Nearly two months have passed since Richmond claimed what may go down as the toughest premiership ever won in AFL history, and now preparations have begun in earnest for the 2021 AFL season.
After this year’s season was suspended for two and a half months, then subsequently rewritten and reduced to 17 rounds due to the coronavirus pandemic, things will revert back to normal in 2021, with a 23-round season and an MCG grand final.
The traditional matches will also return – not least the Easter Monday clash between the Geelong Cats and Hawthorn, the Anzac Day clash between Collingwood and Essendon, and the Queen’s Birthday clash between Melbourne and Collingwood.
The Dreamtime match between Essendon and Richmond will also be returned to the MCG, after this year’s edition was held in Darwin, while Sydney will get their derby back after Sydney Derby XIX was played behind WA’s hard border at Optus Stadium in Perth.
With all states and territories closing their borders to greater Sydney (and in the case of Western Australia, all of New South Wales) due to the recent outbreak of coronavirus infections on the Northern Beaches, it remains to be seen whether the Sydney Swans and GWS Giants could be forced into an early-season hub.
As it stands, the Swans are fixtured to face the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba, while the Giants are drawn to host St Kilda at Giants Stadium in the opening round. Further, the Giants are also scheduled to face Fremantle at Optus Stadium in Round 2.
However, with major quarantine requirements in force for residents of greater Sydney into all other states and territories, the fixture could be redrawn at short notice, and both NSW clubs could be forced to spend the early rounds away from home.
The worst case scenario could be that both clubs spend the majority of the season on the road, leaving fans in the Harbour City further starved of AFL, with no matches having been played in NSW since July 25.
Nevertheless, here are some of the highlights that you will be treated to in 2021.
1. The opening round
As always, the first round of every season is the most anticipated, and Round 1 next year will bring up a myriad of subplots.
The season will kick off on Thursday, March 18 with the annual season-opening clash between Richmond and Carlton at the MCG, which – all things going well – could be the first match played in Melbourne with a crowd since the 2019 grand final.
This year’s season opener was played less than a week after prime minister Scott Morrison banned all non-essential mass gatherings of more than 500 people, which was gradually lifted in July as the first wave of coronavirus infections subsided.
However, the situation deteriorated in Victoria to the point that after Round 5 no more matches were scheduled for the state, with all ten clubs evacuating and moving into hubs in Queensland (or in the case of Hawthorn, South Australia).
With a crowd of up to 50,000 (or 75,000, depending on the situation) set to be permitted into the MCG, the Tigers will unfurl their two most recent premiership flags, having been denied the chance to unveil their 2019 flag on March 19 this year.
Damien Hardwick’s side will be attempting to become the third team this century (after the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn in 2001-03 and 2013-15 respectively) to win three consecutive flags, and facing what is expected to be a much-improved Carlton side will provide the perfect springboard.
The following night, the MCG will play host to their first grudge match of the season when the Western Bulldogs unveil new recruit Adam Treloar against his old side, Collingwood.
The Dogs’ acquisition of Treloar was one of the biggest stories of the trade period, after it emerged that the Pies were looking to release him despite still being contracted to the Holden Centre.
Thus, Pies fans will be out in force as they look to show their displeasure towards him, as they did when Travis Cloke debuted for the Dogs against the black and white in this very fixture back in 2017.
Saturday will see Melbourne hosting Fremantle at the MCG, while Jeremy Cameron will make his Geelong debut when the Cats make the trek to the City of Churches to face the Adelaide Crows at the Adelaide Oval.
In the evening, traditional rivals Essendon and Hawthorn will look to draw a line in the sand when they feature in Marvel Stadium’s first match of the season, while the Sydney Swans have copped the short straw, drawn to face premiership favourites Brisbane at the Gabba.
Joe Daniher will get the chance to show the Swans what they missed out on when he faces the team he wanted to be traded to at the end of 2019, and his acquisition by the Lions will only increase their chances of returning to the grand final for the first time since 2004.
Coincidentally, in that year, the Lions hosted the Swans at home in Round 1 and unveiled their 2003 flag against their southern rivals. While the Lions won that match by two points, Paul Williams and Adam Goodes polled four Brownlow Medal votes between them for the Swans (Simon Black polled the other two votes).
