Hawthorn and Collingwood have been the biggest improvers in 2018. They have climbed from 12th and 13th last season to be fighting it out for a top-four spot.
Hawthorn looked set for at least another season outside the eight this year. But the strategy around their list management has proven outstanding.
In 2016, as two champions Sam Mitchell and Jordan Lewis left after great careers, the Hawks managed to snare Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara to replace them.
It has been a smooth transition to date, with Mitchell being brilliant in his first two seasons and O’Meara building post-injuries to display the supreme talent he had as a youngster.
Even Luke Hodge heading to Brisbane after the 2017 season doesn’t appear to have left a leadership vacuum at the club. Mind you, the presence of Jarryd Roughead should not be underestimated.
But the Hawks, like all great clubs, seem to be able to pass on the cultural imperatives for success from generation to generation. No doubt the constant of coach Alastair Clarkson remains and his influence and ability is the most critical aspect.
But no one person can do it on their own. Clarkson has always had highly talented support staff. Even when it has lost key staff, Hawthorn has made sure there is someone who can replace them from within. This helps build loyalty and continuity. Both significant factors when coupled with talent.
Andrew Russell, Hawthorn’s high-performance manager, came with Clarkson from Port Adelaide. He has ensured the Hawks have always been well prepared physically.
This flows on to their injuries. The Hawks have a strong medical staff who oversee an injury list that is the envy of most of their competitors, matched only by Richmond. There is no doubt a fit and healthy list is a major reason teams have good seasons.
Then there is the coaching staff. Damian Carroll has done a great job as head of coaching and development. He knows the value of the Box Hill Hawks alignment and the best way to prepare players in the Hawthorn way.
The ability of Hawthorn to continually bring players into the club and quickly develop them into the system is unparalleled in the competition.
Brett Ratten was an inspired choice as an assistant coach. His record and reputation as senior coach of Carlton has only been elevated in the aftermath of that club’s inability to perform since he departed seven years ago.
And the architect of their recruiting and list strategy is Graham Wright, another long-time Hawthorn person in a key role. His work is the key to this current team and the club’s ability to find players through all means of player movement.
Two trades have been incredibly important. In 2009 everyone knew Shaun Burgoyne was an outstanding player, but to predict the level he has played at and continues to play at nine years later has been above and beyond what the club would have thought.
The other great trade was to secure Jack Gunston from Adelaide for a relatively cheap price.
Then there’s Luke Breust, certain to be selected as an All-Australian. This is 10 years after the Hawks took him as a rookie selection in 2008 at pick 47 and then took another two years to elevate him to the primary list in 2010.
The current Hawks team is littered with players taken late in the draft. Which makes you think the Hawks know players’ capabilities better than most others, they’ve had a lot of picks in that part of the national draft or they just can develop players quicker and better than anyone else.
Peter Schwab played 171 VFL/AFL matches for Hawthorn from 1980 to 1991, winning three premierships. He later served as Hawthorn coach, AFL National Umpiring director, AFL Match Review Panel chairman and Brisbane Lions list manager