Six days that shook the Hawks

Players often say they ''don't read what's in the papers,'' that they take no notice of the sound and fury of talkback and the other media guff that carries on outside their fortified club bunker.

In the case of Jarryd Roughead, we can actually believe that he takes no notice of media noise and talkback fulminations, because no footballer who closely followed the Jack Viney circus would have subsequently ''chosen'' to bump Ben McGlynn in the old-school way that Roughie did.

It is always dangerous to predict the workings of the match review panel - we certainly do not recommend that anyone wagers on AFL Match-lotto - but, based on recent precedents and the AFL's new bump interpretation, Roughead is shorter odds to be suspended than Gillon McLachlan to lose whatever popularity he has within six months. Even Jason Dunstall, hardly a Hawthorn-hater like Tom Harley, was mystified by Roughead's bump when viewing it from the Triple M box.

It has been a bumpy six days for the Hawks, who made mince of the Saints, and were then ambushed by the Swans. Leigh Matthews, another straight-speaking ex-Hawthorn great, wondered if the soft game against St Kilda had been poor preparation to face the Swans, who put Kurt Tippett in the same forward line as Lance Franklin, won some hard balls in the middle and suddenly seemed like the team they were supposed to be this year.

Hawthorn's 145-point training run against St Kilda could well prove to be the most significant game of their season, if you consider Sam Mitchell and/or Brian Lake to be indispensable parts of the machine. Both were terribly missed against Sydney, which smashed the Hawks in the trenches in which Mitchell thrives early in the game and exposed an undersized defence via Tippett, the $10-million-dollar-man Lance Franklin and Sam Reid.

Hawthorn is the best team in the competition if it has the key chess pieces on the board. Alas for Alastair Clarkson, it will not have Mitchell for several more weeks, and while Lake is predicted back within a few weeks, calf strains are ''the old man's injury'' and he will be handled like a porcelain doll until Lake's lower leg is marked safe.

Lake and Mitchell are 32, which means longer periods for recovery and a greater risk of breakdown than if that pair were 26. Luke Hodge might have played on Friday night - his withdrawal being another game-changer - but the club played the percentages and pulled him out, to avoid the possibility of a longer absence.

Cyril Rioli is not old, but he has a hamstrung history and we can also expect Hawthorn to exercise extreme caution with their most electrifying player, while Roughead's likely absence means the Hawthorn side that tackles Port Adelaide after the bye will be far weaker than the one that took the field against the Saints.

Indeed, Hawthorn's personnel concerns mean that the Hawks should enter a match as clear underdogs for the first time in more than two years (early betting has them even); the TAB has had them favourites in every game since round 17, 2012, when they belted Collingwood - they were favoured even in the multiple losses to Geelong.

Friday night was a reminder of the fragility of even the best teams, and why back-to-back flags were beyond Geelong in 2008, 2010 and 2012, Essendon in 2000 and Collingwood in 2011. Teams that encounter major fitness/injury/suspension at the wrong time don't win the premiership. For Hawthorn, the major risk this year was always the number of structurally important older players (seven who will be 30 or older by June).

The Hawks, like Geelong, have a delicate balance between old and young. They cannot win the flag if they become too old and slow, particularly in the midfield. Yet they also need sufficient hardness and experience. Lately, they have successfully - brilliantly - made the transition from a team of stoppage monsters in 2012 to one that runs and spreads with younger legs.

But on Friday, when Hodge pulled out, they reached a tipping point. The midfield didn't have enough strength or grunt to match Dan Hannebery and Josh Kennedy in particular. The eventual margin flattered them - 65 inside 50s to 48 is usually a thrashing - and was a tribute both to Hawthorn's efficiency and their old Buddy's wasteful ways.

Today, as a consequence of Hawthorn's six-day setbacks, the premiership competition - which is really between no more than six sides - has a vastly different vibe. Port is firming, Sydney might be coming, the Hawks having major issues. Fremantle, which had the experience, personnel and method to win it all, has likewise lost players that it needed in games it needed to win. Collingwood and the Cats are quietly accumulating wins.

Next weekend, Brad Sewell might play for the Box Hill Hawks in the VFL in what would be his first game since pre-season. The length of time Sewell has taken to get back from a bad hamstring is a reminder of the task facing Mitchell.

Sewell was quietly available for trade last October. The Hawks could not guarantee him a game, it seemed, if they wished to promote younger mids such as Will Langford, Mitch Hallahan (who stood up against the Swans) and possibly Billy Hartung. Sewell was in a not dissimilar position to Paul Chapman - still good enough, but potentially holding back kids who needed senior experience.

Chapman left, Sewell stayed. Today, as the Hawks wonder when Mitchell will return intact and manage Hodge and other vets carefully, Sewell might be more important - at least in the short-term - than he might have been two weeks ago.

Every defending premier that has a serious shot at repeating will encounter turbulence. Hawthorn's ill-fortune has happened earlier than we might have expected. There is time enough to recover, for Sam, Cyril and Lake to return and star.

But as the bye beckons, six days of misfortune mean they're suddenly just one of a crowded top end of the ladder.

The story Six days that shook the Hawks first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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