For the Swans it is a return to south-east Queensland where they failed to win a single match last season, and after finishing third last in season 2020, facing the flag favourites in their backyard will be a punishing start to 2021 as they attempt to climb back up the ladder.
Sunday sees Port Adelaide return to the scene of their Round 22, 2019 horror show when they face North Melbourne without Ben Brown at Marvel Stadium, while the GWS Giants and St Kilda will feature on free-to-air when they face off at Giants Stadium.
The clash between the Giants and Saints will come 24 hours after their women’s sides face off at the same venue in Round 8 of the AFL Women’s season, and for the former side it will be the start of life after Jeremy Cameron, who left for the Geelong Cats at season’s end.
The Giants will also be out for redemption after bowing out of season 2020 with a whimper, kicking only three goals as they crashed to a 53-point defeat against the Saints at the Gabba, barely 12 months after they had defied the odds to reach the grand final.
Whether the match is played at Giants Stadium will remain to be seen, though it is likely that the Northern Beaches COVID-19 cluster will be contained in time for the start of the new season.
The final match of Round 1 sees the Gold Coast Suns make the tough trip across the Nullarbor to face the West Coast Eagles, who could be in for a baptism of fire should 2019 top draft pick Matt Rowell be named for his comeback after a shoulder injury ruined his debut season.
It was against the Eagles that Rowell played the match of his life, in just his second AFL game, earning three Brownlow Medal votes and a Rising Star nomination as the Suns marked their 200th match in style, thumping the westerners by 44 points.
But at Optus Stadium, a venue where the Suns have never won, it will be a whole lot tougher, not least when you also have to face the likes of Luke Shuey, Nic Naitanui, Andrew Gaff and Josh Kennedy.
2. Jesse Hogan faces his old clubs in successive weeks
GWS recruit Jesse Hogan will not have to wait long to face his two former clubs, with the Giants drawn to face Fremantle at Optus Stadium in Round 2, followed by a clash against his first club, Melbourne, at Manuka Oval in Round 3.
After exploding on the scene and winning the Rising Star award in his first season with Melbourne in 2015, consistently poor form, injuries and mental health issues saw him traded to Fremantle in 2019. He didn’t fare better there, playing over 20 games across a two-year period.
He now finds himself at his third club, where he has some huge shoes to fill, with the Giants having lost their spearhead Jeremy Cameron at the end of last season.
It is hoped that being based in rugby league-dominated Sydney could be what he needs as he looks to revive his career and make his mark on the Giants, who enter their tenth season in the AFL.
Due to Western Australia’s hard border with New South Wales, there is already some doubt as to whether the Fremantle-GWS match scheduled for Optus Stadium in Round 2 will go ahead. The only chance this match has of going ahead is if the Giants base themselves on, say, the Gold Coast in the early rounds.
For WA to reopen its border to NSW, the latter state must record a month without any community transmission of COVID-19 whatsoever.
3. Geelong versus Hawthorn on Easter Monday
The traditional rivalry between the Geelong Cats and Hawthorn will go up a notch when the two sides face each other on Easter Monday – but it will have added significance as it will be the first time Isaac Smith faces his old side after moving down the highway during the off-season.
In recent years, matches between the Cats and Hawks have not failed to deliver, with the Hawks stealing the Cats’ 2008 flag with an upset victory in the grand final, and Tom Hawkins kicking the match-winning goal at the death to sink the brown and gold in 2012, among other moments.
Last season, the Cats and Hawks faced each other at Kardinia Park for the first time since 2006, with the Cats running away with a 61-point victory, after which Hawks coach Alastair Clarkson said the Cats “were not that good”.
It was the Cats’ first win of season 2020, after they had dropped their season opener against the GWS Giants in Sydney before the season was suddenly suspended at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
4. Brisbane versus Essendon, Round 5
The Round 5 Saturday night clash between the Brisbane Lions and Essendon promises to be huge for a number of reasons.
The first is that Joe Daniher will face his old club for the first time, after requesting a trade out of Windy Hill at the end of last season. That followed a failed attempt to move to Sydney at the end of the 2019 season.
