After a long and eventful off-season, headlined by a stunning trade period and the inaugural AFL Women’s season, Round 1 of the 2017 AFL season is finally here.
Nearly six months have passed since the Western Bulldogs embark on a finals run never before seen in AFL history, coming all the way from seventh to break a 62-year premiership drought in stunning fashion.
Their mission in 2017 is to try to avoid the dreaded premiership hangover, as happened to Hawthorn in 2009 when they missed the finals altogether twelve months after upsetting the Geelong Cats to claim the 2008 flag.
Their Friday night showdown against Collingwood will pit new recruit Travis Cloke up against his old club, while there are many other match-ups that are well worth watching as the new season kicks off in earnest.
It all starts the previous night, with Carlton and Richmond once again having the honour of getting it all underway at the MCG. That match kicks off my Round 1 preview.
Carlton versus Richmond
As has been the case since 2008, the Blues and Tigers kick off the season’s MCG schedule on a Thursday night, and in 2017 there will be lots of questions asked of both clubs.
After the season from hell in 2015 culminated with the mid-season sacking of Mick Malthouse and a fourth wooden spoon since the turn of the century, Carlton improved to seven wins last season, of which six, including the scalp of the Geelong Cats in Round 10, came within the first eleven rounds.
However, fans will be hoping that their pre-season form is not indicative of what’s ahead for their team in 2017.
The Blues suffered heavy defeats to Melbourne and St Kilda, and were competitive against Fremantle, but ultimately suffered the ignominy of being the worst-performed of the 18 clubs during the JLT series.
Once again the club were productive during the trade period, picking up Caleb Marchbank, Rhys Palmer and Billie Smedts, among others, while their highest pick in the draft was used to recruit Sam Petrevski-Seton.
On the other hand, Richmond suffered a somewhat dramatic fall from grace in 2016, crashing from three-time elimination finalists to a disappointing 13th and out of the finals for the first time since 2012.
This has directed the blowtorch directly at coach Damien Hardwick, whose future at Punt Road could hinge on how the Tigers fare in 2017, as well as Dustin Martin, who comes off contract at the end of this season and whose future will be heavily debated as the year wears on.
The club scored a pair of wins over both South Australia clubs and lost their other pre-season match to Collingwood by seven points; their fans will be hoping that it’s a sign of what’s to come in 2017.
They may have lost Brett Deledio during the trade period but they did secure the services of Josh Caddy and Dion Prestia from the Geelong Cats and Gold Coast Suns respectively.
It now remains to be seen which club, after contrasting off-seasons, emerges victorious out of the 2017 AFL season opener.
Prediction: Richmond by 18 points.
Collingwood versus Western Bulldogs
Not only do the Western Bulldogs kick off their premiership defence on Friday night, they will also unleash new recruit Travis Cloke for the first time, fittingly against his old club, Collingwood, at the MCG.
For the long-suffering fans from Footscray, last year’s premiership win was one of miracles and came in the face of a horrific injury toll, of which captain Robert Murphy was the biggest casualty.
He became the first captain since Matthew Primus in 2004 to miss his side’s premiership victory, but in his absence Easton Wood did a terrific job taking the club all the way to the title for the first time since 1954.
In fact, Wood has been touted as the future full-time captain of the Bulldogs when Murphy eventually retires.
Now it’s back down to business for Luke Beveridge’s men, who take on a Collingwood side whose coach Nathan Buckley is under pressure to take his side back to September this year.
Again the Pies recruited strongly during the off-season, adding Chris Mayne, Will Hoskin-Elliot and Daniel Wells to their playing list, though at this stage only Wells will not play due to injury.
They are also coming off a strong showing in the pre-season, defeating Essendon and Richmond on either side of an after-the-siren loss to Fremantle in the west.
And so, the time for excuses at Collingwood is over. But facing the reigning premiers, the Western Bulldogs, to whom they have lost their last four matches, will be no easy task.
