James Worpel is a new face in Hawthorn’s rebuild. Picture: AAP Images
James Worpel is a new face in Hawthorn’s rebuild. Picture: AAP Images

Is this the quickest AFL club rebuild in history?

PERHAPS we should have listened. During the pre-season Jack Gunston revealed Hawthorn's plans to rise into the top four.

"That's the aim," Gunston said. "We've got strong belief in this group. We've got a fit list and a healthy list, so there's no reason why we can't be up there."

Gunston echoed Ryan Burton's high hopes.

"Our aim every year is top four, because that gives you the best opportunity in September," Burton said in February. "We can't wait to get started."

Clearly, Waverley was bursting with optimism. Outside, the experts largely ignored the Hawks.

In the Herald Sun crystal ball, only two of 20 tipsters predicted Hawthorn would return to the finals. James Hird's forecast of seventh was the rosiest.

After Round 7 the Hawks are 5-2 and in the top four. There are, of course, no guarantees the impressive start will roll on, but if you extend the form ladder back to Round 14 last year, when this unexpected charge up the ladder began, the credibility grows.

Over the past 17 home-and-away rounds only Richmond and Sydney have won more games than Hawthorn, which sits equal third with Adelaide and Geelong.

That stretch started with a win against the Crows at Adelaide Oval and includes victories against the Swans and Cats.

The Tigers have won their past 13 matches at the MCG, and the Hawks are the only team to get within three goals.

The bookies have taken notice. Before Round 1 the Hawks were $26 for the premiership - it would be their fourth in six seasons - and now they are $13.

Jarryd Roughead celebrates with fans after a Hawthorn win. Picture: AAP Images
Jarryd Roughead celebrates with fans after a Hawthorn win. Picture: AAP Images

But only 30 games ago the Hawks played a semi-final and were chasing a historic premiership four-peat with a vastly different team.

On the surface it has been a 12-game rebuild.

Coach Alastair Clarkson's team was 4-8 at the bye last year and that was as deep as the bottom-out would sink.

A 12-game rebuild? Fans of Carlton, St Kilda and Melbourne must feel sick with jealousy.

"For some clubs, Grand Final day is towards the end of November and that's because they've got all these high draft picks," Clarkson said this year.

"But that's never been our go."

Whack.

 

Last year's on-field low point came in a rare period of instability, as four of the club's five pillars - president, chief executive, football manager and captain - moved on.

In reality, this is more a clever retool on the run, with half of last week's team different to the last finals team.

It is being directed by the genius of Clarkson and casted by shrewd list boss Graham Wright.

The Hawks have sacrificed 1000 games of experience from their last finals team but still boast a strong list profile

The improving 2018 Hawks might even be better than the 2016 version, which finished in steep decline.

The Champion Data boffins sense there is a whiff of the golden era about the way the new breed is playing.

 

The Hawks are ranked No. 1 for points scored from forward-half turnovers, averaging 40 points per game - more than 40 per cent of their total score.

In their two losses they have scored only 26 points from that source, a similar symptom of 2016.

The Hawks' pressure is underrated. They rank No. 3 for full ground pressure and No. 1 in the forward half, and that is with Cyril Rioli and Paul Puopolo injured.

Since last year's bye they've become a stronger stoppage team and ranked second for clearance differential in the first month this season.

Geelong coach Chris Scott conceded his team was "comprehensively outplayed" for large chunks of Easter Monday and pressured into overusing the ball.

"Their system was really good, they're back to their best in our view," Scott said.

"Their personnel is a little bit different, but they made it hard for us to move the ball. I thought their pressure in their forward half was fantastic."

 

Hawthorn players sing the song after their win against Essendon. Picture: Michael Klein
Hawthorn players sing the song after their win against Essendon. Picture: Michael Klein

 

Clarkson wasn't overly thrilled with that win.

"We're not anywhere near our best at this point in time," he said.

