The second game of Round 1, Western Bulldogs vs Collingwood Magpies, takes on special significance now that the season has been reduced to 17 rounds.
Each team now only gets one opportunity to beat the teams that will be challenging them for a finals spot, and I fully expect these two teams to be in the mix.
The Bulldogs showed glimpses of their 2016 premiership form last season and are building into a formidable opponent to the top teams.
Although they have only one player inside the top 50 game players of all-time (Easton Wood, tied for 48th position with Ian Bryant and Laurie Sandilands), they have another six coming up through the top-100 ranks, including the new captain and the player tipped by many to be the most influential in the AFL this season, Marcus Bontempelli.
They have also recruited well, picking up proven performers Josh Bruce (St Kilda) and Alex Keath (Adelaide) but retaining most of their list from last year, including the last player to debut for the club, Rylee West: son of former champion and fourth-greatest game player Scott West.
The Bulldogs lost to the Magpies twice last year by 14 points and nine points, but are capable of causing what some would consider an upset in their only meeting for 2020.
For their part, Collingwood has only three top-100 game players on the list, but this includes their captain and superstar Scott Pendlebury who was recently cleared of having the novel COVID-19. Pendlebury currently lies third on both the top 100 games played list for the Magpies, the most games as captain list and – provided his fitness and form holds out for most of the 17 games (plus possible finals) this season he could top both lists by season’s end.
He also features on the AFL’s top 100 game players of all time.
Steele Sidebottom, an extremely important cog in the Collingwood machine since being drafted and playing his first game in 2009, achieved a remarkable effort of scoring ten goals in the TAC Cup grand final. This week he will join former teammate Ben Johnson on 235 games and equal 17th position on Collingwood’s all-time top 100.
Johnson retired towards the end of the 2013 season, unable to throw off a persistent calf injury. His achievements include the 2010 grand final win, three losing grand finals and runner-up in the Magpies’ best and fairest.
The first Saturday game in Round 1 is between Essendon and the Dockers and will be a big test of which club has improved the most since 2019. It also pits Bombers coach John Worsfold – in his last year of coaching at Essendon before handing over the role to Ben Rutten – against former Docker player Justin Longmuir, making his debut as a senior coach.
For Essendon, the Dons’ most senior current player David Zaharakis will pass the games tally of Mark Mercuri of 207 games and take over the mantle of the Bombers’ 23rd-greatest game player. Mercuri played in a premiership in his second year (1993) and again in 2000, and was part of the losing grand final team in the following year.
He had an outstanding year in 1999, running second in the Brownlow Medal and winning Essendon’s best and fairest.
The Dockers will miss the drive of AFL top 100 player David Mundy, who will miss due to injury. During the offseason, Fremantle picked up the services of Blake Acres (St Kilda) and James Aish (Collingwood) but traded Bradley Hill to St Kilda and Ed Langdon to Melbourne, so it is a line ball as to whether the club was a winner or loser in the draft.
Time will tell, starting with Saturday’s game in an empty arena.