Why Hardwick’s Clarkson-esque trade gamble at Richmond could blow up

As a player, Sam Mitchell broke into AFL ranks at Hawthorn in 2002 while the power club of the 1980s and 1990s was on the decline. He had to wait six seasons to play a final.

As a coach, it is deja vu.

Second-year Hawthorn coach and club great Sam Mitchell.Credit:AFL Photos

Mitchell next week starts his second season as Hawthorn senior coach – and the pathway to restoring the Hawks as a finals contender and premiership threat does not start in his office. It is with his list-management team.

In those meetings, Mitchell has the mop out to clean away the unsightly mess left by the coach who rebuilt Hawthorn from 2005, Alastair Clarkson.

The scene might be repeated at Punt Road soon, when Richmond premiership coach Damien Hardwick moves on.

Before the 2021 AFL national draft, preceding Mitchell’s first season as senior coach, Hawthorn had just two top-25 picks on their list. They were recruited from the previous five draft pools.

After the 2015 grand final triumph – the club’s fourth premiership in an eight-year span – Clarkson became desperate to keep the premiership window open. He traded away crucial first-round draft picks in favour of mature recruits.

Winning becomes addictive. For ambitious coaches such as Clarkson, the thought of developing young players and the inconsistency this brings in team performance is tough to stomach. He and the Hawks’ leaders largely ignored injecting youth into the squad.

In 2016, Hawthorn traded two first and one second-round picks for Tom Mitchell and Jaeger O’Meara. Ty Vickery joined as a free agent. The club’s first call in the national draft was at No.74 (Harry Morrison).

Even Sam Mitchell, the experienced and proven player, had to go. Hawthorn stunningly gave away four-time premiership heroes Jordan Lewis and Mitchell to Melbourne and West Coast respectively in the same trade period, perhaps to create salary cap room for O’Meara and Tom Mitchell.

In 2017, Jarman Impey was traded in, leaving the club with No. 45 (James Worpel) as its first pick.

In 2018, Jack Scrimshaw, Tom Scully and Chad Wingard arrived from rival clubs, restricting Hawthorn’s first call at the draft to No.52 (Jacob Koschitzke).

And in 2020, Sam Frost and Jonathon Patton were traded in. AFL regulations protected the Hawks’ first-round pick that delivered future captain Will Day at No.13.

After a heavy loss in 2020, Clarkson admitted to losing faith in the draft. “You can’t just go to the draft,” he said. “There’s not a side in the competition that can do that now. It’s not a pure draft anymore, it’s compromised everywhere, so every side in the competition has injected young players through the draft as well as complementing their group with players from other clubs that are either discarded or unwanted.”

This strategy has failed Hawthorn. It has not won a final in the past eight years and Clarkson has moved to North Melbourne, leaving Sam Mitchell to clean up the mess.

Mitchell made tough calls at the end of last season. Jack Gunston, Ben McEvoy, Liam Shiels, Tom Mitchell and O’Meara are gone, and Hawthorn start the season with the league’s youngest and least experienced team.

So, where do the similarities lie between Clarkson’s method at Hawthorn and Hardwick’s at Richmond?

After coming off three premierships in four years, Richmond have not won a final in the past two seasons. The Tigers’ strategy – to go all-in at the trade table and to back in its ageing list – could backfire dramatically and set the club back years.

Unlike Hawthorn, however, Richmond have invested in recent drafts, namely 2021 when they selected four players inside the first 30 picks. Midfielder Tyler Sonsie (No.30) appears the pick of the bunch.

New Richmond recruits Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper.Credit:AFL Photos

The Tigers also have an experienced list boss in Blair Hartley who has a proven track record in building successful squads.

But it was the moves to secure GWS duo Tim Taranto and Jacob Hopper that are Clarkson-esque.

Hopper and Taranto were not free agents, forcing Richmond to cough up three first- and one second-round pick to satisfy the Giants’ demands.

Hopper and Taranto signed absurd seven-year contracts that do not expire until they are 33 and 32.

Where do they fit in a Richmond midfield that is ageing, repeatedly crippled by injury and lacking pace?

Taranto is a better player than Hopper, but both have flaws. Champion Data have graded Taranto’s kick as average, and this is emphasised by his record in front of goal (47 per cent accuracy). Despite the industry belief that he is a goal-kicking midfielder, he has just 48 goals from his 114 games. In his third season, in 2019, he won the Giants’ best-and-fairest award, but has never been in the All-Australian squad of 40 and has had recent issues with injuries.

Hopper also comes off a year ruined by injury, where he played just seven games. Like Taranto, he has just 42 goals in his 114 games, and in seven seasons has just one All-Australian squad nomination. Hopper does not have the burst-away speed from stoppages that the game’s most dangerous midfielders display.

Both players will win huge possession numbers, but how much damage will those disposals inflict on the opposition?

Richmond are suddenly treading a similar path to Hawthorn if these big trade plays fail.

Richmond’s first pick in last year’s draft was No.55 (Steely Green) and they do not have a first-round pick this season.

Besides second-year players Sonsie and Josh Gibcus, there is not any other player under the age of 22 to be that excited about.

Richmond’s success in 2023 will again rely on a core group of players in the 28-to-33 age bracket. Chronic injuries have repeatedly struck down this crew.

It is an injury crisis the club cannot ignore. The fragility of Dion Prestia, Dustin Martin, Dylan Grimes, Nick Vlastuin, Jayden Short, Noah Balta, Tom Lynch, Jack Graham, Ivan Soldo, Trent Cotchin and Gibcus is troubling.

Like Clarkson at Hawthorn, Hardwick is trying to squeeze all the juice out of the souring lemon, even allowing former captain Cotchin to play on when it was apparent his time in the game is up.

It will not be his worry if it all blows up; Hardwick is entering his 14th year as Richmond coach and, with three premierships to his name, he will probably be coaching at another club if this list-management strategy fails.

Like Mitchell at Hawthorn, it will be the new coach’s job to mop up the mess at Punt Road.

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