Eagle Matt Priddis burrows under Hawthorn’s Jarryd Roughead after a centre bounce. Photo: Sebastian CostanzoSitting in the front row at Etihad last Friday night, I had to keep wiping my glasses to make sure I wasn’t seeing things.

All through the first quarter, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson threw his team around in all manner of positional variations. There was not one centre bounce that resembled the previous with regard to who and where the majority of his players lined up!

Here was an experiment in tactical flexibility of player personnel, seemingly designed to allow the Hawks to look at which players could not only play in foreign positions, but adapt and perhaps even thrive. It was also a chance to see if the team could still function with many of its cogs in the wrong spots, as opposed to their usual positions, and the chemistry associated within those groups.

Sam Mitchell and his fellow midfielders went zinging all over the place – inside, wing, half-forward, half-back, deep forward. You name the spot and you would find one of Mitchell, Shaun Burgoyne, Brad Sewell, Luke Hodge and Jordan Lewis playing there, but only for that particular centre-square bounce; they would then change roles in general play.

We’ve seen Jarryd Roughead in the middle as a second tall/ruck-rover often enough, but against West Coast we also saw Lance Franklin and even David Hale in at the centre bounce to accompany the ruckman, usually Max Bailey or Hale.

Forward Jack Gunston spent a large chunk of time on the wing, not looking overly comfortable, before he seemed to click back into gear when he returned to his regular spot in the forward line later in the match.

Defender Brent Guerra became one of nine Hawthorn players to effect a centre square clearance. Another defender and the Hawks best rebounder, Grant Birchall, spent time on the wing and at half-forward during the random first-term experiment.

Mostly the moves were done in practicality by the players, who flipped themselves all about at each restart. Bear in mind there were 12 goals scored in the opening term, which allowed plenty of chances to mix things up!

This experiment was quickly discarded once West Coast regrouped and led at the break after a free-flowing goal-fest that would have had Ross Lyon (and Paul Roos) shaking his head in disbelief.

But what Clarkson learnt would have been noted and packed away for use in the latter months of the season, or even finals.

This was always a game that Hawthorn was going to win, despite the Eagles having their best team for a while.

The Hawks lost the hitouts, first possession and clearances by a considerable margin – not surprising when the opposition has two dominant big men in Dean Cox and Nic Naitanui, with the ever-present Matt Priddis at their feet.

But Clarkson’s well-drilled team was still able to win the important areas of contested ball (+1) and tackles (+3) that allowed the Hawks to score 11.7 from turnovers and comfortably win the match.

When West Coast won possession and went wide to space, the Hawthorn players didn’t directly give chase, instead heading dutifully towards their defensive-50 to defend that part of the ground and force the turnovers.

Why did the flexibility experiment only last for a quarter?

Quite possibly it was only ever pre-ordained to last that long, time enough for Clarkson and his assistant coaches to make enough observations on certain players in certain positions that can be reconsidered as part of any ”what if” discussions for later in the season.

Alternatively, they decided to revert to the normalcy of their regular area/positional line-ups – and give the magnetic board man back his job!

As a rule, each area or line of a team functions a lot smoother when the usual chemistry between players who play beside and around each other exists. This allows them to work together more instinctively.

Clarkson chose flexibility over chemistry for that opening quarter as an investment in his team’s future need, as opposed to the now of winning the match against the Eagles. As it turned out, he was able to deliver on both needs for his team.

■ The opposition analyst works in that role for an AFL club.

The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.

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