Not only that, it’s also expected the Lions will mark the two-decade anniversary of the first of their three flags, which was won at the expense of the Bombers, who at the time were the defending premiers.
Only the older Lions fans will remember the club’s golden era, which started when then-coach Leigh Matthews famously quoted the line from Predator: “if it bleeds, we can kill it. And we think Essendon can bleed”.
That inspired the Lions to an upset victory over the Bombers at the Gabba in Round 10, 2001, kick-starting a 20-match winning streak that also included a win over Kevin Sheedy’s side in the decider, and ended in Round 5, 2002.
That 2001 flag was followed up by two more, in 2002 and 2003, at the expense of Collingwood.
After a decade in the doldrums following their golden era, the current crop of Lions are right in the mix for the 2021 flag and a win over the Bombers could be another stone laid in their path to the premiership.
For the Bombers, this will be their second consecutive match on the road, after facing the Sydney Swans at the SCG in a Thursday night clash in Round 4.
Also in this round, St Kilda and Richmond will contest the annual Maddie’s match at Marvel Stadium, while the 20th Sydney Derby is fixtured to be played at the SCG, should the coronavirus situation in the Harbour City improve by then.
5. Anzac Day round
The 2021 Anzac Day round promises to be huge. It kicks off with a grudge match between the GWS Giants and Western Bulldogs in the nation’s capital, where fireworks can be expected.
In recent years the Giants and Bulldogs have built a rivalry centered on the famous 2016 preliminary final, as well as the 2019 elimination final in which several Giants players, including chief antagonist Toby Greene, came under fire for their treatment of Marcus Bontempelli.
Last season, with an empty Marvel Stadium providing the backdrop, the Bulldogs won a spiteful clash by 24 points, in which several spot fires broke out across the ground.
For the first time, the now traditional Anzac Eve match between Melbourne and Richmond will be played on the Saturday evening. At the same time, Fremantle will host their Len Hall Tribute match against North Melbourne at Optus Stadium.
But all eyes will be on the centre piece match between Collingwood and Essendon at the MCG, which will be broadcast nationally by the Seven Network in the Sunday afternoon time slot, thus feeding their audience into the all-important 6:00pm news bulletin.
The Anzac Day match is typically the most attended match of the year outside of the AFL grand final, and regardless of what attendance restrictions are in place by then, it promises to be another well attended match as the Bombers and Pies face off on the footy field.
From Round 7 onwards, a floating fixture will be implemented to allow the AFL to schedule matches at their own discretion, much like what the NRL did prior to the 2013 season.
The biggest obstacles they will have to work around will be the A-League season, which will still be ongoing by the time Round 7 begins, as well as the NRL, where the Sydney Roosters will continue to play matches at the SCG while they await the completion of the new Sydney Football Stadium.
6. The grand final rematch, Round 8
The Geelong Cats will have to wait until Round 8 for their first shot at revenge, with the grand final rematch against Richmond fixtured for Round 8 at the MCG.
The escalating coronavirus situation in Victoria during last season meant that the MCG could not host the decider for the first time since 1991, with the Gabba instead awarded the hosting rights as a token for saving the AFL season.
In another historic first, the grand final was held at night, and the match saw Richmond cement themselves as the most consistent team of the past four years, claiming their third flag in that period at the expense of the Cats.
Dustin Martin lived up to his nickname as “Mr September” (or, in the case of last year, “Mr October”), becoming the first man to win three Norm Smith Medals with another best-on-ground performance in the summit match of the season.
The Tigers’ victory also denied Gary Ablett Jr, a long-time tormentor of the Tigers (who could forget when he absolutely dominated when the Cats destroyed the Tigers by 157 points in 2007?), a premiership medal in his final AFL game, and Patrick Dangerfield a maiden flag.
One of three matches fixtured for the MCG in Round 8, it is likely to be given the Friday night time slot, which would guarantee massive ratings for Channel Seven in Melbourne.
Also in Round 8, Adelaide will be out to reverse their humiliating 75-point Showdown loss from 2020, while Essendon makes the short trip north to Sydney for the second time in five weeks when they face the GWS Giants at Giants Stadium.
