From The Notebook, Round 21: Hawthorn’s centre clearances, Sydney’s scoring profile, the return match narrative

This week’s Notebook is perhaps the most video heavy of the entire year.

With how many intriguing subplots we saw from game-to-game, it warranted a more in-depth look.

Without further ado, onto this week’s three topics.


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Hawthorn’s centre clearance dominance

An 18-3 centre bounce clearance differential is wild in any game. And when it’s the third-last team has 18 and the ladder leaders have three, it forces a deeper investigation.

I’ll hold off on what this means in Collingwood’s bigger picture given their Finals Dossier is less than a month away and I need to have some fresh material for that. This is going to purely focus on how Saturday happened.

The Hawks have flown under the radar with their midfield work all year, and heading into the game against Collingwood were actually second in the league for centre bounce clearance differential.

Part of that is thanks to the settled midfield they’ve been able to run with all year, using Jai Newcombe, Conor Nash, James Worpel, and Will Day as their four main men with sprinkles for Josh Ward (when fit) and Cam McKenzie (when picked).

That continuity helps their understanding, and most importantly as it relates to this game, their movement. Hawthorn’s centre bounce dominance can be split into three parts. In no particular order:

Exploiting Collingwood’s aggression: As I’ve explained at various points, Collingwood’s high-risk, high-reward approach can be used against them if the opposition is good enough. At centre bounces, that increases the importance of reading a ruckman.

On multiple occasions it was Hawks reading the ruckmen – whether it was Darcy Cameron or Ned Reeves – better than their Pies opponents. Take these two examples as a guide.

The area of focus is Taylor Adams, along with Newcombe (first clip) and Day (second clip). Whether it’s Adams running to the wrong area or Cameron tapping to the wrong space is impossible to know unless we’re in the inner sanctum, but either way the result is the same.

Adams’ role is the aggressive Pie, but that is exploited by Newcombe and Day who read the play and either start the chain for the clearance (Newcombe) or stroll out of there unbothered (Day).

Moving faster/react quicker: ‘Be quicker than the other guy’. Sounds like under 10s analysis but on several occasions it was the key.

In these three examples we see Day (#1), Nash (#2), and Newcombe (#3) win possession simply by being quicker than their direct opponents (Pendlebury #1, Mitchell #2 & #3).

Simple game sometimes.

Holding shape: This is arguably where the continuity factor comes into play most. Almost every time Hawthorn won first possession under pressure they had an outlet directly in line with the ball handler on the defensive side.

The three examples here are almost identical in their structure. When double checking the video after exporting it, for a moment I thought the first two clips were actually the same rather than separate centre bounces.

Add it all together and that’s how you get an 18-3 advantage.


All the list demographics, contracts, and depth chart pages are freshly updated and ready to play around with.

The depth chart pages are available for those on the $5 and $10 tiers. Hopefully everyone finds the tool as useful as I do.

Here is where to find the page.


Sydney’s rare scoring profile

At half time on Saturday night, Sydney had kicked 11 goals. Ten of those started from their defensive half. Seven started from their defensive 50.

It’s a set of numbers you rarely see at any level and was the key to Sydney staying right in the finals mix.

For all Sydney’s inconsistencies this year around contests and stoppages, their ball movement in open play has largely remained dangerous. It’s what had led to their best quarters and halves in 2023 and it was no different against the Giants. Of those 11 first half goals, a grand total of zero came from stoppages.

Perhaps the most impressive part was Sydney’s shape in possession. Often we hear about how a team sets up defensively, but just as important is how they look when moving up the field.

The Swans used the whole width and length of the ground at all times, and as a consequence it stretched the Giants defence into uncomfortable places.

I’ve used this analogy a few times over the journey but think of a defence like a rubber band. The more space a rubber band has to cover, the more it stretches. Eventually a rubber band stretches too far and it snaps.

That was what Sydney drew out of GWS, along with how the Swans used one passage of play to inform their decisions for the next one.

This is the lead up to Sydney’s second and third goals, played back-to-back. In the first clip, it’s straight up the middle, with speed, and numbers available the length of the field for short or long options.

