The clash between the Eagles and the Hawks at Domain Stadium was always going to be a game when one side suffered a setback. The Hawks were on top of the competition and needed to win to stay there. The Eagles were hoping to earn a highly valued home final. Something had to give.
By the end of the night, the Eagles had won - but they had lost their most potent weapon. The week before ruckman Nic Naitanui had worked the impossible to snatch an unlikely victory from the Giants, but he won't play again this season. The Hawks lost the game and their grip on top spot, and they lost their rapidly improving ruckman, Jonathon Ceglar. In a cruel twist, both ruckmen sustained serious knee injuries within minutes of each other, and both will miss the finals and perhaps most of 2017 as well. The Hawks appear to have deeper problems. They have lost their ability to hit targets when moving the ball. Their seasoned veterans Sam Mitchell and Luke Hodge, who between them have epitomized Hawthorn's triple premiership game plan, were among the worst of their team's offenders, causing sloppy turnovers. The Hawks have built their game on their ability to kick precisely and control the game tempo by moving the ball across the field, rather than directly attacking the goals. They patiently chip short kicks to nearby players, inching forward, drawing the opposition from one side of the oval to the other until an attacking space is created. It is true that Domain Stadium is narrower than the Melbourne Cricket Ground, so this tactic carried greater risk, as there is less space to move the ball and more chance of a pass being intercepted. The Hawks knew this and had even trained on an oval marked to Domain's dimensions. Yet on Friday night, the tactic became a fatal liability when the Hawks' most reliable kickers sprayed the ball, to be pounced on by hungry Eagle midfielders. It was not the tactics, it was the execution that let the Hawks down.
The Eagles had come to play and dominated the contested possessions. They wanted the ball more desperately and put their bodies on the line to get it. They kicked long and direct into their forward line where their big markers (catchers of the ball) were supreme in the air. Center half-forward Jack Darling took six marks, including three contested, and kicked three goals. Full forward Josh Kennedy grabbed seven marks and kicked five goals. In the Eagles' defensive zone Jeremy McGovern patrolled the air and took nine marks. The Eagles so ruled the sky, that by the end of the game they had taken eighteen contested marks to Hawthorn's two. Closer to earth, things were no better for the Hawks. The Eagles won more clearances, even though Ceglar had broken even with Naitanui in the ruck until both players were injured. Hawthorn playmaker Sam Mitchell was relentlessly tagged out of the game by Mark Hutchings. Matthew Priddis, Andrew Gaff, and Chris Masten were able to set up more plays for their team than Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis could cobble together for the Hawks. Cyril Rioli was largely ineffective for the Hawks and scored just one point. By the end of the third quarter the Eagles had launched nearly double the total of attacking entries into their 50 meter zone than the Hawks. If the Eagles had been more accurate with their goal kicking, the Hawks would have had all hope of victory extinguished before the final quarter began. For most of the game, the Hawks persisted with their possession game. When they had criss-crossed the ball to within eighty meters of the goal, a player would boot it long in the hope that either James Sicily or Ben McEvoy would mark, or Rioli would gather the crumbs from the pack and score. However, the narrow forward space of their home oval allowed the Eagle defenders to repeatedly set themselves to spoil. The Hawks had become too predictable.
In the final quarter Hawthorn adopted a more direct attack, allowing their smaller men, Shaun Burgoyne, Brendan Whitecross and Lewis to score goals. However, the Eagles' ferocious attack on the ball in the midfield prevented Hawthorn from establishing any sustained system to their play. The Hawks managed to add some respectability to their final score and kept the Eagles to just one goal in the last stanza, but that was not helpful in the context of what the Hawks were about to lose. They had lost they grip on top spot and would most likely fall out of the top three, due to their inferior percentage (ratio of points scored for to against for the season). The reigning premiers now appear to be vulnerable. Their major playmakers are not as sharp as they once were. They have lost their only recognized ruckman to serious injury. They will be a better team when they play at the MCG. The question now is whether they will play a final on their preferred ground, or whether they will be asked to travel to Adelaide or Sydney. Perhaps, for the Hawks a fourth consecutive premiership is now beyond them; even if they account for Collingwood at the MCG next week. For the Eagles, there is tragic irony in their victory. Until two weeks ago, they had not defeated a genuine contender. Suddenly they have defeated the Giants and the Hawks within the space of six days only to lose their most influential player. They now face a trip to Adelaide to meet the Crows, who earlier in the year demolished the Eagles at Domain Stadium. The Eagles will play in the finals but their first final will probably be a road trip. Their question is, without Naitanui, will they survive more than one week into the series?
Final scores West Coast Eagles: 5.3 9.4 12.13 13.14 (92) Hawthorn Hawks: 2.1 4.2 7.2 10.7 (67) Best West Coast Eagles: Gaff, Kennedy, Priddis, McGovern, Hutchings Hawthorn Hawks: Burgoyne, Hartung, Lewis, Hodge, Birchall
Article last changed on Tuesday, August 30, 2016 - 12:14 AM EDT