Hawks withstand top AFL pressure

September’s come four months early for Hawthorn and coach Alastair Clarkson is rapt with his team’s response.

The three-time AFL defending premiers withstood a fierce challenge from North Melbourne to win Friday night’s pulsating clash by nine points.

The fiery match was played at the sort of intensity that marks September’s finals.

North undoubtedly paid for poor goalkicking but still had Hawthorn on the ropes at times in the first half.

“We’re really proud of the resilience of our group and got ourselves a pretty stirring victory,” Clarkson said.

“We played pretty good footy (on Friday night) – a different type of footy but we played pretty good footy.

“Not too many games are played in that sort of manner – really, really physical, tight, hard games of footy.

“We absorbed everything that was thrown at us and still found the avenue to goal to be able to kick a winning score.”

The win leaves Hawthorn level with North, who were top before the weekend, on 10 wins.

While the Hawks are without Jarryd Roughead indefinitely as he undergoes cancer treatment, next week they should regain captain Luke Hodge from a knee injury.

As old hands such as Jordan Lewis and Cyril Rioli led the way against North, Clarkson said it was particularly important that five or six of their younger players were exposed to finals-level intensity.

One of them, second-year player James Sicily, kicked a career-best five goals.

“It’s all part of their development and learning,” Clarkson said of their youngsters.

“To stand up to that sort of physical assault, particularly the off-the-ball pressure and that sort of stuff, was outstanding learning – whether we won or lost”.

Clarkson said it was no surprise North were so aggressive from the outset.

“We knew it was coming – it was talked about all week, every question that was fired in my direction and North Melbourne’s direction,” he said.

“It was more embrace it and absorb it.

“It was fantastic for our players to experience that – you don’t normally experience that type of physical endeavour by both sides until later in the season.

“It’s fantastic for our guys to experience that now, cope with it and find a way to win.”

Rioli’s influence was again far greater than his modest 16 possessions.

He also laid eight tackles and sparked Hawthorn when they were under pressure early.

“He’s become a master of that sort of stuff – having an influence on games with only minimal touches,” Clarkson said.

“His pressure and touch on the ball is pretty important for our side.”

Clarkson also praised veteran utility Sam Mitchell, who was collected high by Jack Ziebell in the first quarter and finished the game with a sore ankle.

“People talk about his clearance work and perhaps his ball use but he’s one of the toughest players I’ve seen … in the last 20 years,” the Hawks coach said of Mitchell.

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