Everywhere you look at Hawthorn’s Waverley Park there is noticeable change from this time last year.
Jeff Kennett is back as president; Justin Reeves is the new chief executive; Graham Wright is new general manager of football operations; long-time West Coast captain and fullback Darren Glass is the new backline coach; and Scott Burns has been added to senior coach Alastair Clarkson’s team of assistants. As well, former Sydney and St Kilda defender Sean Dempster is now on the club’s conditioning team.
But the faces Hawthorn want to see more of are their experienced stars who hardly played last season due to a variety of injuries. Between them, Grant Birchall, James Frawley, Ben Stratton, Cyril Rioli and Jaeger O’Meara managed just 34 games out of a possible 110.
That’s a lot of games missed, particularly at a club that had just shed experienced campaigners Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis, and lost Bradley Hill to Fremantle.
In the middle of last July, when there was speculation Clarkson could replace Nathan Buckley at Collingwood, the Hawks coach was strong: “We are in a little bit of a transition phase. We have had a lot of change at our club, in particular, in the last 12 to 18 months — president, CEO, football manager, captain, have all changed.
“It’s pretty important that the coach doesn’t change as well. As long as the club wants me to continue, and they do in terms of my contract, then I will be at Hawthorn.”
Loyalty. You’ve got to love it. That’s what you want to hear from your star coach going through a rough patch after resisting offers from rival clubs over the years.
Towards the end of last season, Hawthorn supporters were not just impressed by the development of young players such as Blake Hardwick, James Sicily, Ryan Burton and Daniel Howe, but by Clarkson’s own positive outlook.
“What is encouraging for us, and the message to the wider footy community, is that we are putting together a side that we think can win our next piece of silverware,” he said. “When that actually is, we are not too sure. With some of these senior guys out, it gives an opportunity for some of these younger players to get some exposure to senior level and get some exposure to some important tasks.
“With greater responsibility comes confidence. We are right in the mindset of preparing for the future rather than necessarily the next six or eight weeks.”
Hawthorn’s dominance is probably over for the time being, but don’t expect them to slide out of contention altogether during their transition period.
Players come and go. Some, like Buddy Franklin, go earlier than others. Former leader Luke Hodge no longer calls the family club home. He’s enjoying a sea change at Brisbane. In retirement, Josh Gibson has kept his celebrity status but his challenge is in a jungle rather than on a footy oval.
It’s been more than a year since Mitchell moved to join West Coast and Lewis is playing out his days at Melbourne. A strong band of multiple premiership players has been broken up, so Clarkson now must rework his soldiers, as he calls them, to engineer another successful era.
For the first time in eight years, Hawthorn failed to play finals last season, but it was not a failed year.
There were excuses, including the management of the exits of the older stars.
To regroup to win 10 games, four against top-eight clubs, and record a draw against Greater Western Sydney last season was more than a pass mark after it appeared the wheels had fallen off with losses in the first four rounds.
While the Hawks have a number of younger players ready to go to a higher level, they are still dependent on their senior players. They still have an old playing list and the question is how far will this current group take the club in the next few years?
The average player age of premiership clubs over the past 25 years is about 26.
Richmond’s premiership team last year had an average age of 25. Hawthorn’s best 22 is getting closer to 28.
The other query is what players will emerge to take the place of the likes of Hodge and Gibson, and 35-year-old Shaun Burgoyne and Jarryd Roughead, 31, when their careers end.
Over the past seven national drafts, the only first-round selections Hawthorn have had came in 2015, when they picked up emerging talent Burton at No 19 and Kieran Lovell with the 22nd overall selection.
Because of the high price the Hawks paid for recruiting the ready-made talents of Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara, they started the 2016 draft with pick No 74 and last year’s with the 45th overall selection.
But what is in Hawthorn’s favour is that Clarkson is half a genius as one of the code’s most switched-on thinkers. He’s already reinvented the way the game is played, several times.
Today at Ballarat against Western Bulldogs, when the Hawks start their 2018 campaign in the first of their JLT practice matches, will we get a guide to another Clarkson innovation?
The mastermind of four premierships will be long remembered for the resurgence of the Hawks, who won the 2008 flag in his fourth year after he inherited a team that had won four games in the year he arrived, 2004.
But his greatest legacy may well be the system of values, culture and structure he brought back to a club on its knees. This was never more evident than when he became ill in the middle of 2014 with Guillain-Barre syndrome and was unable to take his place in the coaching box for five weeks.
The Hawks did not miss a beat despite injuries, and won all games under the control of caretaker coach Brendon Bolton.
Clarkson achieved a double milestone last year when he coached the club in his 300th match, to a 52-point thrashing of Fremantle in Perth. Not only was it his 197th victory overall, but he eclipsed club legend John Kennedy’s record of games coached.
Three-time premiership coach Kennedy had led the Hawks in 299 games up to 1976. Kennedy was Clarkson’s first coach when he was a North Melbourne player.
Luke Breust, who joined the Hawks three years after Clarkson’s first of four Jock McHale coaching premiership medals, last year said his coach deserved all the accolades for the club’s success.
“His ability to take this group from where it was to where it is now has been inspirational,” Breust said.
Even Kennett has changed his tune on Clarkson. After reiterating that all people in leadership roles should “move on” after a certain period, last month he described Clarkson as an exception to his rule because of his ability to “refresh and reinvent himself”.
In an about-face from previous comments about Clarkson’s long-term tenure, Kennett said he wanted the coach to re-sign beyond his current deal, which expires at the end of next year.