The return of Hawthorn’s three-time AFL premiership contributor Liam Shiels is crucial to confront looming challengers the Western Bulldogs on Sunday at Etihad Stadium.
As well as bolstering critical midfield battles, his hardness and fitness are often used to try to shut down key opposition playmakers.
“It gives us more quality and flexibility through the middle of the ground. He has been really unheralded in our side,” coach Alastair Clarkson said.
“… in terms of importance to our side … I think we’re going to need him – the Bulldogs have been strong in the midfield over the course of their first two victories.
“They’ve got (Tom) Liberatore back in their side this year and (Jordan) Roughhead going into the ruck has been really good for them, too.
“They’ve been really impressive in that area. If we can break even or get control in that area of the ground, then we give us a great chance. But certainly, if it’s the other way, the result will be pretty similar to what happened to Fremantle and St Kilda last week.
“It’s very difficult the way football is played nowadays where it’s so disciplined around game-plan and systems and roles to play that you can get manipulated with tags. So it doesn’t surprise me that clubs don’t tag as often as they once did.
“But at different stages, we all employ a run-with player and, if Sam (Mitchell) gets on top at different stages, I’m sure Bevo (Bulldogs coach Luke Beveridge) will do something about it. And, similarly with some of the Western Bulldogs players, if they’re getting control of the ball and the game, then we’ll want to do something to stop individual players that are having big days,” Clarkson said.
“That battle in the middle of the ground between their mids and our mids is going to be pivotal.
“If they get control … and get a lot of centre-bounce clearances and stoppage clearances, they’re going to have the game on their terms and it’s our challenge to try to correct that during the course of the game.
“They’re on top of the ladder for a very good reason. It probably follows on from a trend last year – they’ve played some good footy for 12 months. So, there’s no surprises there.”
Clarkson downplayed any advantage for the unbeaten Bulldogs at Etihad Stadium compared to the Hawks’ superiority at the MCG.
“The ovals are pretty similar in size – the MCG is maybe a little wider. The record of the Bulldogs is outstanding at that ground and they’re very comfortable playing at that ground, but we’ve won 13 of 15 at Etihad too, so it’s not like we can’t play the oval,” he said.