This Sunday’s match between Hawthorn and Collingwood at the MCG has all the makings of a coaching master class.

Mick Malthouse has long been regarded one of the best if not the best coach in the AFL even before Collingwood’s premiership triumph last season. Not only does he have premiership success on the resume, he also has a good record of improving the fortunes of every team he has coached. He got the 1985 Bulldogs to within a couple of kicks of the all conquering Hawthorn unit of the eighties and got far less talented Collingwood group into two successive Grand Finals.

Alastair Clarkson for his part, appears to be underrated despite his premiership success from three years ago. While it is true that Hawthorn have underachieved since that upset of the seemingly unbeatable Cats, Clarkson has not sat idly by and just allowed things to happen. Clarkson was the man who discovered a method of ‘halting the Shark’ so it couldn’t breathe and Geelong duly choked on its own inaccuracy on Grand Final day. Since then during tougher times Clarkson has shown his abilities by changing game plans mid season and more recently, coming up with a methodology that can not only challenge the press but can also cover for the inordinate number of taller players who are going down with injury for the Hawks.

Watching Hawthorn in recent matches has been compelling viewing for those that appreciate the tactics of the game. As a team Hawthorn have the best in the league kicking efficiency rating of 70.4%. The Hawks have adapted a methodology that suits their high skill level by foot as they skilfully and deliberately seek out short targets by foot. They are a very difficult side to pin down in the opposition’s forward 50 zone which is a Collingwood specialty.

It remains to be seen though if this tactic can beat a genuine press against a top side. Can the short passing game unravel the stifling Collingwood press? Will those sexy kicking efficiency stats be maintained while the man with the ball is under extreme pressure? Will the undersized Hawk backline benefit or be disadvantaged by Collingwood’s abundance of tall timber? Are the high kicking efficiency stats being falsely boosted by large amounts of uncontested ball? Is it all about space and work rate?

A coaching battle of chess looms because Hawthorn appears to have a top four spot within its reach, even if it hasn’t been sewn up just yet. There is a fair chance that these two clubs will play a match with much higher stakes come September.

Alastair Clarkson has declared his hand and must throw down against the Premiers this round. He has to see whether his game plan will hold up. He’ll be hoping for Mick Malthouse to unleash the press so that Clarkson can then make the necessary adjustments to fine tune his tactics for September.

However Clarkson might not be getting the complete picture as Mick Malthouse is far too smart to provide Hawthorn with a full dress rehearsal for the finals. I believe that to some extent Malthouse will allow Hawthorn’s game plan to run more or less unchecked.

There is a chance that Clarkson and Hawthorn will walk away with a misguided belief that their game plan has ‘cracked the Collingwood code’. The Hawks could even walk away with this dangerous perception and nothing else because Collingwood’s talls might still be able to deliver the four points for the Magpies.

There is also the chance that Clarkson might get his Hawks to kick a bit longer this week, although this is less likely because the Hawks need this win a bit more than Collingwood. It all adds up to a fascinating coaching battle that won’t be a free shot at the press for Hawthorn. In fact, what appears to be a tonic in early July could well prove to be Hawthorn’s poison come the business end of the season.

Written by: Rik E Boy

TRIVIA: Mick Malthouse has coached 639 games at VFL/AFL level and sits second in the all-time record. Who is the only man to coach more games than Malthouse? Comment below!