Alastair Clarkson pays tribute to Cyril Rioli

Jason Phelan

As much as it hurts for Hawthorn fans to let Cyril Rioli go, the Hawks knew it was coming, understand why and farewell him with their best wishes.

Alastair Clarkson revealed on Friday that he was surprised Rioli didn't walk away from the game before the start of the 2018 AFL season.

His retirement on Wednesday at the age of 28 shocked many in the AFL community, but Clarkson and the Hawks have been planning for life without the four-time premiership star for some time.

Rioli spent time in home town Darwin at the end of last year to be with his father after he suffered a near-fatal heart attack.

He was granted compassionate leave again in June and again travelled with his family to Darwin.

Rioli, who hasn't played since round four due to a knee injury, still had two years left on his playing contract.

But ultimately it came down to a choice between his community in the Northern Territory and his AFL career.

And Clarkson respects that in the end there was only one decision Rioli would make.

"In January when he came back (from Darwin) I was actually surprised he said 'I want to keep on going'," Clarkson told reporters.

"He elected to continue on and play footy, so we were delighted with that, but as it turned out things have unfolded throughout the course of this year too.

"Just subtle little reminders. Whether it's to do with illness or death in his wider community back in Darwin ... that's the thing that he's missed the most.

"In the Aboriginal culture, in a lot of cases, aunties and uncles and grandparents have got significant responsibilities in terms of the raising of children.

"Cyril now feels like that's a responsibility that he needs to meet and I think it's a beautiful responsibility.

"I applaud him and that's why it's so easy for us in a sense to shake his hand, look him in the eye, give him a hug and say 'All the best. Thanks for what you've done here, mate, but really love what you're doing'."

Rioli, who debuted in 2008, played 189 games for the Hawks and won the Norm Smith Medal for his brilliant performance in the 2015 grand final win over West Coast.