Prediction: Western Bulldogs by 10 points.
St Kilda versus Melbourne
For St Kilda and Melbourne, Saturday night’s clash at Etihad Stadium will be all about putting the past behind them and looking to the future.
The Saints were without a doubt one of the most improved clubs of the 2016 season as they continued on their long-term rebuild under Alan Richardson, and their chances of breaking into the eight will be bolstered by the availability of Jake Carlisle following his season-long doping ban.
They have also added Jack Steele and Koby Stevens onto their playing list after both struggled to break into their respective clubs’ best 22 in what were strong seasons for both the GWS Giants and Western Bulldogs.
And if their impressive form in the pre-season is anything to go by, then fans will have so many reasons to believe that this is the year they break their five-year absence from September.
They narrowly defeated Port Adelaide, then thrashed Carlton in their second match before narrowly going down to the Sydney Swans in their final hit-out in Albury last Sunday.
Like the Saints, the Dees are also finally looking up for the first time in ages.
Last year the club improved to ten wins but certainly could’ve won more matches had they been smarter enough not to underestimate clubs like Essendon, St Kilda (twice) or Carlton.
Again the club was productive during the trade period, landing some big fish in four-time premiership Hawk Jordan Lewis, who will slot into a midfield marshaled by co-captains Nathan Jones and newly-appointed Jack Viney.
It has been ten-and-a-half years since Melbourne last defeated St Kilda anywhere, and nearly ten since the Dees last defeated a Victorian side at Etihad Stadium.
Will any of those records break this Saturday night, or will the Saints maintain their recent dominance of the Dees? Only time will tell.
Prediction: St Kilda by eight points.
Sydney Swans versus Port Adelaide
Once again there are high expectations for the Sydney Swans and they enter the new season on the back of their biggest captaincy shake-up in recent years.
After over a decade of having co-captains, the club will revert to having a single captain for the first time since 2005, with Josh Kennedy taking over from Kieren Jack and Jarrad McVeigh in leading the club.
His elevation to the captaincy is testament to the consistently strong performances he has put in for the club since arriving from Hawthorn at the end of the 2009 season.
The club is coming off its second grand final loss in three years but it’s fair to say that injuries to key players including McVeigh and Callum Mills, as well as that to Lance Franklin in the decider, hindered their chances.
The defeat soured what was otherwise an impressive 2016 for the club as they overcame the loss of nearly a thousand games’ worth of experience at the end of 2015 to once again finish at the top of the ladder.
Still, the Swans remain hungry for more premiership success and that is what will have Port Adelaide on red alert ahead of Saturday’s twilight match at the SCG.
After two years of finals misses, Port president David Koch has declared that this year is “finals or fail”.
They’ll have Paddy Ryder and Angus Monfries back from their season-long doping suspensions arising from the Essendon supplements scandal, enhancing their chances of returning to September in 2017.
Subsequently, there will be no excuses for Ken Hinkley’s men this year – anything less than a top eight finish could cost the 50-year-old his job.
A win over the Swans could be the start of something special – you never know. However, the Power have not won at the SCG since 2006, and that drought does not look like ending anytime soon.
Prediction: Sydney Swans by 24 points.
Essendon versus Hawthorn
For the first time in a pretty long time, the Essendon Football Club will enter a new season without the burden or stress of the supplements saga hanging over their heads.
The club went on a campaign over the off-season to enlist members to “be part of their comeback story”, and it begins in earnest with a home game against Hawthorn at the MCG on Saturday night.
Former captain Jobe Watson and new skipper Dyson Heppell are among the ten players who will return to the club following their season-long doping suspensions, and one talking point to come out of the match will be how they fare in what will be their first professional matches for over 18 months.
In the absence of those said players, several players such as David Zaharakis, Zach Merrett and Darcy Parish stood up during what was a tough 2016 campaign for the Bombers in which they won three matches.