A few minutes later, there are still numbers centrally but it’s also where GWS have committed resources. So the Swans decide to go around the Giants – importantly, still with speed – and earn a shot at goal that way. It’s this type of variety that played such a crucial role.

At other times Sydney’s ability to go end-to-end relied on faith in their teammates and a hyper aggressive mindset.

For instance, this play that ends in an Errol Gulden goal has its origins on the half back flank. At the very start of the clip you can see Gulden flash past right as the ball spills to Chad Warner.

Gulden makes the calculation that it’s time to get well ahead of the GWS defence and provide an option. It’s risky, because if there’s a turnover the Giants have an outnumber, but in this case it works.

With how the Giants’ defence can own the skies, the third key part of Sydney’s first half success was separating the key defenders, not allowing the likes of Sam Taylor and co to come across and intercept at will.

The speed of ball movement allowed Sydney’s forwards two key advantages: one-on-ones with plenty of space, and room to move at ground level.

In the chaos of open play inside a forward 50, ground level players will come out on top of key position players more often than not. They can react quicker to the bounce of a ball, the change of direction.

Although there’s a considerable amount of luck involved in the result of this passage, the process is exactly how Sydney planned it. Quick movement, open space inside 50, back your players to win it.

Obviously this isn’t sustainable week to week, and at a different time there’s a conversation to be had about how Sydney can maintain scoreboard pressure when their ball movement is slowed down.

But in the meantime, as a one-off it kept the Swans in the finals race. For the moment that’s all that matters.


If you’ve missed any of the individual team deep dive posts this season, here are the five to catch up on. And there are news on this year’s Finals Dossiers coming extremely soon.

How Port Adelaide’s midfield works in tandem (after Round 14)
The tweaks to Fremantle’s ball movement (after Round 12)
How sluggish ball movement is holding Carlton back (after Round 8)
St Kilda, an AFL team’s litmus test (after Round 6)
How a contested ball dominance is fuelling Collingwood’s leap forward (after Round 3)


The narrative of a return match

Because I’m a sucker for a clean narrative, I always look forward to the second match of a season between sides.

It provides through lines for improvements, regressions, and everything in between, and we saw all that as Carlton overran St Kilda at Marvel Stadium on Sunday.

Think back to Round 6 and the theme was Carlton owning the first half around contests for zero reward. A +25 contested possession edge led to only +5 inside 50s and a four-point lead.

That was because of two things:

1) Carlton’s inability to translate contested dominance into dangerous territory
2) St Kilda’s ability to defend at a high level under pressure

On Sunday, Carlton once again dominated the last quarter. But this time they got their reward.

A +15 contested possession edge (39-24) led to a +9 clearance advantage (13-4), and this time it led to territory. Carlton had 10 more inside 50s than St Kilda and almost complete control of the scoreboard, kicking 4.6 to 0.3.

Those two things I mentioned earlier? Now they’ve flipped:

1) Carlton can translate contested dominance into dangerous territory
2) St Kilda can’t defend at a high level for as long as they were earlier in the season

The Blues’ first goal of the last quarter summed it up. They’re able to get a clean exit and a deep inside 50.

But even so, there are extra Saints defenders everywhere. Earlier in the season they mop it up. This time they don’t, and the Blues at ground level keep moving and get a shot at goal:

The second goal was more of the same. Three Saints defenders fly and none of them kill the ball. At ground level Carlton have much better structure and support.

As a result they’re able to flick it by hand until Paddy Dow drills the go-ahead shot. It’s both an error St Kilda wouldn’t have made earlier in the season, and the type of ground level movement Carlton didn’t have until recent wins:

Then sometimes there are just moments of individual brilliance. There’s no overarching point to this clip, I just wanted to highlight Blake Acres’ three efforts from the stoppage to long-range goal:

Apart from that though, the match told a story of Carlton improvement and St Kilda regression. Funnily enough, after someone – maybe me – thought the Blues should use the rest of the season to get a head start on 2024, they’ve peeled off seven straight wins. They likely need just one more from their last three to play finals for the first time since 2013.

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