One year ago the pandemic-hit AFL was desperately looking for a way to save its 2020 season by pushing forward with an opening round devoid of crowds.
Thursday night the code comes full circle; bruised, but with a healthier outlook.
Not unlike the annual Richmond-Carlton opening fixture itself, the 2021 season reset shapes as a blockbuster, but it may well be a struggle for the recovering patient to live up to the hype.
After a 537-day absence football crowds will return to the MCG, albeit with reduced capacity and a series of new ‘COVID-normal’ rules around ticketing, seating and service at the ground.
The AFL has offered a new approach to fixturing, apparently taking no chances in wooing back fans who spent a year watching from the comfort of home.
Re-animating crowd attendance and engagement has also seen a greater emphasis on big rivalries.
No doubt it will also not hurt the TV ratings from the new stay-at-homes.
In a rare show of solidarity with public opinion, the AFL has also reverted to the traditional day grand final time slot, having used the pandemic to finally trial the long lusted-after night fixture – a move which did feature fireworks, but which was mostly met with a ‘meh’ from fans.
It turns out the fireworks and half-time show designed to boost TV ratings did not make up for the lack of Melbourne-based build-up – the absence of which did seem to make league hearts fonder.
AFL HQ likewise seems determined to ensure that Victoria does not miss out again should further virus-free hubs be required.
League chief Gillon McLachlan told FoxFooty this week that much had been learned from last year’s experience and clubs could stay and play in Melbourne.
“They may be able to live in Victoria in different circumstances to (what) they were in Queensland,” McLachlan said.
Victoria clearly has facilities, teams … a great community outlook … So we’ll do what we need to do.”
While not having a clear fixture beyond the first six weeks may rankle traditionalists, one thing football won’t be lacking for in 2021 is its usual controversy.
Hot on the heels of the damning report on racism at Collingwood that hastened the end of Eddie McGuire’s tenure as president, the AFL has spent the past week formulating a last-minute response to the long-standing issue of concussion-related injuries.
The sad stories about the toll of concussion that emerged after the deaths of Geelong great Graham ‘Polly’ Farmer, St Kilda’s Danny Frawley and former Richmond midfielder Shane Tuck gave the AFL no choice but to finally act – and decisively.
For too long the AFL, clubs and players themselves have dodged the mounting evidence of the long-term damage in favour of pushing the rules that have existed to keep concussed players out of the fray.
On Wednesday the AFL approved a new medical substitution rule, giving clubs a 23rd man in their squads and allowed to join the match if there is a game-ending injury.
While the league’s previous substitution rule was ultimately deemed a failure, this new incarnation leaves clubs and players in no doubt that there’s no excuse for risking health in pursuit of game time or wins.
Overcoming adversity has always been a big part of AFL folklore and there’s also no shortage of redemption stories ready to play out as the season unfolds.
New Western Bulldog player Adam Treloar opened up on FoxFooty this week about his unceremonious departure from Collingwood after a mishandled salary-cap issue, concerned that the club had referenced his family and his mental health in discussion about his contract.
On Friday, Treloar will meet his old club at the MCG and with much focus on the Magpies in the off-season, coach Nathan Buckley will be under pressure to get the rebuild right.
In Sydney, coach John Longmire clearly has plans to renew his team with youth as quickly as possible, naming a trio of last year’s draft picks for their first games against the Brisbane Lions on Saturday night at the Gabba.
Logan McDonald, Braeden Campbell and Errol Gulden were picked at No.4, 5 and 32 respectively, marking the first time the Swans have plumbed for three first-year debutants in the one side since 1990, when Paul Kelly debuted alongside Brad Tunbridge and Shane Fell. Kelly went on to be a Brownlow medallist and captain the club.
For the Lions, the return to the Gabba comes after the sting of missing out on a home grand final appearance with the preliminary final loss to Geelong and coach Chris Fagan has said the addition of the often-injured former Bomber Joe Daniher will help boost the forward line and ruck stocks.
The Lions appear to be in the mix, but with Port Adelaide and Geelong’s recruitment filling gaps in their line-ups over the break the likely top four looks not much different to last year.
The question will be whether the Lions, Cats or Port can break Richmond’s stranglehold on excellence as the Tigers look for their fourth flag in five years.
With coach Damien Hardwick on a new contract, the Tigers title defence begins on Thursday night against a Blues outfit still rebuilding with youngsters.
With the new rules designed to protect fans from a pandemic and those younger players from concussion, the game may not only be bigger in 2021, but it’s also set to be healthier.