Granted, the Cats didn’t have Patrick Dangerfield or Jeremy Cameron and should be lighting a candle to Cam Guthrie and Mitch Duncan (80 disposals between them).
That the Hawks managed to nearly upend the Cats was a tribute to their persistence. Hawthorn fans should be proud, as Alastair Clarkson was, in the knowledge that despite holes in defence, attack and the midfield, their team has considerable pluck.
The Hawks don’t have the foot skills of even Melbourne, much less those four premiership teams under Clarkson. It’s worth considering how those superbly skilled sides piloted by Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell would have sliced teams had they been assisted by the man-the-mark rule. It was hard enough for the opposition to get ball off them then.
The rule certainly wasn’t of any use to the Hawks of 2021, who don’t have Hodge and Mitchell kicking to Jarryd Roughead, Lance Franklin and Cyril Rioli and didn’t have Jack Gunston assisting the sole remaining gun forward from the three-peat, Luke Breust.
Instead, they have two neophyte key forwards, Jacob Koschitzke and Mitchell Lewis, who rarely threatened Geelong.
What they do have, though, is a pair of A-graders in O’Meara and Tom Mitchell, the latter shrugging off a tag (yes, you can actually tag the best players!) from Mark O’Connor to assist in the comeback.
They had Chad Wingard lifting his intensity and suggesting that, having failed to fulfil expectations in 2019 and 2020 at Hawthorn, he might be taking on the responsibility of being a senior player in a team that is being reassembled before our eyes.
But the player who most personified their oft-haphazard and imprecise, mistake-prone yet defiant and eventually bold approach was Changkuoth Jiath, the 21-year-old Ethiopian-born defender.
Jiath, usually known as “CJ”, had been notable early in the match for his dashes from half-back. He took off with the ball and ran – at Stawell Gift pace on occasion – without anyone knowing, team mates included, where he would go with the footy.
Sometimes he overlooked team mates who were open. Sometimes his handball missed the mark.
But Jiath was not deterred by his mis-steps. Not once did he cease from taking risks, nor from running with the intention of creating for his team.
Late in the suddenly-frantic final minutes, as his team rose, Jiath was stiff not to be given a holding ball call that might have been the difference, when he ran down a Cat from behind.
They lost, but the game confirmed that the Hawks had found a player.
The Cats, as the more seasoned team with Tom Hawkins to kick to, found a way. The Hawks had only the will.
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Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.