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Money talksCredit: The Age
Hawthorn are set to turn their attention to scoring one of the big-name key forwards up for grabs next year after missing out on Ben McKay and Esava Ratugolea.
Perennial Victorian target Ben King and 2020 No.1 draft pick Jamarra Ugle-Hagan have expiring contracts next season, while Aaron Naughton and Todd Marshall will be coveted free agents.
North Melbourne spearhead Nick Larkey would have been on the Hawks’ hit list, too, before inking a five-year extension in June to the end of 2029. Clubs typically work at least two years ahead when assessing potential recruits, with Richmond’s successful pursuit of Tom Lynch, for example, starting long before he chose them.
North Melbourne’s All-Australian spearhead Nick Larkey.Credit: Getty Images
Hawthorn remain in a four-way race with Adelaide, Brisbane and North Melbourne for out-of-favour Gold Coast forward-ruck Mabior Chol, while Bomber Massimo D’Ambrosio, a small defender, has requested a trade to the Hawks.
They enjoyed a sneakily impressive, seven-win season under second-year coach Sam Mitchell, including titanic upsets of grand finalists Collingwood and Brisbane.
Hawthorn sent out the AFL’s youngest squad in 16 of the 24 rounds, and have shed experience each year since 2020, going from an average games played of 115.4 to only 69.2 this year. Sam Frost, Chad Wingard and Luke Breust were the only 30-plus-year-olds on the list in 2023, compared to 18 such players three years ago.
However, none of this convinced any of McKay (Essendon), Ratugolea (Port Adelaide) or Liam Henry (St Kilda) to join the brown-and-gold cause. One reason McKay picked the Bombers last week over them was his belief Brad Scott’s team was better positioned for at least short-term success.
Essendon desperately needed a key defender, with Brandon Zerk-Thatcher requesting a trade to the Power after only the Hawks, Kangaroos and Eagles conceded more points.
Bulldogs star Jamarra Ugle-Hagan.Credit: AFL Photos
Whether McKay, a restricted free agent, made the right call will be decided in the years ahead. North Melbourne can also still match the Bombers’ six-year offer.
But Hawthorn will likely need to rely on their returning tall defensive core of captain James Sicily (28 years old), Frost (30), Jack Scrimshaw (25) and James Blanck (23 in November), while up-and-comers Josh Weddle (19) and Denver Grainger-Barras (21) – both first-round picks – could have a role to play despite sometimes being used elsewhere in 2023.
That group is adequate for now, but it is the other end of the ground where the Hawks have a greater and more immediate need.
Mitch Lewis, who turns 25 in October, is already one of the game’s best key forwards, but lacks aerial support, especially with Jacob Koschitzke requesting a trade to Richmond after failing to prove he could be Lewis’ sidekick. Small forward Tyler Brockman is leaving for West Coast as well.
Breust (47 goals) was the only Hawk besides Lewis, who kicked 36 goals in 15 games, to kick more than 17 majors. Only North Melbourne and West Coast scored fewer points than Hawthorn this year, and they were also bottom three for score conversion once they went inside 50.
Lightly played duo Brandon Ryan and Max Ramsden are Lewis’ budding partners for now.
The Hawks were willing to pay very good money for McKay and Ratugolea, but Gold Coast’s King and Western Bulldog Naughton, in particular, would command even more.
Essendon legend Matthew Lloyd, speaking on Channel Nine’s Footy Classified, even suggested King – who he coached at Haileybury College – might be worth $1 million a year after his five-goal haul in the Suns’ defeat of the Lions in round 20.
“This is why a club should be offering a million bucks [for King] because could you imagine him playing for Collingwood or Melbourne in this finals series?” Lloyd said.
“I’m saying that on the open market, a club will, in the next 12 months, [make him a huge offer]. It’s a tough environment up there, they’re not travelling too well [and] all I want to say is that people who doubt him, let’s look in 10 years’ time at the career he’s had, and I’m talking 600-700 goals from Ben King.”
The Bulldogs are bracing for a difficult re-signing period, with Bailey Smith, Tim English, Tom Liberatore and first-round draft pick Jedd Busslinger joining Naughton and Ugle-Hagan in being out of contract next year.
Back-up Giants ruckman Matt Flynn is yet to request a trade to West Coast, but the out-of-contract big man has been strongly linked to the Eagles.
Matt Flynn and Jesse Hogan embrace after the Giants’ victory over the Swans earlier this season.Credit: AFL Photos
Kieren Briggs’ breakout season meant he became Greater Western Sydney’s undisputed No.1 ruckman, leaving Flynn with a career decision to make. Bailey Williams rucked in Nic Naitanui’s injury absence at the Eagles this year, but the latter has since retired, and developing talls Callum Jamieson and Harry Barnett are the only other options.
Flynn’s impending departure likely means Braydon Preuss, who is also without a deal for next season, will remain part of the GWS ruck division, alongside Briggs and rookie-listed academy product Nick Madden.
But there is curiosity about what Melbourne and, to a lesser degree, North Melbourne will do, with Brodie Grundy almost certain to request a trade to Sydney, and fellow All-Australian Todd Goldstein already indicating he is leaving – possibly for Essendon.
The Demons have only rookie-listed duo Will Verrall and Kyah Farris-White as specialist ruckmen behind Gawn if Grundy goes, while the Roos have Tristan Xerri, Callum Coleman-Jones and Hamish Free.
Melbourne could look for a ruckman in return for James Harmes and/or Grundy, assuming they both leave. Richmond are one club eyeing Harmes, while Tiger Ivan Soldo is again on the hunt for more opportunity.
The annual ruck merry-go-round is in full swing, with Bulldog Jordon Sweet requesting a trade to Port Adelaide, and Power unrestricted free agent Scott Lycett weighing up his options.
Biggest names without a deal
Restricted free agents Tom Doedee and Jade Gresham headline the biggest names still on the market, barely a week out from free agency officially opening.
Essendon loom as Gresham’s most likely destination, although Richmond and Carlton have expressed interest throughout the season, and he could surprise and re-sign at St Kilda.
Doedee is recovering from an ACL rupture that has complicated negotiations with his current club, Adelaide, with Sydney and grand finalists Brisbane and Collingwood waiting to swoop.
But they are far from the only interesting names without a contract beyond this season.
Brisbane’s Deven Robertson (interest from West Coast), Blues trio Paddy Dow (St Kilda), Caleb Marchbank and David Cuningham, Fremantle defender Joel Hamling, and Geelong’s Tom Hawkins and Rhys Stanley are among that group. Cats coach Chris Scott said he was “100 per cent” confident Hawkins would play on.
Gold Coast’s Levi Casboult – who is expected to return on a one-year deal – and Jeremy Sharp, Melbourne’s James Jordon and Jake Melksham, Port Adelaide’s Travis Boak and Orazio Fantasia, Saints Hunter Clark, Nick Coffield and Zak Jones, and Bulldogs Hayden Crozier and Taylor Duryea are others.
Jordon will exercise his free agency rights to join one of Sydney, St Kilda, Western Bulldogs, Essendon or Carlton, while Adelaide forward Shane McAdam has requested a trade to the Demons.
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