Having successfully lobbied the AFL for a Round 1 home game, their first since 2011 and just their third since 2000, the club’s members and fans will march collectively from Federation Square to the MCG before the match against the Hawks.
It is a repeat of what they did before their home match against Melbourne last April, in which the Bombers defied the odds to win by 13 points and extinguish fears of a winless season.
Whether the Dons, with half of their best side back after over 18 months on the sidelines, can upset the new-look Hawks will remain to be seen.
After crashing out of September in straight sets last year, and offloading Sam Mitchell, Jordan Lewis and Bradley Hill to other clubs during the off-season, many are fearing the end of an era for Alastair Clarkson’s men.
As if losing that aforementioned trio wasn’t enough, former captain Luke Hodge will miss after being suspended for a miscommunication breakdown which saw him miss a training session.
It will be the first time since mid-2002 in which neither Hodge, Mitchell or Lewis is in the same Hawthorn side on game day.
To counter the loss of their club legends, the Hawks recruited aggressively over the summer, adding Tom Mitchell, Jaeger O’Meara and Ty Vickery to their playing list, while new captain Jarryd Roughead returns after missing the entire 2016 season due to a knee injury and to battle cancer.
Given the events of last summer, both clubs will essentially usher in new eras this Saturday night, and while the Hawks will start favourites, they will be aware of an Essendon side out to bury the demons of the last few years.
Prediction: Hawthorn by 20 points.
Gold Coast Suns versus Brisbane Lions
Without a doubt, 2016 was once again another disappointing season for the two Queensland clubs as they finished in the bottom four.
After starting last year with three straight wins, the wheels fell off the Suns’ season when they lost to the Lions at the Gabba and had defender Steven May suspended for five weeks for a crude bump on Stefan Martin.
Then, Gary Ablett Jr went down with a recurrence of his 2014 shoulder injury in the rematch, ending a third consecutive season plagued by injury since winning the 2013 Brownlow Medal.
The Suns’ struggles in 2016 is nothing compared to the woes endured by their rivals up the M1.
The Brisbane Lions suffered through another season of embarrassment with low home crowds and regular uncompetitive efforts underlining a campaign in which they won just three games and finished only above suspension-plagued Essendon on the ladder.
Former three-time premiership player Justin Leppitsch paid the price for the club’s underachievement on the field, removed after three years in the top job and replaced by Chris Fagan, who becomes the latest graduate from Alastair Clarkson’s school of coaches.
He has been tasked with attempting to lift the Lions off the canvas and into their first finals appearance since 2009, but if their woes since then are anything to go by, then a long initiation could loom at the Gabba.
Despite playing just two games last year, Dayne Beams has taken over from Tom Rockliff as captain and he will have the unenviable task of trying to lead the club out of the large hole it has dug itself into.
With another long season forecast for both the Suns and Lions, it will be somewhat surprising if the QClash even sells out – in fact, in five previous such matches at Metricon Stadium, the highest crowd was 16,593, in Round 3, 2014.
On a side note, the inaugural AFL Women’s grand final between the Brisbane Lions and Adelaide Crows will be contested as a curtain-raiser to the match, after the Gabba was deemed unsafe to contest the match.
Prediction: Gold Coast Suns by 14 points.
North Melbourne versus West Coast Eagles
After making the tough call to move Brent Harvey, Nick Dal Santo and Drew Petrie, among others, on at the end of last season, Brad Scott’s men are being widely tipped to slide down the ladder in 2017.
The Roos started last season strongly, winning their first nine games, but completely collapsed in the second half of last year, saluting just twice after round eleven and bombing out in the first round of the finals.
Now it remains to be seen how the Roos go about rebuilding their playing list in the long-term, even if it means several years spent in the bottom rungs of the ladder.
Their pre-season form, however, was strong as they recorded wins over perennial heavyweights the Sydney Swans and Hawthorn before proving no match for the GWS Giants in Canberra.
