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James Worpel: Setting the tempo or playing second fiddle

James Worpel of Hawthorn during the 2019 AFL round 5 match between Hawthorn and Geelong at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Monday, 22 April 2019 in Melbourne, Victoria.. Image Credit: Flickerd, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Given the size of an AFLM team, it’s no surprise that the people wearing your own colours can have as much of an effect, if not bigger, on a player’s performance than those wearing the uniform of the opposition. Coaches’ movement of the magnets on the tactics board before, during, and after games can put players in different roles for single centre bounces, full quarters, or entire seasons; then it’s up to the players to adapt or find themselves in danger of dropping down to the VFL.

James Worpel’s years with Hawthorn, and the impact he has had on the game when playing alongside a ball magnet like Tom Mitchell, and when tasked with running that same midfield in Mitchell’s absence, provide a clear opportunity to visualise this.

In 2018 James Worpel established himself as part of the Hawks’ midfield with a 32-disposal game in Round 18 that saw him charged with winning the ball at clearance before handballing off to Tom Mitchell who would go on to gather 46 disposals of his own alongside 649m gained, one of many imperious stat lines in a year that would see him go on to win the game’s highest individual award, the Brownlow Medal.

An opportunity arises

In a freak incident during the 2019 pre-season, Tom Mitchell broke his leg and would be sidelined for the entire season. This opened up a gap in Hawthorn’s midfield for a ball-winning clearance gatherer who could replicate even some of Mitchell’s ability to generate metres and impact the scoreboard.

Seeing his potential after a fine rookie season, Hawthorn gifted James Worpel the number 5 guernsey and tasked him with stepping up into the vacant spot and providing a good chunk of what Mitchell’s absence removed from the team. Averaging 27 disposals, 4 inside 50s, 12 contested possessions and 205m gained across the season, he even managed to provide scoreboard impact by way of 5 score involvements/game on his way to polling 10 votes at the Brownlow in his first season in his new role.

Following interruptions and curtailing of the 2020 season due to COVID, the league resumed in earnest in 2021, which would see Worpel and Mitchell take the field together as part of a struggling Hawthorn outfit that would rack up 7 wins and finish 14th.

Within that struggling team, Worpel too struggled to adapt to a third new midfield role in four years, with a drop in average disposals, inside 50s contested possessions and score involvements all serving to highlight the trouble he had sharing the midfield with Mitchell, who would go on to amass 34 disposals/game in another year that showed how effective he was at getting to and winning the ball, albeit at the expense of other members of his midfield.

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This slump in form followed Worpel into the 2022 season, which generated chatter around whether or not he was worth keeping as he approached free agency. Shoulder surgery halfway through 2022 put an end to his most disappointing year to date and questions over his future with Hawthorn grew louder and louder.

The present and future of hawthorn’s midfield

2023 provided a lifeline for Worpel, with Mitchell requesting a trade away from the Hawks, and the Hawks just as keen to move on an expensive player in support of their rebuild. In the space of one summer, Worpel was now the most senior member of the Hawks’ midfield unit and wearing the number of one of the club’s most celebrated midfielders, and club coach, Sam Mitchell.

Tasked now again with carrying the responsibility of winning the ball and feeding the forward line, Worpel’s numbers once again stepped up, improving his average disposals, inside 50s, contested possessions and score involvements back to his impressive 2019 levels, all alongside career-best years in disposal efficiency and metres gained.

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The quality of his midfield play when not demoted to playing alongside a ball magnet like Tom Mitchell has clearly been highlighted by the Hawks, who were moved to offer him a 2-year extension midway through 2023, carrying him through to 2025 and potentially further as they continue to rebuild the team in their young coach’s image; an image that is ever-present in the number on the back of Worpel’s guernsey.


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