LAUNCESTON, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 23: Tom Mitchell of the Hawks celebrates the win in his 100th match with Isaac Smith (L) and Jaeger O'Meara and the injured Shaun Burgoyne of the Hawks (R) during the round 14 AFL match between the Hawthorn Hawks and the Gold Coast Suns at University of Tasmania Stadium on June 23, 2018 in Launceston, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

Hawthorn’s 36-point loss to the Bulldogs on the weekend consigned the Hawks to their seventh loss in a row. Remarkably, after starting promisingly at 3-1, they’ve dropped 11 of their next 12. And now, with premiership mainstays Paul Puopolo and captain Ben Stratton announcing their retirements, it seems very much the end of a Hawthorn era of unparalleled success. So how, exactly, does the best club of the last ten years turn it around this off-season and propel themselves into the new decade?

Make Jaeger O’Meara captain

First things first, the Hawks must select a new captain. Ben Stratton’s short-lived stint as skipper went far from expected, especially this year – unfortunately, the three-time premiership defender fell off a cliff in 2020. With Jaeger O’Meara named as co-vice captain alongside Tom Mitchell at the start of the season, they are the two frontrunners to take over the captaincy. Mitchell has the on-field resume, but O’Meara has the leadership credentials that make him the man to beat.

When O’Meara re-signed on a big four year contract last year, football manager Graham Wright signalled how highly the Hawks rate the 26-year-old internally.

“He’s become such an important player for us, not only through his on-field performance but also from a leadership sense as well,” Wright said.

“He sets a great example for his teammates with his professionalism and work ethic.

“We’re excited to watch his continued development over the coming years.”

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 31: Jaeger O’Meara of the Hawks clears the ball out of the centre during the round two AFL match between the Hawthorn hawks and the Western Bulldogs at Melbourne Cricket Ground on March 31, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Go to the draft 

In the past decade, the Hawks have used a first round pick just four times: Isaac Smith (Pick 19, 2010), Ryan Burton (Pick 19, 2015, since departed to Port Adelaide), Kieran Lovell (Pick 22, 2015) and Will Day (Pick 13, 2020).

Day has been a revelation this season, one of the Hawks’ only shining lights since he made his debut in July, and he is very much now a secure member of Clarko’s best 22. His meterotic rise should offer a rebuttal to the Hawks’ much publicised aversion to the draft in recent years. True, this draft is compromised like few have ever been before, but the Hawks are going to have to fall in love with the draft again if they want to rise back up the ladder. As long as the Hawks don’t expect a 2004-like haul, the likes of which will, surely, not be repeated for years yet (Lance Franklin, Jarryd Roughead and Jordan Lewis, all secured with three picks in the top seven), they can still expect returns from going back to the draft. They haven’t used a top 10 pick since 2006 – it’s time to break that long drought, and perhaps even add another in a trade or two.

AFL Rd 11 - Fremantle v Hawthorn
PERTH, AUSTRALIA – AUGUST 10: Will Day of the Hawks in action during the round 11 AFL match between the Fremantle Dockers and the Hawthorn Hawks at Optus Stadium on August 10, 2020 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Will Russell/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Move on Frawley, but keep Isaac

James Frawley is another member of Hawthorn’s backline who has struggled this year, and the 31-year-old now looks on his last legs. It’s probably time for the Hawks to say goodbye to the All-Australian defender and blood some fresh new talent in defence, although with James Sicily set to miss most if not all of 2021, perhaps the Hawks might second-guess letting Frawley go just yet.

But as for Isaac Smith, another player in the over-30 brigade, he still has plenty to offer as a veteran presence on and off the field. He was linked with a move away last season, but at 31, it’s difficult to imagine the Hawks will get the kind of value from a trade that will make the loss of such an influential voice worth it.

With the evergreen Shaun Burgoyne signing on for one last season in 2021, the other tough call waiting is whether to re-sign Ricky Henderson. He had a super year in 2019, finishing second in the best and fairest, but had his 2020 campaign curtailed by injury. Everything probably hinges on how Henderson’s recovery is tracking so far.

Trade Gunston or Breust – but only for the right offer 

Many believe the Hawks should bite the bullet on Jack Gunston and Luke Breust – not least former premiership teammate Jordan Lewis, who thinks their potential trades would prove mutually beneficial for all parties. But moving on these three-time premiership champions should not be a decision made lightly. If the return is right, the Hawks should definitely consider it, but there’s no rush. Sit back and wait – every premiership contender would love to add either Gunston or Breust, and they might end up paying overs the longer things get drawn out. If the Hawks see a first round pick, they should take it.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MAY 04: Jack Gunston of the Hawks celebrates a goal during the 2019 AFL round 07 match between the Melbourne Demons and the Hawthorn Hawks at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on May 04, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos)

To re-sign, or not to re-sign

Aside from the veterans, the Hawks have some other tough calls to make this off-season. Fringe players like Daniel Howe, Conor Glass and Conor Nash are out of contract at season’s end. Both Glass and Nash are only 22 and probably deserve one more contract, but Howe, at 25, might have reached a crossroads with the Hawks. Harry Morrison is another young out of contract Hawk who the club should re-sign, even if he hasn’t quite developed as some might have hoped this year.

For these and other fringe Hawks, 2021 should be used as a testing ground to assess whether they have a long-term place at the club. It will also be used to judge whether the likes of Ben McEvoy, Tim O’Brien and Tom Scully deserve another contract. On this year’s form, neither O’Brien nor Scully will probably secure one. For McEvoy, it will depend on how his body is holding up after years of great service with the Hawks.

In Clarko we trust 

“We won’t be sacking Clarko. Clarko won’t be sacking us,” Hawks president Jeff Kennett told 3AW earlier this year.

“When the time comes he and we will come to an agreed position and I suspect it will be at the end of this contract.”

Clarkson’s contract with the Hawks expires at the end of the 2022 season. Is that truly the end date to the Hawks and Clarko’s (by then) 18-year love affair?

Make no mistake – Clarko remains the league’s premier coach. Million dollar offers will be thrown his way the minute he leaves the Hawks. Some coaches earn their reputation as a finals specialist – great with a great team, but not suited to a rebuild. The only rebuild Clarko has presided over was, you could say, pretty successful – joining the club in the middle of one in 2004, the Hawks played finals again in 2007 and famously won the flag the next year. If a week’s a long time in footy, the mid-2000s were an eternity ago, but, on the only evidence we’ve got, Clarkson remains the man for the job.

That’s if he wants it. We don’t know what’s been going on internally, and both coach and club may have been drifting towards a divorce for a good while. But if he hasn’t lost the group, and if he’s just as motivated and excited about this looming rebuild as he was when he first entered the club’s doors in 2004, the Hawks shouldn’t be thinking about moving Clarko on anytime soon.

After years of being spoilt with success, difficult times lie ahead for Hawks fans – there’s no doubt about that. But history is on their side. Since their first breakthrough in 1961, the Hawks have added a flag every decade since. There’s been some lean periods – and one dangerously close merger – but, if the Hawks play their cards right this off-season, there’s no reason to think another premiership is out of reach in the decade to come.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA – APRIL 09: Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson talks to players during the round three AFL match between the Gold Coast Suns and the Hawthorn Hawks at Metricon Stadium on April 9, 2017 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)