period for peanuts, and had glaring small forward and, to a lesser degree, midfield needs. Wingard rates 'elite' in goals, score involvements, inside 50s and metres gained among general forwards this year. At the same time, he turned 27 on Wednesday. Burton was the Hawks' sole top-20 draft pick since 2011 until they drafted Will Day at No.13 last year, because they shipped those selections out for mature-age talents such as Wingard, Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O'Meara. Day already looks a serious player and great long-term investment.

Case five

Ben Stratton enjoyed a stellar 2018 campaign, proving valuable in defence for his ability to play on tall and small options. The 31-year-old's teammates subsequently voted him in as Jarryd Roughead's captaincy successor last year. It was an interesting initiation, with Stratton's form slipping, the Hawks missing finals and him being involved in controversial pinching incidents with Orazio Fantasia and Charlie Cameron. Hawthorn chief executive Justin Reeves condemned Stratton's actions, saying he "let himself and the club down". He is captain again this year but his performances have nosedived further. Stratton's defensive rating of minus-33 per cent (meaning his opponents are performing 33 per cent above expectation) is the worst of the AFL's 30 backmen with at least five match-ups lasting 40 or more minutes. Stratton's qualifying match-ups were against Charlie Cameron, Gary Ablett, Shai Bolton, Toby Greene and Bayley Fritsch. He's also offering little rebound. Stratton provides other value that can't be expressed in raw numbers but the captaincy will work as a shield at selection for only so long. Jaeger O'Meara and Tom Mitchell are the club's vice-captains. 

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HAWKS WHO WILL BE 29 OR OLDER AT YEAR'S END*
Luke Breust (30), Keegan Brooksby (30), Shaun Burgoyne (38), Jon Ceglar (29), James Frawley (32), Jack Gunston (29), Ricky Henderson (32), Ben McEvoy (31), Paul Puopolo (33), Tom Scully (29), Liam Shiels (29), Isaac Smith (32), Ben Stratton (31)
* Age as at December 31, 2020