Birchall primed for challenge

GRANT Birchall learnt many things from 2013 as the running defender from Devonport experienced some firsts along the way to becoming a two-time premiership player at Hawthorn.

First there was the opposition's defensive forwards paying closer attention after the 25-year-old's exquisite opening month of the season.

Then there was the knee injury in round 13, one of the very few times in a 169-game career that he found his body letting him down.

Birchall believes those challenges will only make him an even better footballer. 

``With that attention, you learn as you go about how to cope with the different types of taggers that you have to deal with,'' he told  The Examiner  at Hawthorn's Waverley Park base last month.

``It was a real learning experience, as there will be more of that in the coming years, so it was good to get that exposure to it.

``With the knee, it was my first serious long-term injury, I had a good mindset during my rehabilitation and I just had to focus on getting the job done and getting back for the team.''

The almost-blessed nature of Birchall's career was put back on course on the last Saturday in September, when his 26-disposal game saw him among the best players in the Hawks' win over Fremantle.

It was the last of 17 games in 2013 for the 14th pick in the 2005 national draft, who averaged 24 disposals an outing.

``I had a bit of time over the break to think about it, enjoy it and really think about it,'' Birchall said not only of the team success, but his own performance.

``You're proud of your achievements, and this was more of a relief going by what happened the previous year against the Swans.

``We felt as though we wasted an opportunity, so for the guys that played in that, it was a major relief for them to get the job done.

``We had a pretty clear mindset and a good gameplan against Fremantle and we just went out there to try to execute it the best that we can.

``I thought I played my role well and I thought our defence that day stood up. We worked really well and our back six really gelled together as a group.''

The likelihood of a drop-off, such as in 2009 when the Hawks missed the finals a year after winning the flag, seems remote, even with the considerable absence of Lance Franklin.

``It's a better feeling here [this time around], absolutely,'' Birchall said.

``Coming out of 2008, we had a lot of guys coming off surgeries, missing a big chunk of the pre-season and setting us back quite a bit.

``But this time, everyone has had pretty uninterrupted pre-seasons. Our three ACL guys [Brendan Whitecross, Matthew Suckling and Ryan Schoenmakers] are training well and everyone is up and about.

``So at the moment, we have no excuses.''

But he has advice for his younger teammates that weren't at the club in 2008 on how to cope with the expectation that comes with being the reigning premier.

``You can't afford to get complacent, you always have to find ways to improve and you have to stay hungry.

``That is basically the message and the boys have taken real ownership to get better and I couldn't question the attitude.''

Birchall said goal-setting, save for continuing to improve the way he copes with taggers and maintaining his strong output,  was not the way he is programmed.

``I take each day as it comes, but I just want to keep bettering myself and pushing the boundaries,'' he said.

``But that ultimate team success, that's what you play footy for, so hopefully we can make the top four and challenge again.''

Birchall re-committed to the Hawks late last year in a deal which will see him at Waverley until the end of 2017.

He said the decision was an easy one.

``It will get me to 29, but they might have had a gut-full of me by then.

``I'm pumped to be with the Hawks, they've been great and it was a bit of a no-brainer in the end.

``I think we have a good future over the next couple of years, right up there challenging again, so I just want to [be] a part of it all. I didn't want to leave, so it all worked out quite well in the end.

``Most of the boys that get drafted to a club don't want to leave, they make new friends and get into a really good routine, it's not that boys really want to go, it's just with free-agency there's a lot of really good offers these days.

``You have to weigh it up as it's a business these days, and that's the way it is, unfortunately.''

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