7. Brisbane versus Richmond, Round 10
It may as well be that the reigning premiers, Richmond, face the 2021 flag favourites the Brisbane Lions when the two sides face off at the Gabba in a match likely to be scheduled for the premium Friday night time slot.
After a decade of torment against the Tigers, the Lions managed to turn the tables with a 15-point home victory in the qualifying final, ending a 15-match losing streak and ensuring Richmond stars Dustin Martin and Trent Cotchin both suffered their first loss against them.
That put the Lions into a preliminary final for the first time since 2004, where they then wasted a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to contest a grand final in their very own backyard when they went down to the Geelong Cats.
On the Tigers’ end, it forced them to take the long away around to get to the decider. They subsequently defeated St Kilda on the Gold Coast, and Port Adelaide in Adelaide, to book their third grand final berth in four years.
While the grand final match-up that all Queenslanders had wished for did not eventuate, this Round 10 showdown between the Lions and Tigers shapes as a potential preview of the 2021 decider.
The two teams will then face each other for a second time in Round 18, which will mark the Lions’ first of two consecutive matches at the MCG (they also face Hawthorn in Round 19), also their only two matches at the ground in 2021.
8. Dreamtime at the G, Round 12
After last season’s edition was played in Darwin, the annual Dreamtime match returns to the MCG in Round 12, with the match to be played during the first of three split rounds.
Stage four lockdowns in Melbourne meant that the 2020 match could not be played at the home of AFL, so therefore it was played at TIO Stadium in Darwin, home to many of our great Indigenous players including Michael Long, Maurice Rioli and Anthony McDonald-Tipungwuti, among others.
For the Bombers, this will be a golden opportunity to put to bed a major hoodoo, having not won this fixture, nor beaten the Tigers, since Round 11, 2014 when they won by 50 points.
Also in this round, Melbourne will take a home game against the Brisbane Lions to Alice Springs, while Adelaide will host Collingwood at the Adelaide Oval for the fourth consecutive year.
9. The Big Freeze returns, Round 13
After last season’s match was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Queen’s Birthday fixture returns, with Melbourne hosting Collingwood in what is typically their highest drawing home match of the season.
While there were no festivities on Queen’s Birthday at the MCG this year, the Big Freeze still went ahead as a virtual event, with each of the 18 clubs nominating several players to take the slide for a good cause.
All going well, the blue slide that has become iconic with the event – launched to raise funds to find a cure for motor neurone disease – will return with several former players set to take the plunge.
On the field, Melbourne will be hoping for a much improved season, having narrowly missed out on a finals berth in 2020 after finishing second last in the previous year.
Collingwood will be hoping that they are still in the finals race, with many predicting they’ll slide down the ladder after losing several key players, namely Travis Varcoe, Jaidyn Stephenson and Adam Treloar, at the end of last season.
Also in this round, the Sydney Swans will face Hawthorn at the SCG, and should Lance Franklin enjoy a strong first half of the season, there is a good chance he could bring up his milestone 1000th AFL goal against his old side at the very ground where Tony Lockett broke the all-time goal kicking record in 1999.
10. The Country Game, Round 16
Another match moved out of Victoria due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Country Game returns to the state in season 2021, with a unique backdrop. This edition will be played at Kardinia Park.
It will mark the first time since 1993 that Essendon make the trip south to face the Geelong Cats in their backyard, with a lot of water having passed under the bridge since then.
The last time the Bombers played at Kardinia Park, the “Baby Bombers” – as they were known back then – were on their way to a 15th premiership and were led by rookies like James Hird, Dustin Fletcher, Joe Misiti and Marc Mercuri, among others.
Since then, nearly all matches between the Cats and Bombers have been played at either the MCG or Docklands Stadium, while last year’s match – which the Cats won by 66 points – was played at the Gabba.
The ongoing redevelopment at Kardinia Park has seen the stadium’s capacity increase, to the point that in 2013 it began hosting night matches. When fully complete, it will allow the Cats to host the big Victorian clubs on a regular basis.
The Bombers’ impending trip down the highway will mean that by the end of next season, Collingwood will have been the least recent team to play in Geelong. The Pies have not played there since 1999.
