Clarko strikes as Cats’ weaknesses exposed again
Alastair Clarkson is the ultimate pressure test for a team with lofty premiership ambitions.
Geelong came up the highway believing it could seal a perfect 5-0 MCG record and frank its reputation as a bona fide challenger.
It departed tail between legs, the grand coaching master again highlighting the weaknesses that still exist within this side despite its ladder position.
For the third time in the past four outings Clarkson orchestrated victory over a Cats side which, having lost its breathing space atop the ladder, is now in a mini-slump.
The Cats have lost three of their past five matches and look decidedly mortal.
The beauty of Geelong's white-hot start to the season is there is still time to tinker and no need to panic.
But at a ground where so many of the club's weaknesses have been exposed in recent years, the warning signs were obvious.
Ruckman Rhys Stanley was again well beaten, the ball movement was non-existent, a once-lethal forward line has lost its edge, and when the megastars battled the second tier wasn't prepared to take up the slack.
Geelong's season is reflected in Gary Rohan's fortunes.
Everything he did turned to gold early in the year but as Geelong surged late the ball spilt over his head in a 50-50 contest he just had to win.
Instead James Frawley, magnificent all day, peeled off his man and went harder than Rohan.
Instead of Rohan winning that battle and passing to Frawley's man the Cats conceded the telling goal to Tim O'Brien only seconds later and the game was pretty much done.
Rohan now has only three goals in his past seven games, Geelong has lost to Port Adelaide, the Bulldogs and the Hawks since late June and a once-rampant team is only a game clear on top.
To sheet home all of Hawthorn's gains to Clarkson's coaching discredits the Hawks players who have now won three consecutive clashes.
Liam Shiels was simply superb in his 200th game, the firestarter in the midfield who mixed 29 touches and seven tackles with 2.1.
Ben McEvoy's impact echoed louder than his pure statistics and James Sicily (on Tom Hawkins) and Frawley (on Esava Ratugolea) both had the better of their battles.
The Hawks have now beaten Collingwood, Fremantle and Geelong in successive weeks to remain very much in the finals picture.
By rights Hawthorn should have put its foot to the throat of Geelong by half time, boasting a 23-point lead that could have been double that margin.
With the Cats' ball movement stifled and the Hawks continually breaking into space, the Hawks poured on eight consecutive behinds.
Mitch Lewis' goal on the siren at least gave them some breathing space, but it could have turned into a rout instead of a hard-fought battle.
RUCK AND ROLL
Geelong's ruck issues aren't going anywhere as Rhys Stanley went up against old stager Ben McEvoy.
By half time McEvoy was the highest ranked player on the ground with 27 hitouts and seven possessions, while Stanley had a single possession and just 15 hitouts.
Stanley had his chance to shine late in the third term with a huge pack mark - which he pushed wide as one of three easy set shots the Cats missed in the space of two minutes.
At his best he can be commanding but he remains a frustratingly inconsistent player.
HAWKS FRONT SIX OPTIONS
Alastair Clarkson continues to spin the magnets as he seeks greater firepower and on Sunday's output there are clear signs of progress.
Mitch Lewis performed manfully on All Australian contender Mark Blicavs with 3.1 as well as handing one away, also crashing the packs when he couldn't mark the ball.
Tim O'Brien has been thrust forward in recent weeks and bookended the contest with a pair of goals, while Jack Gunston had more spring in his step after a quieter year.