On the other hand, the West Coast Eagles continued to strengthen their playing list in the wake of their disappointing elimination final exit to eventual premiers the Western Bulldogs at home.
They landed some very big fish when they secured the signature of Sam Mitchell from Hawthorn, while they also recruited Drew Petrie and Nathan Vardy from North Melbourne and the Geelong Cats respectively.
But even with the arrival of Mitchell, it will mean nothing for the Eagles if they cannot land a premiership while he is in Western Australia.
Additionally, they will have to contend being without ruckmen Scott Lycett and Nic Naitanui for the majority of the season, leaving Vardy and Jonathan Giles as their first choices in the middle for 2017.
The Eagles impressed during the pre-season, scoring wins over Fremantle and Melbourne after a second-string side lost their first match to the GWS Giants in Narrandera.
After previous meetings between the pair in Perth and Hobart, this will be the first time since 2010 the Roos and Eagles have met in Melbourne; the Eagles haven’t beaten the Roos in Victoria since 2007.
Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 18 points.
Adelaide Crows versus GWS Giants
Injuries to key players is the last thing the Adelaide Crows would want ahead of what is a daunting first-up assignment against premiership favourites the GWS Giants.
The Crows were the highest-scoring team in 2016 but were once again exposed as pretenders when they lost their semi-final against the Sydney Swans at the SCG last September.
It shows they still have a long way to go if they are to win their third premiership, but Don Pyke deserves all the credit for keeping the Crows right in the hunt throughout the season.
Though they will start favourites against the Giants on Sunday, they will have key players either already ruled out or in doubt for the match.
Already veteran midfielder Scott Thompson has been ruled out of the match while captain Taylor Walker, Brad Crouch and Rory Sloane are all still in doubt, but in the most crushing of all, Cam Ellis-Yolmen won’t feature at all in 2017 after blowing his ACL in the pre-season.
The Giants will also be without some of their key players, with Stephen Coniglio, Brett Deledio and Lachie Whitfield all sidelined due to injuries and suspension respectively.
The trio’s absence is a major blow for the AFL’s youngest club, whose fifth season ended in a heartbreaking preliminary final loss to the Western Bulldogs last September.
The pain and agony of missing out on what would have been the biggest game in their fledgling history (and, to an extent, watching their conquerors go all the way) will only spur them on to go not one, but two, better in 2017.
But this is where it all starts – in front of what is expected to be an unforgiving Adelaide Oval crowd who will be clearly behind the boys from West Lakes.
Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 28 points.
Fremantle versus Geelong Cats
To finish off the round, fans in the west will be treated to the duel between the past two Brownlow Medallists – Nat Fyfe and Patrick Dangerfield.
Fyfe’s season-ending leg injury in Round 5 last year was one of many lowlights for the Dockers in which they dropped from minor premiers in 2015 to third-last in 2016, completing a somewhat spectacular fall from grace.
Coupled with the retirement of club legend Matthew Pavlich and a strong trade period in which it landed the likes of Bradley Hill, Shane Kersten and Cam McCarthy, it’s fair to say that a new era is dawning on the club.
Fyfe has been named the club’s new captain, taking over from David Mundy who lasted just one season in the role.
His duel with Dangerfield, who broke several records en route to claiming last year’s Brownlow Medal in his first season with the Cats, will be the highlight of Sunday night’s match at Domain Stadium.
The Cats’ over-reliance on him and captain Joel Selwood has been well-documented; while they finished second on the ladder they bowed out of September in disappointing fashion, losing to the Sydney Swans in the preliminary final at the MCG.
Still, Chris Scott’s men remain up there among the title contenders in 2017 and there is no doubt Patrick Dangerfield would love to feature in their latest premiership side sooner rather than later.
Though the Cats do start their premiership bid with what remains the toughest road trip in the AFL, they should bring the points back to Kardinia Park here.
Prediction: Geelong Cats by 17 points.