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Match Preview: Hawthorn v North Melbourne

The Sunday twilight fixture plays host to two teams who many predicted will feature heavily in September action this season.

The form line

Prior to the start of season 2013, North Melbourne were a team many had predicted to get off to a flying start and show improvement on a 2012 season where they were bundled out in the first week of the finals.

In fact, most had pencilled in a Round 1 win over Collingwood given the undermanned nature of the Pies line up for that game. Of course, the Roos lost that game before being defeated by Geelong in a close on and last season’s premiers, Sydney.

In the opening four rounds, though, North Melbourne has been a side that many believe have underperformed, with their current win/loss tally sitting at 1-3. Of course, their first win came against Brisbane last weekend.

The Hawks on the other hand have overcome a disappointing opening round loss to Geelong to stamp their authority on the competition, almost turning their nose up at the difficult draw set out by the AFL.

Hawthorn heads into Round 5 in a commanding position, sitting fourth on the ladder with three wins and one loss. Of course, three of those wins have come against last season’s finalists West Coast, Collingwood and Fremantle.

It hasn’t been who Hawthorn have beaten that has been impressive though, it has been the way they’ve outlasted, outhunted and outperformed three of the competition’s best sides.

In the opening month of the 2013 season, the Hawks have lived up to their expectation of being one of the league’s most talented and dangerous sides who are likely to feature deep into September.

Hawthorn’s potency up forward

Unquestionably, Hawthorn has one of the most potent forward lines in the competition, with their balance between bigs and smalls arguably the best in the league.

Despite facing four of the league’s premier sides, Hawthorn is the second best attacking team in the competition (behind only Essendon) for points scored. That is impressive given the calibre of team it has faced and the style of game played against each of those four teams.

Whether it’s Lance Franklin or Jarryd Roughead standing up, or Luke Breust or Cyril Rioli doing the damage on the ground, the Hawks are never short of a target inside 50.

That potency was on display last weekend, when its forward line proved too dangerous for the Fremantle defence as each of the players rotating through the forward 50 was able to contribute and hit the score board.

Franklin (four), Roughead (four), Rioli (three), Breust (two) combined for 13 of Hawthorn’s 18 goals on Saturday at Aurora Stadium.

Have the Roos got the defence to stop them?

The Kangaroos could surprisingly match up well against the Hawthorn forward line, but it could be a player like Jarryd Roughead who provides headaches.

Defender Scott Thompson has both the height and agility to go with Franklin, giving away just 3cm in the contest. One of the hallmarks of Thompson’s game is his ability to close down the space of his opponent, even when it appears they’ve got a 5m break.

It is his closing speed that is one of his biggest strengths coupled with his ability to get under the skin of opposition forwards.

Another option to stand the Hawks star is Nathan Grima who also has the ability to go with Franklin both in the air and on the ground.

Roughead though, could pose a match-up headache for Roos Coach Brad Scott, given his biggest strength is his one-on-one marking ability.

Have Grima or Thompson got the strength to counter him? We’ve already seen Collingwood’s Travis Cloke prove too big and strong for Thompson when he kicked five goals in Round 1.

Clearance kings

One strength both sides have in common is their ability to win the ball at stoppages, ranked fourth (North Melbourne) and fifth (Hawthorn) respectively.  

That means, whoever gets on top in the clinches will give their forwards the best chance to score and thus, give themselves the best opportunity to win the game.

Andrew Swallow is the best performed player from either team so far this season, ranked second in the competition of clearance average over the four games, with 8.5 per game.

The Kangaroos captain is one of his team’s most polished midfielders and whenever the footy is in his hands, only good news lies ahead for the Roos.

Interestingly, Swallow’s teammate Ben Cunnington is ranked equal 16th in the league, averaging 5.7 per game.

Cunnington’s performance in the middle so far this season is on par with gun Hawks midfielder, Sam Mitchell who also averages 5.7 per game.

Grant Birchall

For years he has been one of the most underrated players in the compeititon, but now, he’s getting the credit he’s due after an outstanding opening to the 2013 season.

Birchall has been third in Hawthorn’s best and fairest for two years running and, could well be leading his team’s award after an outstanding opening month of football.

He sets up the Hawks with his offensive drive, but it’s not only hyis play as a rebounding half back that impresses.

On the defensive side, the rangy Hawks defender is just as impressive, with his ability to read the play and mark opposition kicks inside their forward 50. Against Fremantle, Birchall had 37 possessions, took 12 marks, six rebound 50s, three inside 50s, three tackles, two clearances and kicked a goal.

It was one of the great all-round matches.

Brad Scott is likely to send a player to mind Birchall on Sunday, with Leigh Adams the likely man to be thrown the task.

Adams can player across half forward and has the ability to push up the ground and make himself a target up on the wing. If he can successfully drag Birchall with him and limit his ability to patrol Hawthorn’s half backline, it will go a long way to the Roos winning the game.

Key players

Hawthorn –

Josh Gibson: With Ryan Schoenmakers out of the side, Gibson will again be thrown the challenge of manning one of the opposition’s biggest and best forwards, and North Melbourne have three to choose from. He could find his way onto Lachie Hansen or even Majak Daw if he plays.

Paul Puopolo: Forward pressure is still all the rage in the AFL, and Puopolo is one of the best at buzzing around the Hawthorn forward line, making a nuisance of himself for opposition teams. When Puopolo is chasing and tackling, the Hawks are generally outhunting their opponents and kicking big scores.

Max Bailey: The Hawks ruckman has been a surprise packet this year, earning his place in Hawthorn’s best 22 when many speculated he might find himself on the outer with David Hale and Roughead the preferred ruck combination. He has an important role up against one of the league’s best ruckmen in Todd Golstein on Sunday. His ability to get his hands on the ball to give first use at the stoppages will be critical.

North Melbourne –

Linday Thomas: Is he the best small forward in game at the moment? Many believe he is as he currently is the joint leader in the Coleman Medal with 16 goals in four matches. He’s slick, creative, smart and has so far this season been in excellent form in front of goals. If he can fire alongside Drew Petrie, fans are in for an exciting day at the footy.

Daniel Wells: He is the link man and provides great run, and Wells will need to be at his line breaking best if the Roos are to win. They love using the corridor to deliver quickly to their forwards, and Wells is the player with elite skills who can give the ball to the forwards on a platter.

Todd Goldstein: We highlighted the importance of the stoppages earlier, given it is a strength of both sides so the role of the ruckmen for both teams becomes critical. Goldstein is also known for his ability to almost be an extra midfielder, with his ability to get involved in the play and push deep forward.

The views in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the AFL or its clubs