Also in this round, the West Coast Eagles will make the long trip east to face the Sydney Swans at the SCG, a venue where they have not won since 1999, while Richmond will return to the Gold Coast, where they were based for most of last season, for a clash against the Suns.
11. The Jeremy Cameron Cup, Round 21
The Geelong Cats’ biggest off-season recruit, Jeremy Cameron, will have to wait until Round 21 to renew acquaintances with the GWS Giants – the club he departed at the end of last season after leading their goal kicking for the first nine years of their existence.
With Cameron coming off contract at the end of the 2020 season, speculation grew as to where he would move next, and when he announced that he wanted to move to Kardinia Park, the Giants were able to match the Cats’ bid for the full forward.
This forced the Cats into a trade for the 27-year-old, who would join veteran Tom Hawkins in the forward line, thus pairing up the two most recent Coleman Medallists.
The Dartmoor native has also been given the five guernsey made famous by Gary Ablett Sr, whose son Gary Ablett Jr retired at the end of last season.
Cameron, twice an All-Australian (including in 2013, when his Giants side won only one match), will hope to be fit and firing by the time his old club make the daunting trip to Kardinia Park, where they were victorious on their last visit in Round 4, 2019.
It’s also expected both clubs will be right in the finals mix come the first weekend of August, thus also adding some interest and intrigue to this late-season match-up.
Also in Round 21, Western Bulldogs fans will be looking forward to their clash against Essendon at Marvel Stadium, as it was in this fixture in 2019 where the Dogs ran riot, kicking 21 straight goals as they romped to an embarrassingly easy 104-point win over the Bombers.
12. The AFL finals
Finally, 23 rounds of jam-packed action will culminate in four weeks of finals, the pinnacle of which is the grand final scheduled for Saturday, September 25 at the MCG.
As defending premiers, Richmond will have the biggest targets on their heads as 17 other clubs attempt to stop them from becoming the third club – after the Brisbane Lions and Hawthorn – to notch a premiership hat trick this century.
The Brisbane Lions, Geelong Cats and Port Adelaide are among the other clubs expected to feature in September, with questions to be asked of the Lions as to whether they can put behind their preliminary final disappointment and scale the premiership dais for the first time since 2003.
Another question to be asked is whether other teams such as St Kilda and the Western Bulldogs can live up to their potential. The Saints have continued their recruiting raid on other clubs, and the Dogs have not won a final since their historic 2016 premiership.
Next year’s AFL decider will take place one week before the NRL’s, meaning the sport will have the lead-up week all to itself.
Other notable features of the draw include:
• For the first time since 2006, Collingwood will face both the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide in Adelaide in the same regular season. It will also be the first time since 2017 that the Pies face the Power at the Adelaide Oval.
• Essendon and Collingwood will each play a match in Sydney for the 23rd and 19th consecutive year, respectively.
• The West Coast Eagles will not travel to Queensland until the final round, when they face the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba. No matches are scheduled for Optus Stadium in the final round, with Fremantle travelling to face St Kilda at Marvel Stadium.
• In lieu of the Shanghai Showdown, St Kilda will host the Adelaide Crows at Cazaly’s Stadium in Round 13. They will also face the Gold Coast Suns and Brisbane Lions in Queensland in Rounds 8 and 17, respectively.
• The Geelong Cats will play a match in Tasmania for the first time since 2007, when they face North Melbourne at Bellerive Oval. The other three teams the Kangaroos will face in Hobart are Melbourne, the GWS Giants and Gold Coast Suns.
• The three teams the GWS Giants will face in Canberra are Melbourne, the Western Bulldogs and Port Adelaide.
• The four teams Hawthorn will face in Launceston are the Adelaide Crows, North Melbourne, Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs.
• Local derbies include Sydney Derbies in Rounds 5 (SCG) and 18 (Giants Stadium), Q Clashes in Rounds 9 (Metricon Stadium) and 20 (Gabba), Showdowns in Rounds 8 (Port Adelaide) and 21 (Adelaide Crows), and Western Derbies in Rounds 7 (West Coast Eagles) and 22 (Fremantle).
Those are just some of the highlights of the 2021 AFL fixture, which is always filled with excitement and intrigue. The countdown is now on to Thursday, March 18, with the season kicking off between Richmond and Carlton at the MCG.