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2020 AFL season: Round 1 preview

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Roar Guru
18th March, 2020
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As the saying goes, the show must go on.

Well, that’s the view of the AFL as they get set to stage nine games behind closed doors this weekend, with hundreds of thousands of fans to be locked out for the first time in the game’s history.

After days of speculation over whether Round 1 will even go ahead, starting tonight, the AFL has chosen to press ahead with its season launch – but what happens after that remains to be seen, with the premiership season reduced to 17 rounds, making for a 153-game season.

This means that, assuming the pre-finals bye remains, the grand final could be held as early as August 15, or even as late as Boxing Day (though we doubt this will be the case), as the AFL can suspend its entire operations if one player tests positive to COVID-19.

The first four rounds will go ahead as originally fixtured, but after that, there will be a significantly different fixture, with no guarantees that blockbuster games such as the Collingwood vs Essendon Anzac Day game will be held this year.

With every team playing each other only once, this also means there will only be one each of the interstate rivalries, with the first of them -the Showdown – locked in for Round 2.

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Matches will also be much shorter than usual, with each quarter to last 16 minutes, plus time on.

This, therefore, will be an AFL season like no other with the strong possibility that no fans will be permitted to attend a single match this year, including the grand final.

Richmond were due to unfurl their flag against Carlton, but the club has announced that they will delay doing that until given the chance to do so in front of its fans, which appears unlikely this year given the ban of non-essential mass gatherings could last at least six months.

Elsewhere, the GWS Giants’ road to redemption will begin when they face the Geelong Cats at Giants Stadium, while Adelaide Crows captain Rory Sloane will toast his 200th game at home in what will also mark the coaching debut of Matthew Nicks.

Here is your preview to Round 1.

Richmond vs Carlton

When the fixture was released last year, AFL powerbrokers were confident of another 90,000+ showing for what would’ve been a momentous occasion for Richmond.

The Tigers, who took out their 12th premiership last September with a 15-goal thrashing of the GWS Giants, will instead begin their premiership defence in front of only their coaching staff and officials against Carlton this evening.

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It means Marlion Pickett, who became the first player in nearly 100 years to win a premiership on his VFL/AFL debut, will play his second AFL game in front of an official crowd of zero – as will be the case with most (if not all) matches in season 2020.

That aside, the Tigers have named all but two of their premiership-winning side from last year, with Bachar Houli (injury) and Brandon Ellis (Gold Coast) the only players missing.

For Carlton, co-captain Sam Docherty returns after missing two seasons due to separate ACL injuries, and his return will be just what the Blues need as they look to begin their long climb out of the canvas in 2020.

After the sacking of Brendon Bolton last June, David Teague impressed in the hot seat in the second half of last season, winning six of his eleven games and eventually winning the gig full-time.

David Teague

David Teague, coach of the Blues. (Photo by Daniel Carson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Blues fans will also be hoping for another huge season from Patrick Cripps, while Sam Walsh will also be one player to watch as he looks to avoid the second-year syndrome.

However, they’ll be without Eddie Betts for a few weeks due to an injury he suffered during the pre-season, delaying his Blues comeback after he had spent the past six seasons at the Adelaide Crows.

History is against the Navy Blue, who have lost their last nine matches against the Tigers dating back to Round 2, 2014. On that basis, even in front of an empty crowd, I can’t see that hoodoo ending this evening.

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Prediction: Richmond by 32 points.

Western Bulldogs vs Collingwood

Another match that was set to be played in front of a bumper crowd is the first Friday night match of the season between the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood at Marvel Stadium.

While no-one will be permitted to attend tomorrow night’s clash, whether the roof will be open, or closed, will remain to be seen when the Dogs and Pies kick off the season at the Docklands venue.

Both teams had their 2019 seasons ended by the GWS Giants, with the Dogs losing by nearly ten goals in the elimination final and the Pies falling short by four points in the preliminary final.

A lot is expected of the Dogs this year, especially after their barnstorming second half of last year which had many believing they could repeat their stunning success of 2016, when they won second premiership flag, the first in 62 years, from seventh.

