From the opening bounce, all three superheroes were in the centre square, as we hoped. Gary Ablett stood alongside his skipper Joel Selwood and Patrick Dangerfield.
Standing near them was a squat Hawthorn midfielder, who – whatever he achieves in the remainder of a soaring career – should remember this sunny Easter Monday, when he took on the Geelong “Trinity” in the midfield and shaded them, as the Hawks pipped the Cats by a point in a game only these clubs could produce.
If Geelong were expected to have an advantage, it was in the middle, where the Trinity resides, even if Mitch Duncan’s late withdrawal reduced that theoretical “on paper” superiority. But Hawthorn had a more consequential advantage in the ruck, where Ben McEvoy was as influential as any player afield in the first half.
The Trinity scored Geelong first three goals and finished harder, as the Cats mowed down a lead that had stretched to 25 points in the last quarter. The Mitchell-McEvoy tandem, though, owned the middle stages of the game, had a better supporting cast and gave Hawthorn that unexpected edge in the centre square. In time-on in the third quarter, Mitchell snapped his second goal. By three-quarter time, he had eight centre clearances. Geelong had just nine.
Mitchell would finish with 40 disposals and 13 clearances, Ablett – the most dynamic player in Geelong’s last quarter charge – had 35, Dangerfield 31, while Selwood (29) was the only Cat who provided a constant counter to Mitchell and McEvoy’s supremacy in the clearances.
Chris Scott had deployed his three guns in the centre square for the first three bounces. But the Cats used different combinations and also deployed Dangerfield – who had booted five in the previous encounter between these clubs – as a target deep in attack for periods.
Dangerfield duly booted two goals, but he was much less imposing in his stints as a forward this time, in part because the Hawks had Ben Stratton, who’s almost the ideal match-up for a player with a frightening combination of speed, recovery and aerial power. Stratton is a rare player who can play on smalls and talls and in Dangerfield you’re dealing with both.
Mitchell has little of Dangerfield or Ablett’s athleticism. He isn’t tall and doesn’t barge through the packs with the reckless abandon of Selwood. Yet, there is one fundamental of the game in which he’s even better than Geelong’s Marvel Comic trio: winning the ball.
In style, Mitchell is the closest contemporary approximation of his father Barry’s close friend Greg “Diesel” Williams, who last week reminded the young Mitchell that while Tom’s 54 disposals against Collingwood had edged Williams’ 53, Diesel had also booted six goals.
For more than a decade, the competition has marvelled at Sydney’s ability to take players from other clubs and extract far better football from them. Josh Kennedy, taken from Hawthorn before he had established himself, is the poster boy for Sydney’s capacity to improve an individual.
Mitchell, also a father-son who would leave dad’s club, shapes as Hawthorn’s payback for losing a champion in Kennedy. Mitchell cost the Hawks pick 14 in the 2016 draft, a cheap price for a player who led the competition in disposals (37) and, if he doesn’t get hurt, will surely challenge for the Brownlow.
Indeed, the Hawks rival the Swans as a club that improves a player’s output. In the first half, the most flashy player afield was quicksilver forward Jarman Impey, formerly of Port Adelaide, who has added zip and further defensive pressuring capacity to an already formidable Hawthorn fleet of small forwards, headed by Cyril Rioli, Luke Breust and Paul Puopolo.
Under Alastair Clarkson, the Hawks have a gift for extracting the best from a player, just as one of those players – Tom Mitchell – has an unsurpassed knack for extracting the ball.