Slow burners built to stand up in heat of AFL grand final

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Sam Mitchell of the Hawks looks to pass the ball during the AFL Qualifying Final match between the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn Hawks at Domain Stadium on September 11, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 11: Sam Mitchell of the Hawks looks to pass the ball during the AFL Qualifying Final match between the West Coast Eagles and Hawthorn Hawks at Domain Stadium on September 11, 2015 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images) Paul Kane

THEY will both go down as Hawk immortals, but Luke Hodge and Sam Mitchell arrived at Hawthorn via very different paths.

Then coach Peter Schwab planted the first seeds of a side that has grown into one of the greats - one shooting for a third-straight premiership - when he and his off-field team recruited Hodge and Mitchell in 2001.

Himself a three-time Hawthorn premiership player (1983, 1986, 1988), Schwab had just led the club to the preliminary final and were restocking at the national draft after taking the bold step of sending Luke McPharlin and Trent Croad across to Fremantle in exchange for the Dockers' No.1, No.20 and No.36 picks.

"Luke came in as the No.1 pick, so there was always a belief that he would be an outstanding player," Schwab recalled to APN.

"Sammy had to fight a little bit harder to get his opportunity, initially being overlooked in the (2000) draft and coming through the Box Hill system."

While Hodge was plucked straight from the footballers factory at TAC Cup club the Geelong Falcons as soon as he was eligible, Mitchell had been passed over by every club the previous year, before joining the Hawks' VFL affiliate, Box Hill, under Donald McDonald.

"Donald was a great supporter," Schwab said. "When it came to the draft, we got through to pick 36 and Sammy was still there and I just thought 'take him'."

After Hodge, the Hawks had selected Rick Ladson (at No.16) and Daniel Elstone (No.20), with their last pick at No.48.

"I couldn't see that he'd slip further if we kept holding off on him because he wasn't going to be there," said Schwab, now the Brisbane Lions' list manager.

"I think Carlton may have had the pick after and they were certainly going to go for him."

Both debuted in 2002, Hodge with great fanfare, Mitchell ever so quietly, gathering just four touches. But, he would go on and claim the VFL's best-and-fairest award, polling 31 votes from just 11 games.

Fast forward 13 years, and both Hodge (31, 270 games) and Mitchell (33 next month, 284 games) remain Hawthorn's most influential players as coach Alastair Clarkson's on-field generals.

Their performance today against West Coast could determine whether they, and Cyril Rioli, Grant Birchall, Jordan Lewis, Jarryd Roughead and Shaun Burgoyne experience a fourth flag, Burgoyne winning his first with Port Adelaide in 2004.

"They've both turned out to be captains of premiership sides (Mitchell in 2008, Hodge in 2013-14) and outstanding players ... certainly in the top echelon of Hawthorn players," Schwab said.

Mitchell has often been compared with the great Greg Williams, who won Brownlow Medals with Sydney (1986) and Carlton (1994).

"I played against Greg and he was an outstanding player and Sam doesn't pale by any measure against him," Schwab said.   "He's won four club best and fairests. He might win another best and fairest (later this month) and that's a phenomenal record."

Hodge is the ultimate big-game player - one of only three to have won two Norm Smith Medals as best-afield in a grand final.

But, in what will be his 22nd final, Mitchell is favourite to claim the award this time to complete an already stunning finals series. He gathered a game-high 35 possessions in the qualifying loss to the Eagles, and then 33 and 35 in wins over Adelaide and Fremantle, and is now ranked a clear No.1 for average disposals this season (31).

Schwab, who played 171 games and coached for 104, understandably still has a soft spot for the current Hawks. But he acknowledges they will have a tough ask today to register a 'threepeat'.

"I think it will be harder - they have traveled and had tough games. They're a little bit older, and the weather ... if it's really hot it might be a factor," he said. "And the team they're playing, they've got a very powerful front half and good onballers."  

 

Matt Priddis (centre) of the West Coast Eagles during a training session at Domain Stadium in Perth, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. The West Coast Eagles play the Hawthorn Hawks in the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright) NO ARCHIVING
Matt Priddis (centre) of the West Coast Eagles during a training session at Domain Stadium in Perth, Monday, Sept. 28, 2015. The West Coast Eagles play the Hawthorn Hawks in the AFL Grand Final on Saturday. (AAP Image/Richard Wainwright) NO ARCHIVING RICHARD WAINWRIGHT

 

While they won't be direct opponents, Mitchell's battle at the stoppages with the man most likened to him, Matt Priddis, will have a huge bearing on today's result.

Both have an amazing ability to firstly win the hard ball, then stand up in tackles, or avoid them entirely with a deft sidestep, and ultimately dish out to teammates in better positions by hand of foot.

In the cauldron of a pressure-filled premiership-decider, they become super important.

Their respective career averages of 26.2 and 26.1 disposals rank Priddis and Mitchell behind only Dane Swan (26.9) and Greg Williams (26.8) on the all-time list.

But, it was an even slower burn into stardom for West Coast's only 30-year-old, Priddis.

Like Mitchell he was overlooked in drafts (three). Like Mitchell he was considered too slow. And when he was unable to cement a spot in the Eagles' line-up after they finally took a punt and rookie-listed him in their last premiership year of 2006, like Mitchell he won a state league best and fairest, in the WAFL by a then record margin.

Former North Melbourne star Peter German coached Priddis at Subiaco, earmarking him for greater things after spotting him in the Colts competition when a 17-year-old. As well as individual honours, which also included being named the best player in a state representative game, Priddis would also play a pivotal role in Subiaco's premierships in 2004 and 2006 under German.

"He spent a lot of time with (the WAFL club's fitness guru) Matt Barber, doing a lot of weight work... things that were going to make him more powerful and quicker," German recalled.

"Let's face it, he's still probably one of the slowest players in the AFL. But, in saying that, he's probably the fittest. What he lacks in speed he makes up for in endurance."

After years of flying under the radar, Priddis finally got due recognition last year when claiming the Brownlow Medal, before finishing runner-up behind Nat Fyfe this season, when as well as being fourth for average disposals (29.8), is first for tackles and seventh for goal assists.

"He's always worked really hard, which has put him in a good space down the track," German said.

"He got knockbacks over those couple of years, but it was always a learning experience for him."

Now coach of Coburg in the VFL, German certainly hasn't forgotten the loyal and likable Priddis.

"Of all the players I've coached over 21 years, Matt's in the top three, no doubt about it," he said.

Like Mitchell, Priddis is cool, calm and collected, and will be the go-to guy "when the whips are cracking" today, German said. "I've got no doubt the big stage won't scare him at all."

They say slow and steady wins the race. But will it be Mitchell or Priddis first past the post?


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