Josh Dunkley of the Bulldogs handpasses the ball

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

On the other hand, the Pies hope that the pain felt by the players after their preliminary final loss to the Giants will spur them on in their latest attempt to join Essendon and Carlton on a joint-record 16 premiership flags.

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Captain Scott Pendlebury will lead his side into action after testing negative to coronavirus, sparing the AFL the prospect of having to suspend their season launch for at least two weeks.

While this may be an away game for the Pies, I think they’ll take the points here.

Prediction: Collingwood by six points.

Essendon vs Fremantle

The first match on Saturday afternoon sees Essendon begin its final season under John Worsfold with a home game against Fremantle, who will be coached by former club stalwart Justin Longmuir for the first time.

Again, a lot is expected from the red and black, who had their second finals appearance in three years end in barely a whimper as they were thrashed by the West Coast Eagles in an elimination final.

The Bombers were able to avenge their loss to the Eagles with a win during the Marsh Series. That, coupled with a win over the Geelong Cats, saw the club finish the pre-season without loss.

This will be the final chance for Worsfold to claim a second premiership flag as coach – 14 years after doing so at the Eagles – before he hands the baton over to Ben Rutten at the end of the season.

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Coach of the Bombers John Worsfold

(AAP Image/Julian Smith)

While Worsfold begins his final season as an AFL coach (for now), Longmuir will only be getting started, having been given the reins to the club he represented 139 times between 1999 and 2007.

He replaces Ross Lyon, who was given the boot after the Dockers failed to reach the finals for the fourth consecutive year.

The Purple Haze enjoyed a successful Marsh Series, defeating Carlton in their first match before coming from behind to beat cross-town rivals the West Coast Eagles in what could’ve been the final men’s match played to a crowd in Perth this year.

But at home, the Bombers should prove too strong.

Prediction: Essendon by 24 points.

Adelaide Crows vs Sydney Swans

It was supposed to be a celebration for one of the Crows’ greatest sons but, on Saturday, Rory Sloane will toast his 200th game in front of only the coaching staff and club officials when his side welcomes the Sydney Swans to Adelaide Oval.

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It will be the third time in four years the Crows will open the season with a Round 1 home game, and they couldn’t have asked for a dream start to the season as they face a Swans side that many have tipped to rebuild in 2020.

Making this match all the more interesting will be the fact that Matthew Nicks’ coaching career will begin against the side he played 175 games for between 1996 and 2005 (he did not play in the Swans’ grand final winning side in the latter year, though).

Nicks will have somewhat of a challenge on his hands, with several players having left the Crows in search for opportunities elsewhere, including Eddie Betts, who has returned to Carlton.

Others to leave West Lakes during the post-season include Hugh Greenwood, Sam Jacobs, Josh Jenkins and Alex Keath, while only Billy Frampton arrived into the club, crossing over from Port Adelaide.

Bryce Gibbs

Bryce Gibbs. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Media/Getty Images)

Thus, AFL experts have not been kind to the Crows as far as pre-season predictions are concerned, with many forecasting them to finish near the bottom of the ladder, only three years after reaching the grand final.

The Swans are another team tipped to struggle in 2020, with Campbell Brown going as far to predict that they will prop up the ladder for the first time since 1994.

A successful on-field era came to an end for John Longmire’s side last year; not only was their 15th-place finish their lowest in a quarter of a century, they also farewelled club stalwarts Jarrad McVeigh, Kieren Jack, Nick Smith and Heath Grundy.

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Lance Franklin, who only played ten games last year – his lowest output in a season since debuting in 2005 – will not play on Saturday as he recovers from a pre-season injury.

That’s one less player the Crows will have to deal with as they look to begin the season with a win in a match that would’ve otherwise attracted over 45,000 spectators but will instead be played to nobody.

Prediction: Adelaide Crows by 14 points.

GWS Giants vs Geelong Cats

The GWS Giants’ road to redemption will begin when they play host to the Geelong Cats at Giants Stadium in the first of two Saturday night fixtures.

Nearly six months have passed since the Giants’ humiliating grand final loss to Richmond but, despite what happened then, many have tipped Leon Cameron’s side to again feature at the pointy end of the season, whenever that may be.

