BACK at Hawthorn for the first time since he retired as a three-time premiership player at the end of 2015, new forwards coach David Hale is embracing the challenge of working with a talented, but still young group of key forwards.

But what he is most anticipating is the return of former teammate Jack Gunston, who played only one game in 2021 because of a back injury.

"He's such an experienced forward," he told

"He knows where to lead against the really good players which is just so important. It's what you struggle with in the first few years coming out of the under-18s, so if we can get him back and playing with Luke Breust, the more voices they hear and tips and tricks when playing against the good backlines, is only going to help us."

Hawthorn's Jack Gunston in action against St Kilda in round seven, 2021. Picture: AFL Photos

Gunston returned to skills work on Monday and barring any mishaps, will be back in the side for the season-opener against North Melbourne on March 20.

Hawthorn's key forward stocks aren't bare, but they remain a work in progress. Hale, who spent six years at Fremantle coaching under Ross Lyon and Justin Longmuir nevertheless likes what he sees, albeit after less than three weeks of pre-season training.

Mitch Lewis and Jacob Koschitzke are the incumbents, Emerson Jeka had his first taste of AFL football last year, while mid-season draftee Jackson Callow is also in the mix.

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Lewis gets some hang time and gets Hawks' score ticking

Mitch Lewis takes a great triple-effort mark then scores Hawthorn's first goal for the game

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"They're all pretty good runners," Hale noted.

"Callow has been training really well and is a very good mark, Koschitzke covers the ground really well and Mitch has added some size to his frame.

"Lewis came back at about 106kgs, but he can cover the ground which is important. I think he has trimmed down now but those big, dominant Charlie Dixon-types don't grow on trees. He seemed to have a good year last year and hopefully he can have a really good pre-season, get his body feeling good and attack next season.

"But they're all pretty young when you look at their demographic and they won't come into their peak until they're 25 or 26 so they have some time to come through. But if we can fast-track those guys and get them in a position where they have confidence in each other, they'll be able to compete and grow.

"We want to get them to 40, 50 and 60 games. The more games we get into them, the better they'll be."

Having Gunston coming back, and Luke Breust is a really good player as well, so how the balance of talls and smalls will work is something we’ll work out over the next months

- David Hale

He added that the structure the Hawks finished with last season, during which they beat several teams including Sydney, Greater Western Sydney, Brisbane and the Western Bulldogs, is not necessarily how they will enter 2022 forward of the ball.

"Obviously with me just coming in we'll have a look and as we get into the practice matches, we'll see how it works," Hale said.

"Having Gunston coming back, and Luke Breust is a really good player as well, so how the balance of talls and smalls will work is something we'll work out over the next months."

Hale enjoyed his time immensely at Fremantle, but the return to Victoria was based around family and football. His eldest child is about to start high school, so it was the right time to make the move.

But he and new Hawthorn senior coach Sam Mitchell were close when they played and their families mixed together in Perth during the latter's two seasons as a player and coach with West Coast.

David Hale and Sam Mitchell celebrate during a victory over Geelong in the 2014 finals. Picture: AFL Photos

He was a keen onlooker and occasional confidant as Mitchell set out on the path to become an AFL senior coach, and not much that he has seen so far this summer has surprised him.

"It is similar to when he was a player when he had a real impact on getting the young players to the level where we could compete and then get the older guys to drag them along. We need to bridge the gap between the older guys and the younger guys and get them leading in them their own rights," he said.

"They've known him a long time and he's very good at driving standards as he did as a player and that will come through over the next couple of months."