So close to the ultimate prize in 2012, Hawthorn look well-placed to contend again in 2013. The Hawks have added celebrated key backman Brian Lake and sturdy mature-aged utilities Matt Spangher and Jonathan Simpkin to their roster, addressing concerns about their defence and depth. The season-ending knee injury to playmaker Matthew Suckling is a major blow, but the Hawks have the quality of squad to cover for the loss of such an individual. The missing link may already be in their ranks – can inspirational captain Luke Hodge defy another year’s interrupted preparation to play a key role in 2013?
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DEFENCE

On paper, the addition of elite key defender Brian Lake is a godsend, releasing pressure from promising, but still developing, tall Ryan Schoenmakers and/or reliable stopper Ben Stratton, and allowing Josh Gibson to become an influential ‘third-up’ tall and creative rebounder. Suckling’s absence means Shaun Burgoyne may spend more time at half-back and wing than at the stoppages, where he was so influential late last year. Grant Birchall and Brent Guerra are solid gold locks as the other two small to medium options. The need for speed may dictate that Jonathan Simpkin, Taylor Duryea or Xavier Ellis assume ball-carrying duties at times. If all the talls are fit, the vexing choice could end up being between Stratton (189cm) and Schoenmakers (193cm), with the composition of the opposition attack dictating which young backman gets a game.

Smokey: The big surprise here could be that a well-performed young backman like Ben Stratton or Ryan Schoenmakers (who both played every game in 2012) could miss games if everyone stays fit. With so many experienced options struggling for a position, be wary of picking smokey defenders.

MIDFIELD

Stalwarts Brad Sewell, Jordan Lewis and Sam Mitchell pick themselves. Luke Hodge is a champion, but doubts remain over how much of the season his body can endure. Liam Shiels has established himself as a midfielder of consistent quality. Shaun Burgoyne reminded his club and the football world of his elite capabilities around the stoppages late last season, but he may be required elsewhere. Outside that, there could be opportunities for newcomers with skill and flair. Bradley Hill (five games in 2012) has the pace, ball-winning ability and current form to gain a starting role; ex-Cat Jonathan Simpkin has the body and attitude deserving of a prolonged trial at AFL level; and Isaac Smith (pace), Xavier Ellis (footy smarts) and Shane Savage (run and carry) are all worthy of places, giving the Hawks enviable midfield depth.

Smokey: Bradley Hill has been nurtured like a well-bred colt, given a taste of the big time last year before thriving on a full pre-season. His pace, evasive abilities and vision have been matched by renewed consistency of output in pre-season, earning him the right to a starting role in round one.

FORWARDS

The forward line is another division where it is a case of “if it aint broke, don’t fix it”. Lance Franklin and Jarryd Roughead are the natural tall targets; Gunston the classic third ‘lead-up’ foil; Cyril ‘Sizzle’ Rioli the freakish evasive genius; and Luke Breust is the goalsneak (30 goals in 17 games in 2012). The remaining position will be contested by liverwire crumber Paul Puopolo, high-leaping defensive veteran Michael Osborne, versatile ex-Swan and Eagle Matt Spangher, and promising lightweight Shane Savage. With Brendan Whitecross sidelined by a knee injury and Osborne still recovering from his major knee injury of last season, there could easily be room in the 22 for all of Puopolo, Spangher and Savage in round one. Spangher’s versatility and height will keep him popular early, but he is yet to prove himself over the course of a full season. At 195cm, he will be a threat to Gunston as the third tall if the ex-Crow’s form falters.

Smokey: Matt Spangher has remarkable agility for a player of his height. He appears to have been pencilled in for a forward role early on, but the idea that he can also play back could ensure he keeps getting a game.

PREDICTED TEAM

Guerra Lake GibsonBurgoyne Schoenmakers Birchall Lewis Mitchell Hodge*Rioli Franklin BreustPuopolo Roughead GunstonHale Sewell ShielsHill Smith Spangher Simpkin

On the fringes:

Ben Stratton, Shane Savage, Xavier Ellis, Max Bailey, Jed Anderson, Kyle Cheney, Michael Osborne, Taylor Duryea.

Stratton or Schoenmakers should not miss too many games, unless the Hawks have a blessed injury run; Savage and Ellis will be in competition with Hill, Simpkin, Smith and Spangher and should also get plenty of opportunities. Oft-injured Max Bailey has long been Hawthorn’s first ruckman of choice, but may have to fight his way past David Hale, who had such a fine 2012. Tenacious youngster Jed Anderson impressed in pre-season and could follow the Bradley Hill model, being blooded off the subsitute bench in perhaps a half a dozen matches. Osborne is an underrated competitor and would be thrust into the mix for a small forward’s role if and when he is fully fit, expected to be a month or so into the season.

Injured (in doubt for the start of the season):Luke HodgeBrendan Whitecross (knee, expected back late in the season)Alex Woodward (knee, season)Natthew Suckling (knee, season)Michael Osborne

ULTIMATE FOOTY NOTE

Hawthorn’s stellar yet underrated half-back Grant Birchall is a fine defender, and an elite rebounder. His penetrating left foot can help orchestrate intricate manoeuvres deep in defence, or send searing 60-metre bombs deep into attack. Hard-running, a good spoiler in the air, brave and tough, versatile… Birchall is the ideal modern back flanker and at the peak of his powers.

Grant Birchall, 252012 Average: 88.42012 Games: 20SP: 8 C: 7 A: 9

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The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.