Already they have copped a major blow with reigning best-and-fairest Tim Taranto set to miss the majority of the season after he suffered a serious shoulder injury during the pre-season.

Statistically, the Giants were the best-performed team throughout the pre-season, first thrashing the Sydney Swans by 94 points in Blacktown before turning the tables on the Tigers with a 15-point win in Wagga Wagga.

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That has them in good stead entering their ninth season in the AFL, where they will come up against an ageing Cats side that finished last year as minor premiers, yet once again failed to reach the grand final.

Tom Stewart of the Cats looks to pass the ball

(Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)

Set to turn 36 soon, this will be Gary Ablett’s final season in the AFL, while Patrick Dangerfield and Joel Selwood are both closing in on their 250th and 300th AFL games respectively.

The club has also been bolstered by the addition of Josh Jenkins in the forward line, and it’s hoped he and Tom Hawkins can form a two-pronged forward line that, combined with its experienced midfield, can deliver a premiership to Kardinia Park.

This will be the first time the Giants and Cats face-off since Round 4 last year, where the Giants escaped with a four-point victory after co-captain Callan Ward suffered a serious knee injury that would ultimately end his season.

While both teams are evenly poised on paper, I think the Giants’ impressive pre-season form will see them claim the points.

Prediction: GWS Giants by eight points.

Gold Coast Suns vs Port Adelaide

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The last of the four Saturday matches sees Port Adelaide make the trip to the Gold Coast to face last year’s wooden spooners, the Suns.

Now entering his eighth year as the club’s coach, Ken Hinkley knows it’s do or die as he aims to return the Power to the finals for just the second time since 2014.

Last year, the club was on the verge of qualifying for September, only for a humiliating loss to North Melbourne in the penultimate round of last season to put paid to those hopes.

From the outside looking in, Port would’ve been optimistic about the prospect of facing last year’s worst-performed team to start off, but from the inside looking out, it’s otherwise.

The Suns lost their final 18 games of last season to claim its second wooden spoon, but will enter this year with club morale on a high after recently re-signing several players, as well as landing some big fish in Brandon Ellis and Hugh Greenwood.

(AAP Image/Darren England) NO ARCHIVING

The contract of coach Stuart Dew was also due to expire at the end of this season, but Suns management have been impressed by his work with the playing list that an extension may not be far away.

The club also performed well during the pre-season, defeating the Geelong Cats and Adelaide Crows in their two matches to give their fans some hope that they will be much more competitive in 2020.

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On that note, I think the Suns can get off to a winning start here.

Prediction: Gold Coast Suns by 12 points.

North Melbourne vs St Kilda

After missing the finals last year, and dismissing their coaches mid-season, both North Melbourne and St Kilda will hope to get their seasons off to winning starts when they clash at Marvel Stadium.

Halfway through last year, the Roos parted company with Brad Scott after nearly a decade at the helm, with his right-hand man Rhyce Shaw taking over.

Roos bosses were impressed with his coaching style that they ultimately promoted him to the full-time gig, and he will embrace the challenge of attempting to end a two-decade premiership drought at Arden Street.

His first Round 1 match as a coach will see North face off against St Kilda, which released Alan Richardson as coach after Round 17 last year, with Brett Ratten taking over for the final six weeks of the season.

Brett Ratten

Brett Ratten. (AAP Image/Julian Smith)

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Like Shaw, Ratten was also promoted as head coach on a permanent basis, marking his return to AFL coaching after his stint at Carlton ended on a bitter note in 2012.

A subsequent stint as assistant coach under Alastair Clarkson at Hawthorn, which saw the club achieve a premiership hat-trick between 2013-15, has him better primed for his first full season as Saints coach.

While expectations at Moorabbin are quite low, the morale from the inner sanctum couldn’t have been any positive, with the likes of Dan Butler, Zak Jones, Rowan Marshall, Bradley Hill and Paddy Ryder choosing to join the Saints during the off-season.

A huge call, but I think St Kilda can begin their season with a win.

Prediction: St Kilda by 14 points.

Hawthorn vs Brisbane Lions

The third match to be played in front of 100,000 empty seats this weekend will see Grant Birchall begin his Brisbane Lions career with a clash against his old side in what will be the first meeting between the Hawks and Lions at the MCG since 2012.

