Hawthorn Hawks / The kids are alright in defence

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The kids are alright in defence

Written by Brandon Marlow (@SauceMarlow) on 12 August 2017

Hawthorn has been a much-improved side in the second-half of the year, largely on the back of a rejuvenated defence.

Before the mid-year bye, you'd be forgiven for thinking the sky was falling in on the Hawks, particularly after they went winless through their first four games.

However, Alistair Clarkson has rallied his defensive troops and turned things around completely.

In the first few months of the season, it was a consensus call that Hawthorn's back six were their weakest link in the team and most pundits were ready to slot the Hawks into 17th place for the rest of the year.

This was all happening with a full-strength backline featuring Grant Birchall, Josh Gibson, Ben Stratton, James Frawley and Luke Hodge.

Their Round 8 game against the Brisbane Lions was a bloodbath, losing Ben Stratton and James Frawley, as well as Cyril Rioli up the other end of the ground.

The loss of Frawley and Stratton added to the pain of Grant Birchall succumbing to his second injury of the season a week earlier against Melbourne.

Finally, Josh Gibson picked up an injury in Round 12 against the Gold Coast Suns, leaving Luke Hodge as the sole premiership defender in the side.

Since Hawthorn's bye in Round 13 Birchall, Gibson, Stratton, and Frawley have played zero combined games.

Yet, without any of this premiership talent, Alistair Clarkson has rejuvenated his defence and turned it into arguably Hawthorn's greatest asset.

From Round 1 to 12 Hawthorn conceded an average of 94.8 points per game.

From Round 14-20 they've conceded 81.1 points per game.

This radical turn around has seen the Hawks have a solid record of four wins, one draw and two losses.

It's even more impressive when you consider that the draw came against Greater Western Sydney and the two losses came against Richmond and Geelong, all of which are currently in the top four.

In the games they haven't won in the second-half of the season they're giving up an average of 82.6 points.

This is astronomically better than the 114.4 points per game they'd concede per loss in the first 12 weeks.

If you showed these numbers without any context most people would assume the second-half stats are the Hawks playing with all of their premiership stars, while the first-half stats are from having to play inexperienced kids.

But in reality, the youth has given Hawthorn's back six a jolt of life and has proven there is a bright future ahead.

It started with Ryan Burton, who has shown composure beyond his years this season and deservedly sits as the current favourite for 2017's Rising Star award.

At 191cm Burton is able to play on both talls and smalls, while his speed and agility allow him to break lines in the defensive 50 and dance through forward pressure.

He's also proven to be a brilliant intercept mark.

He's picked up 106 intercept possessions this season, the most at the Hawks, and his average of 5.9 per game is equal best with fellow youngster Kaiden Brand.

Speaking of Brand, he's proven that he's ready to lock down the best key forward on opposing teams.

Brand has the physical tools to be a dominant key defender and he showed he could match it with one of the game's most imposing figures in Round 19 as he lined up on Lance Franklin.

On a Friday night against the most in form team in the competition and playing one of the best forward's of the modern era, Brand stood victorious.

Franklin had just 13 disposals with a horrendous 38% disposal efficiency, 7 turnovers and kicked only a single goal, which came from a 50m penalty.

On the other hand, Brand picked up 18 disposals while going at 78% efficiency, grabbed 6 marks and 5 intercepts.

If Brand can do that to arguably the best forward in the competition he has an extremely bright future ahead.

On a similar note, Blake Hardwick has quietly announced himself as a ready made replacement for Luke Hodge.

That might seem like a big call, but Hardwick's performances throughout 2017 have earned him that title.

Hardwick is an elite kick just like Hodge, going at 85% this season, which makes him the best user of the ball at Hawthorn and the 8th best in the entire AFL.

More impressive is that he can shut down gun small forwards.

In successive weeks he kept both Eddie Betts and Jaimie Elliot to one goal each.

Even in Hawthorn's premiership years they never really possessed a defender who could shut down a small forward, but it looks like they've finally found one in Hardwick.

Finally, we come to James Sicily and Jack Gunston, who Clarkson has swung into defence for the second-half of the year.

Since switching to defence in Round 14, Sicily has averaged 24.3 disposals and 9.2 intercepts per game.

Those are superstar numbers for a half-back.

Gunston made his move up the ground a week later against Collingwood and has averaged 23 disposals and 4.3 intercepts.

Sicily and Gunston were struggling to get anywhere near the ball at the start of the year, but since moving to the opposite end of the ground they've become almost entirely new players.

The one thing that all five of Hawthorn's new look defensive members have in common is that they're are great users of the ball.

Early in the year, the Hawks were trying to play their classic possession based gameplan, but they just couldn't execute it.

Players were missing too many targets bringing the ball out of defence and it was leaving the team wide open to be scored against on the rebound. 

This couldn't be less of the case since the bye, with retention of the ball again becoming one of the Hawks' strengths.

Burton (81%), Hardwick (85%), Brand (79%), Sicily (81%) and Gunston (78%) are all great kicks of the football, and when you add in the retiring Luke Hodge (79%) you have a defensive six who can hurt opposition team's offensively.

Hawthorn's starting back six are all in the top 13 for disposal efficiency at the club.

Clarkson has revitalised the defensive half of the ground in every way and it only took him seven weeks.