Clarkson yesterday said part of the job was completed late last year as the Hawks gave their kids opportunities and instilled belief.

"(Sitting 5-2) doesn't surprise us," Clarkson said.

"It might surprise others because we were so poor in the early part of last season. But we've got a lot of work to do.

"We know we're nowhere near as good as what we could be."

The four-time premiership coach said it would take another five or six weeks to know whether the Hawks belong back up near the top.

Last year Clarkson repeatedly said it was all about securing the next premiership, which would put him equal with five-time premiership coaches Frank "Checker" Hughes (Richmond and Melbourne) and John Worrall (Carlton, Essendon).

"We're putting a side together that we think can win our next piece of silverware," Clarkson said.

"When that actually is, we're not too sure."

It might be sooner than we thought.

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THE 11 CHANGES THAT HAVE SHAPED THE HAWKS

Just 30 games ago Hawthorn played finals. Here are the 11 changes from that line-up to last week.

OUT WITH THE OLD …

INJURED

Grant Birchall, 30 (knee, 8-10 weeks)

Paul Puopolo, 30 (hamstring, 1 week)

Cyrl Rioli, 28 (knee, 3-4 weeks)

VFL

Ryan Schoenmakers, 27

RETIRED

Jack Fitzpatrick, 26 (concussion)

Josh Gibson, 34

DELISTED

Billy Hartung, 23 (drafted by North Melbourne)

TRADED

Bradley Hill, 24 (Fremantle)

Luke Hodge, 33 (Brisbane Lions)

Jordan Lewis, 32 (Melbourne)

Sam Mitchell, 35 (West Coast, retired)

* Hawthorn's 2016 semi-final contained 3421 games experience (ave 155).

 

Luke Hodge farewells the Hawthorn fans after his final game for the club. Picture: Getty Images
Luke Hodge farewells the Hawthorn fans after his final game for the club. Picture: Getty Images

 

… AND IN WITH THE NEW

RYAN BURTON, 21

Rising Star runner-up yet to recapture his breakout 2017 form. A special talent.

JAMES COUSINS, 20

Late inclusion last week and tagged Zach Merrett in just his sixth game, restricting the All-Australian to 17 disposals and one clearance off no preparation.

BLAKE HARDWICK, 21

Kicked goals for fun as a junior but Clarko has swiftly remodelled 'Dimma' into a back pocket glove. Started forward against North Melbourne but moved back to defence at halftime.

DANIEL HOWE, 23

Upskilled by following the league's best midfielders in second half of last season but has tagged only once this season - Joel Selwood in Round 2.

JARMAN IMPEY, 22

Small forward averaging 16 disposals and applying good pressure since crossing from Port Adelaide.

TOM MITCHELL, 24

His 253 disposals by Round 7 a new AFL record. Could win Hawthorn's first Brownlow since namesake Sam in 2012.

Jarman Impey joined the Hawks in the off-season. Picture: Michael Klein
Jarman Impey joined the Hawks in the off-season. Picture: Michael Klein

 

HARRY MORRISON, 19

Clarko's utility - has spent 32 per cent forward, 38 per cent on a wing, 27 per cent in defence and 3 per cent at centre bounces. Rising Star smoky?

TIM O'BRIEN, 24

Still yet to rip a game open but is rated an above average ground-level player inside 50m.

JAEGER O'MEARA, 24

Looks like a Ferrari which has been locked in the shed for four years. Slowly breaking into top gears.

JARRYD ROUGHEAD, 31

Battling cancer the last time the Hawks played finals. Now he's captain. A source of inspiration.

JAMES WORPEL, 19

Draft slider from last year arrived physically ready and is already apply above average forward-half pressure.

R ICKY HENDERSON, 29

Smart addition from the Crows as a delisted free agent. Wingman who finds the ball and booted five goals in first four games this year. (Late withdrawal last week with gastro).

* Hawthorn's Round 7 team contained 2431 games experience (ave 110).

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