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Shock loss loosens Hawks' grasp on top spot

Football

The AFL’s chasing pack has smelled blood – and they’re coming.

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Sides are lining up to replace Hawthorn on top of the ladder after the three-time reigning premiers were humbled by Melbourne on Saturday.

The next four clubs – Sydney, Adelaide, Geelong and Greater Western Sydney – each recorded their 14th win of the season at the weekend as the finals race explodes.

As it stands, every prize remains up for grabs – the minor premiership, the home qualifying final and the double chance of finishing in the top four.

West Coast and the Western Bulldogs, four points further back, aren’t out of the equation either, after the Eagles’ derby victory and the Dogs’ win over North Melbourne.

But alarm bells aren’t ringing at Waverley Park, with Grant Birchall noting Hawthorn remain ladder leaders and will learn plenty from Saturday’s reality check.

The Hawks suffered a shock 29-point loss to Melbourne, meaning their buffer atop the ladder is just a single victory.

Another defeat against North Melbourne or West Coast in the next fortnight could cost the flag favourites a spot in the top four.

That would be a major blow to the club’s hopes of a fourth straight premiership.

“We’ve had a really good year. We’ve won more games than any other team in the competition,” Birchall said.

“We’re sitting on top of the ladder, so I think we’re still in a pretty good position.

“We’ll just regroup and go again.”

Birchall is one of a handful of Hawthorn players chasing their fifth premiership medal.

The rebounding defender conceded the Hawks had plenty to work on after succumbing to the 11th-placed Demons.

“It’s a bit of a reality check … we’ve got to sharpen up, otherwise we’ll be drawn back to the pack,” Birchall said.

“We’ll have a look at the tape and address a few things that we need to get better at.

“They were just too good. We kicked pretty inaccurately … they really hurt us on turnovers.

“Their intensity was better. We missed tackles. They just dominated us … we didn’t rock up to play.”

Ben Stratton (pectoral) and late withdrawal James Frawley (shoulder) were added to Hawthorn’s injury list on Saturday, stretching their defence.

Birchall denied complacency was a factor in the patchy performance.

“Not at all, we understand it’s a really tight and tough competition,” he said.

“No matter who you’re playing, if you’re just that five per cent off then you’re going to get caught out.

“We’d won nine in a row. Maybe this loss will spark us up a little bit, hopefully we can get on a bit of a roll.”

The Hawks remain a game clear on top but have the worst percentage in the top five, meaning another loss will send them plunging south.

The second-placed Swans are best poised to pounce after a 67-point win over Port Adelaide.

Midfielder Luke Parker said Sydney’s rise had everything to do with their depth.

“If I’m having a bit of an off game then Hanners (Dan Hannebery) and Joey (Kennedy) and Kieren Jack will stand up,” he said.

“If they’re having an off game then blokes like Tommy Mitchell and even the young boys pick up the slack.

“It’s comforting to know that I can play with my confidence but knowing if I’m off then someone else can do the work.”

The Swans will only get stronger with the return of key man Kurt Tippett, who Parker had slated for a for a round 22 return.

“Last week he was doing some pretty heavy running load and running a pretty good pace,” Parker told the Nine Network.

“Hopefully he gets two games under his belt and he’s right to slot straight back in for finals and be back to his best.”

The Giants survived a scare against lowly Gold Coast, winning by eight at Metricon Stadium, while Hawthorn’s other rivals did it easily.

Geelong eased to a 66-point win over bottom side Essendon yesterday, while Adelaide boosted their percentage with a 138-point mauling of Brisbane Lions.

Crows coach Don Pyke called it a professional showing. In truth, it was terrifying.

The league’s best scorers look unstoppable on their day and only play sides below them in a relatively soft run in.

At the bottom end of the top eight, North Melbourne missed a good chance to lock up a slice of September action by losing to the Bulldogs by 14 points.

With matches against Hawthorn, GWS and Sydney to come, the unthinkable is still a possibility for Brad Scott’s side, which started the year with nine straight wins.

Three sides could yet replace North in the finals series.

St Kilda, which belted Carlton by 71 points on Sunday, Port Adelaide and Melbourne.

The Power and Demons meet next Saturday night in a clash that will end one of their hopes for 2016.

-AAP

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