Hawks' close encounters: Pluck or luck?

Hawks' close encounters: Pluck or luck?

Isaac Smith reacts after missing the match-winner against Geelong. Image: Julian Smith

Isaac Smith reacts after missing the match-winner against Geelong. Image: Julian Smith

Isaac Smith’s miss after the siren in Hawthorn’s edge-of-your-seat two-point qualifying-final loss to Geelong meant many things.

It meant another week off for the Cats, who – despite not playing their best football – moved within two victories of claiming their fourth premiership in a decade.

It meant the Hawks would be forced to take the hard road – again – if they were to hoist the cup and ensure every other fan base comes to hate the hashtag #Fourthorn more than they’ve hated being consistently beating by a team wearing brown and gold.

But it also meant we avoided being bombarded with what has become a simplistic – and therefore popular – media narrative in recent years.

“They win the close ones,” the commentators would have said. 

“Good teams find a way.”

We would have heard about the resolve of the veterans who stood tall, and been reminded of the importance of finals experience – well, at least until Greater Western Sydney triumphed over minor premiers and cross-town rivals Sydney the following day.

And the narrative wouldn’t have been without merit: the Hawks entered the finals 6-0 this season in games decided by nine points or fewer.

Many pundits seem to accept the notion that this previously unblemished record was not a matter of luck, but of skill. Of preparation. Of execution. Of leadership.

I’m going to argue the opposite.

First, it’s important to acknowledge the Hawks are well-drilled and highly skilled, and they know what has to be done when the game is on the line. It's easy to understand why people think this is reason enough for that nifty 6-0 record.

However, there’s more evidence of Smith’s miss pointing to a quirk of a small sample size and a regression to the norm than there is of Hawthorn being some invincible fourth-quarter force.

Perhaps that 6-0 home-and-away record in close games gives the players a mental edge – the confidence they will come out on top – and I’m not here to refute that. I believe in the power of belief. But let’s take a look at those six wins.

In one, they led from the 22-minute mark of the third term. In four others, there were multiple lead changes in the final quarter but the final score of each game was the one that put the Hawks ahead. The other was a controversial win over a team that didn't play finals. 

So, skill execution under pressure? Partly. A touch of luck with score sequencing? Definitely.

Still, six games isn’t much to go on. Let’s expand it to examine the back-to-back-to-back champs’ epic run of dominance since the start of 2013.

Unsurprisingly, Hawthorn have done a whole lot of winning in the past four seasons – good for a 78-21 record and a .788 winning percentage. Take a minute to appreciate the greatness of a team that has won nearly four out of every five games over a four-year stint – including finals – if you need to.

There’s no denying this Hawks dynasty is worthy of being mentioned in the same breath as the greatest in AFL history. But how have they fared in close games – let’s say, those decided by 12 points of fewer – in that time?

The short answer is they are 16-7, good for a .696 winning clip – not too shabby, although it shows their success rate in “close” games is almost 10 per cent lower than their overall record.

More interesting is how these results unfolded. 

Of those 23 “close” games, they won five of eight (.625) when the lead didn’t change in the last quarter. With just one lead change, they went 4-2 (.667).

But in games with multiple lead changes in the final term, suggesting a more see-sawing battle, they managed to win seven of nine – a .778 winning percentage.

No disrespect to the Alastair Clarkson’s apparent ability to triumph in thrillers, but there’s an argument to be made that since the Hawks’ success rate improves as the number of fourth-quarter lead changes rises, they have simply been lucky enough to be ahead on the scoreboard when the siren sounds.

The 16-7 record in “close” games seems even more curious when you consider the Hawks have been outscored by 31 points from the 20-minute mark of the final term over the course of those 23 clashes – and have a negative-36 point differential from the 20-minute mark in last quarters that feature multiple lead changes.

So, if a Hawthorn win-or-go-home final looks like going down to the wire, would you back them to continue coming up clutch, or bank on their luck running out?

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