In just a few weeks we’ll be back into the real AFL season. The NAB Cup and challenge matches will be consigned to the dust of history as we embark upon this 115th season (for the purists) of competition or as many non-Victorians would prefer, the 25th season of the AFL.
The season kicks off as it has for the last few years with the clash of two of the Victorian Big 4 clubs, Richmond v Carlton in Thursday, March 24th and ends 24 weeks later, with the show all over by Saturday, October 1 (unless theres another draw of course).
First, theres a new team. For the first time since 1997, the league has expanded beyond its 16 team competition and reached further into Queensland, with the inclusion of the Gold Coast Suns.
Accompanied by a media blitz and a shiny new stadium (which wont be ready until May), the Suns have 11,170 members at the time of writing, with many tipping them to pass 15,000 by June 30th.
Along with the members and administration, the Suns have recruited well, including one of the games superstars, Gary Ablett, and have poached a Rugby league star, Karmicheal Hunt. To add local flavour, more than a third of the teams 2011 playing roster are Queenslanders.
The Suns have yet to play at full strength, although they promise to play their strongest side yet against Brisbane in their NAB Challenge match at Southport next week.
Can they be competitve? And will the Coast support them? These are the questions that remain to be seen when they open their season versus 2010 Finalist Carlton in Round 2 at the Gabba.
Second, there is a bye. For the first time since 1994 when the league had 15 teams, the bye has returned. Opinion is divided as to how beneficial the bye will be, and with each team facing two byes this year, placement of these byes could be crucial.
The AFL says that statistics from 1994 show that teams coming off the bye dont do as well as you might think. This will be of interest to Fremantle, Geelong and Sydney who face oponents fresh from the week off four times. Fremantle and Geelong play these rested teams three times in a row.
The AFL has insisted that all byes are at least six weeks apart. How will teams deal with this, given how much football has changed since 1994?
Third, there is the Substitute rule, introduced for the first time since 1977, the league has introduced a substitution rule.
In 1978, the 19th and 20th men were converted to unlimited interchange players, however the AFL seeking to reduce injuries, and to restrict the use of the interchange as a tactical tool, have reduced the bench from its four interchange players, to three and a substitute.
The substitute must wear a green vest, until he takes his place on the field, and the player he replaces will have to wear a red vest. A player does not have to be injured to be substituted. The substitute player must be named from the final 22 as lodged with the league an hour before the first bounce.
The interchange steward will need to be notified that a substitution is about to occur. Failing to do this will result in a free kick and 50m penalty.
Like, the bye, opinion is divided as to how successful this will be. Several coaches have been outspoken in their belief that it will enhance injuries, forcing more rotations on fewer players. Others believe it will be the death of lumbering ruckmen in the game.
If the NAB Cup has been anything to go by, rotations haven’t been slowed by the new rule. Most experts dont expect the substitute to be part of the game next year.
However, in 2011, it remains to be seen how each club will use the substitute, but it will certainly be interesting.
Fourth, will the Pies go back to back? Theres certainly good signs there, with the Pies making the NAB final with ease, seemingly having lots of depth, stacks of support, masses of money and a stable club environment.
In the final year of Mick Malthouse as senior coach, he’ll be wanting to go all out. Im tipping a certainty for the Grand Final.
Fifth, five first year coaches at Essendon, Geelong, Gold Coast, Sydney and Port with several completely different scenarios.
James Hird, Essendon legend, has spent several years in the media, and none at all in the coaches box at any level. He takes over a club formerly run by the much maligned Matthew Knights, with a playing list that many believe to be sub par.
Hird will be ably assisted and mentored by two time Geelong premiership coach and Essendon legend of old, Mark Thompson. Can the bombers rise to the occasion for Hird?
The Bombers are in the NAB Cup final, and the clubs memberships is second only to Collingwood and Hawthorn. The folks down at Bomberland are genuinely excited, but time will tell if they can succeed in the season proper.
Over at Geelong, Christ Scott takes over from two time premiership coach Mark Thompson. Geelong have also lost one of their star players, and arguably the leagues best player, in Gary Ablett. Many pundits believe Geelong will drop off over the year with the absence of two of its key premiership architects. There is certainly an interesting road ahead, but Im still tipping a top four spot for them.
In Sydney, John Longmire takes over from the coaching legend, Paul Roos. The difference is that Longmire has been Roos assistant for several years, and I dont expect there to be much turmoil in that takeover.
Up in the Gold Coast, Guy McKenna takes his charges into the big time after coaching them from under 18s, and will be his first shot at the big time with a brand new club.
At Port Adelaide, Matthew Primus is the first coach not to come up through the Port Adelaide traditional family. He did well towards the 2010 season, and will be interesting to see how he goes in his first full year as coach.
Sixth, there are several coaches under the pump. Carltons Brett Ratten has been given his orders by the club: Win a final or be replaced, after losing both finals the club has played in recently. Its not an unreasonable goal.
West Coast’s John Worsfold will be praying for a better year than last year.
Micheal Voss will be hoping for some success and to put the Fevola shenanigans behind him once and for all.
Seventh, how much longer will the Saints window remain open for? Bridesmaids two years running, and 3 shots at the flag, and they’ve yet to capitalise on it. The club has had a lot of bad press lately, some of it deserved, much of it not, and we can only hope they can focus properly when the season starts in 3 weeks time.
Eighth, can the non-Victorian clubs lift this year? Some years ago, SA and WA media were trumpeting the death of the VFL side of things when 6 out of 8 teams in the top 8 were non-Victorian in origin. In 2010, six out of eight were Victorian clubs.
West Coast finished last, Brisbane were bottom four, Adelaide and Port in the bottom 7 or 8 clubs. The Swans scraped in, and then narrowly beat the Blues to a preliminary final berth. Fremantle were clearly the leading light for the invading teams, but failed at the final hurdle before the Grand Final.
I’m expecting big things from Fremantle this year, definite top four stuff provided Sandilands stays fit. Otherwise its going to be a dreary year for the WA/SA/QLD clubs.
Finally, the draw. Melbourne have received a dream draw for the year, and Collingwood have recieved their traditional allotment of games at the MCG. Once again, the AFL takes games to Darwin and the ACT, and this year, Richmond will play Gold Coast in Cairns. Four games will be played in Tasmania.
My top eight prediction for the year:
4. St Kilda
Heres to another great season at the footy in 2011. I’m certainly looking forward to it. Go the mighty Blues.