Sam Mitchell wants his Hawthorn side to be more attacking without losing the defensive DNA of the team, the new coach says as he embarks on putting his fingerprints on the team that has known only one coach for nearly two decades.
Mitchell was reluctant to commit to a specific style his teams would play, mindful that his new coaching panel has yet to meet and the list profile can dictate how the team best plays, but he said he preferred the idea of scoring more heavily and not over-possessing the ball.
In an expansive interview with The Age now that he has taken over the team Mitchell said he expected James Sicily to be fit for round one.
New Hawthorn senior coach Sam Mitchell.Credit:Simon Schluter
He liked the fact captain Ben McEvoy was multi-positional and was not committed to him being the permanent ruck. He also deferred a decision on whether McEvoy would retain the captaincy until the coaching panel and all players met.
Mitchell said his reputation for being uncompromising as a player and captain was a relic of his playing days and he was a different person after retirement.
The new coach was to have served a year under his former mentor Alastair Clarkson before assuming the senior position, but that was expedited after Hawthorn and the four-time premiership coach parted ways, agreeing it was unworkable for him to remain for the year.
The Box Hill Hawks under Mitchell this year played a more offensive and attacking game than Hawthorn, but Mitchell was reluctant to say he would play that more offensive style with the Hawks next year.
“I think Hawthorn over the last five years has had quite a defensive DNA and I certainly don’t want to lose some of the excellent defensive concepts Hawthorn have, but by the same token being able to score has been a trouble for us, so certainly I would like to be a team that can trouble oppositions with scoring,” Mitchell said.
“The first thing I want to do is get all of the coaches on board. I obviously have my views on where the game is going and how the game is best played, where the best teams are at … and when we are ready to be one of those best sides what I think the game might look like at that point.
Sam Mitchell.Credit:Simon Schluter
“But I am also not naive enough to think I am the only person with ideas within our organisation.
“Certainly I think the game is quite defensive at the moment and I think our fans would love a more attacking brand of play across the competition, not necessarily Hawthorn, but just the way the game is played. I think we all miss the 100-, 110-type of score lines and I think the AFL is trying to get back to close to that and most would say the coaches are trying to work the opposite.
“If you look at the Melbourne side they were first or second for scoring and first or second for limiting scores and that is your utopia as a coach, so saying we are going to be more attacking has an inclination you might be less defensive. I would prefer that not to be the case.”
Hawthorn have hired Adrian Hickmott, whom Mitchell worked with at West Coast, former premiership teammate David Hale, who has been an assistant at Fremantle, Andy Collins, a former Hawthorn premiership champion with years of success at VFL and other levels, and Robert Harvey, who was an assistant coach at Collingwood for 10 years and was caretaker coach after Nathan Buckley left.
Hawthorn in their premiership era were a famously strong possession side that had elite kicking skills, good, hard-running wingers and flankers and an elite forward line.
Teams have since successfully played a game prioritising territory over possession. Others have successfully moved the ball with fast handballs and run instead of accurate kicking.
So how does he want Hawthorn to play?
“I am certainly not a possession for possession’s sake coach,” he said.
“I will put the rider on it – I will get all of our coaches together and discuss what works for us. Some of it will be my thinking.
“But I think we had some games at the start of this year when we were trying to figure out what our best style was and we had some games with 400 possessions and less than 40 inside 50s and certainly that isn’t a sustainable model.
“You have to look at your team as well and the strengths and weaknesses of your squad and what you have got at your disposal. For instance, if you have a lot of strong midfielders and a weaker forward line you might play an extra midfielder up around the ball. If you have got potent, dangerous forwards you are more likely to leave them. If you have good intercepting defenders, you might pay more a lay-off type.
“Players and game styles and all of these moving parts. Territory versus possession, no one plays all one style or all another, whether it’s because of age, youth. It’s all balancing acts.”
Even Mitchell’s close friends among his former teammates admit he was a hard and uncompromising person as a player.
It’s a description he says he left behind when he retired.
“I retired. It’s 10 years ago, all that talk. I wouldn’t say I am uncompromising, that is not something that has been associated over the last few years.
“Certainly as a player, I had that element about me. The way I think of it now is every player with me you will know where you stand and you will know what is expected and if you don’t live up to that, and if I don’t live up to that, well I am certainly going to be first to say ‘hey, I didn’t coach as well as I could have on this day or this situation.’
Sam Mitchell in his playing days at Hawthorn.Credit:Getty Images
“Some people love being screamed at on the training track because that drives them. Some people like an arm around and a quiet word, some players enjoy coming around to your house having a cup of coffee and spending time with your family. Some players enjoy being torn shreds off in a one-on-one review and some players, that would be the worst thing for them.
“I think I will be transparent and everyone will know where they stand … I am certainly a coach who I think is very supportive of the players, but that doesn’t stop me holding them to account and making the standards of what we expect are adhered to, to give us team success.”
What do Hawthorn need?
Heading into the period of the year that shapes the season’s fortunes as much as anything Mitchell defers to the list managers but accepts he is comfortable with the back line and while he would favour bringing in the best talent he recognises the midfield and forward line are bigger priorities.
“We have started the last 12 months -CJ [Changkuoth Jiath] has had significant up-lift in performance, Denver [Grainger-Barras] has come in, Will Day has come in and started to have an influence, Lachie Bramble, second half of his year, [Jack] Scrimshaw, second part of his year, were quite strong. Blake Hardwick has been solid.
“Then in the front end you have the hopeful emergence of Mitch Lewis and certainly this year it was Jacob Koschitzke who came from nowhere and had a strong season, so there is some upside in what we have been able to do with our youth over the last 12 months. We are not there yet.″
Where to for Big Boy McEvoy?
The Hawks ruckman was used for a year behind the ball, then back in the ruck and has been a target up forward. Mitchell says that is a virtue and not a concern to commit him to one place.
“I am not sure (where he will play). He adds value wherever we are. The great thing about Big Boy is his versatility. He is a bit of a Mr Fixit. If you need help in the ruck he can go there, if you need help retaining ball in the forward line he can go there and he can play in the back end.
“Having the captain of your club spending time in all three areas of the ground is really beneficial and something every coach would like to have.”
But that is not yet a commitment that McEvoy will be captain next year.
“It’s too early to be talking about those things,” he said.
Ben McEvoy.Credit:Getty Images
Ready or not
Despite his rise to the Hawks senior job suddenly coming 12 months sooner, Mitchell said he felt ready for the job.
“I was contemplating going for the Collingwood position, which obviously would have been straight away and then the Hawthorn suggestion of 12 months’ time came up so you have to be quite agile in these times.”
But even a short time into the job he accepts that no end of apprenticeship prepares you for what comes next.
He likens it to reading baby books during pregnancy then getting at home with a new-born baby. Nothing quite prepares you. He and his wife have three kids including twins. He has a grasp on understanding you never know what you don’t know.
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