Following in the footsteps of the now-retired Luke Hodge, Birchall packed his bags and headed up to the sunshine capital where he will be reunited with Lions coach Chris Fagan, who spent several years as an assistant at Hawthorn.

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Last year, the Lions were the darlings of the AFL as they rocketed up the ladder, their second-place finish being their highest since 2004.

However, they found the finals furnace too far a step, bowing out in straight sets to the eventual grand finalists, Richmond and the GWS Giants, losing to the latter by just three points and missing out on a preliminary final showdown against Collingwood.

Now, the challenge for the Lions is to avoid the meltdown Melbourne suffered last year, in which they crashed from preliminary finalists in 2018 to near-wooden spooners in 2019.

But with a side boasting the likes of Lachie Neale, Charlie Cameron and captain Dayne Zorko, a Dees-like catastrophe surely won’t happen in Brisbane, as they look to consolidate a 2019 season which saw them become the only side to score over 2,000 points on the field.

Charlie Cameron

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Meantime, the Hawks will be boosted by the presence of 2018 Brownlow Medallist Tom Mitchell, who returns to the game after missing the entire 2019 season due to a knee injury suffered during pre-season training that year.

Alastair Clarkson’s side made a belated charge for September last year, winning their final three games including beating the GWS Giants and West Coast Eagles on the road, but saw their hopes ended when the Western Bulldogs won on the final day of the regular season.

Not only do the Hawks get Mitchell back, they’ve also secured a replacement for Jarryd Roughead in ex-Giants forward Jonathan Patton, who also returns to the game after over 18 months on the sidelines (coincidentally, his most recent AFL game was against the Hawks in Round 15, 2018).

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Roughead’s retirement marked the end of an era for the Hawks, with not one player from their 2008 premiership side remaining at the club.

Recent history is also against the Hawks, who have lost their last four against the Lions, all while Luke Hodge was in Brisbane.

On the road, and at the MCG in Round 1 for the first time since 2012, I think the northerners will claim the chocolates.

Prediction: Brisbane Lions by 16 points.

West Coast Eagles vs Melbourne

The final match of Round 1 sees Melbourne begin its season outside of Victorian borders for the first time since 1998 when they face the West Coast Eagles at Optus Stadium.

Just a year after ending a 12-year finals drought and reaching the preliminary final, the Dees made headlines for all the wrong reasons last year, with injuries and player dissent playing a part in the club crashing back into the AFL cellar, finishing in 17th place.

But who knows – perhaps that was the season Melbourne needed if they are to shoot back up the ladder this year? On that note, we saw Richmond crash to a 13th-place finish in 2016, only to climb the premiership dais twelve months later.

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Or then again, 2018 may have been a one-off and another long year could be forecast for the red and blue in 2020.

Club veteran Nathan Jones has given up the co-captaincy ahead of what is likely to be his final year in the AFL, with Max Gawn taking the reins on a sole basis.

Now they face the Eagles at the scene of their 2018 preliminary final humiliation – and they’ll face a side that many believe will challenge Richmond for the premiership cup this year.

Josh Kennedy of the Eagles

(Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

After bowing out to the Geelong Cats in the semi-final last year, the Eagles’ engine room received a boost with the arrival of Tim Kelly, who has inherited the #11 jumper previously worn by 2014 Brownlow Medallist Matt Priddis.

Shannon Hurn has also relinquished the captaincy, with Luke Shuey taking the reins.

While losses to Essendon and Fremantle during the pre-season may have generated some concern among Eagles fans, they need not worry because against a side that will have something to prove after finishing 17th last year, their side should start favourites on Sunday.

Prediction: West Coast Eagles by 30 points.

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Meantime, it has been announced by the AFL that the final two rounds of the ongoing AFL Women’s season will be abandoned, with the league bringing the finals, to feature the top four teams from each conference, forward starting this weekend.

It means that the premiership defence of the Adelaide Crows has come to an abrupt end, while Richmond claims the overall wooden spoon having not won a single match in its inaugural AFLW season.

The exact finals structure for the finals series, which will also be played to crowds of zero, is set to be announced this morning.