THE RETURN of James Sicily was the highlight for new Hawthorn coach Sam Mitchell as virtually the entire playing squad returned on Monday morning for the first full training session of the pre-season.
The star intercept defender hasn't played since round 12, 2020 when he tore his ACL in the dying minutes of the clash with West Coast at Optus Stadium. When it was clear that the Hawks would not make the finals last year, the club chose not to rush his rehabilitation and instead get him right for 2022.
"He'd be available to play if we were playing now; we're not in a rush to have him do everything, but he's certainly ready to go," Mitchell said on Monday at the club's re-badged Bunjil Bagora headquarters.
"He's a great presence on the track.
"Even at the end of training when everyone's tired and fatigued, he kept missing a certain kick and he's asking why he's doing that. He just has this mentality to get the best out of himself."
Sicily is a proven swingman for the Hawks, but Mitchell made it clear that he regards the 26-year-old as a first-choice defender.
"If you look at the last 12 months when he spent a lot of time with Chris Newman, who's our defensive coach, hopefully that one step back and three steps forward that comes from missing a season is what we're going to get from 'Sis' this year.
"He's played his best footy in defence, has the most confidence in defence. Chris Newman likes him there. His teammates like him there."
Sicily has also been earmarked as a future Hawthorn skipper, but Mitchell said a decision on whether Ben McEvoy will retain that role will not be taken until early next year.
"We'll spend the next few weeks setting some new direction and making some cultural changes around the place and we'll see how that evolves. We'll use Ray McLean and Leading Teams pretty heavily in that space," he said.
The Hawks reported a clean bill of health on Monday and according to Mitchell, every player is available for round one at this stage. Vice-captain Jack Gunston did some ball work for the first time since undergoing additional back surgery at the end of last season, in which he featured in just one game.
"The boys all got around him, which was great. He's certainly running fast and he's getting more involved in what we're doing. But it's day one of pre-season," Mitchell said.
The session began with a series of 1km time trials, and among the standouts was Josh Ward, the seventh overall selection at last month's NAB AFL Draft. Changkuoth Jiath, the runaway time-trial winner last year, did not take part on Monday.
"He looks good," said Mitchell of Ward. "But we haven't played a game, we haven't had a tackling session, so there's a lot of water to go under the bridge.
"But you understand when you watch him why he was an early pick."
Conor Nash was the only notable absentee on Monday. The Hawks have allowed the Irishman the opportunity to have an extended break at home, given COVID had kept him from seeing his family for two years. He is undertaking a training program there and he will be back at the club post-Christmas, bringing new Category B rookie Fionn O'Hara with him.