2021 AFL season: Round 1 preview

Nearly five months after Richmond won arguably the toughest premiership yet, 17 other teams will this weekend begin their mission to stop them from repeating as champions again in season 2021.

As is tradition, the Tigers and Carlton will open the season at the MCG, in what will be the first AFL match to be played with fans in attendance at the ground since the 2019 grand final.

Because the Tigers were denied the chance to unveil their 2019 flag last year, Thursday night stands to be a night of celebration as the club will also unfurl its 2020 flag in front of a maximum COVID-safe crowd expected to number up to 50,000.

Damien Hardwick’s side will also enter the new season with the chance to join the Brisbane Lions (2001-03) and Hawthorn (2013-15) as the only triple-premiership winning sides of the AFL era, and only the third since Melbourne’s hat-trick between 1955-57.

In a blockbuster opening to the new season, the Western Bulldogs will unveil its newest recruit, Adam Treloar (injury pending), against his old side Collingwood, in the first Friday night match of the season – one in which fireworks are guaranteed.

Those matches will be two of five to be played in Victoria this weekend, as AFL football returns to the state for the first time since Round 5 last year, and with fans in attendance for the first time since the 2019 finals.

AFL football will also return to Sydney for the first time since Round 8 last year this weekend, when the GWS Giants play St Kilda at Giants Stadium – six months after the Saints delivered last rites to the Giants’ 2020 season with a 53-point win at the Gabba.

Other matches will see Fremantle jet across the Nullarbor to face Melbourne at the G, while the Geelong Cats make the trip to the City of Churches to face the Adelaide Crows at the Oval.

In the evening, Essendon and Hawthorn will clash at Docklands Stadium, while the Sydney Swans have been slapped with a horror first-up trip to Brisbane to face premiership favourites the Brisbane Lions at the Gabba.

On Sunday, Port Adelaide travel to face North Melbourne, while the Gold Coast Suns make the long trip west to face the West Coast Eagles at Optus Stadium.

(Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Here’s your preview of Round 1.

Richmond vs Carlton
Footy’s return to Victoria begins on Thursday night, with a COVID-safe crowd of up to 50,000 to be permitted into the MCG for the annual season opener between Richmond and Carlton.

Due to the pandemic, early 2019 matches in Victoria were played with crowds banned from attending, and when the situation in the state escalated to the point that they were recording hundreds of new daily cases, sport literally became non-existent in Victoria.

There were no further matches played in the state after Round 5 and all of the state’s professional sporting clubs were forced to evacuate in order to keep the Australian sporting calendar ticking.

Richmond coach Damien Hardwick had earlier said that the 2020 premiership would be the toughest one yet, yet it was his side that were able to bring its premiership-winning form to Queensland, defeating the Geelong Cats by 31 points in the decider to claim their 13th flag.

Now they get the chance to unfurl not only that flag, but also their 2019 flag, on what stands to be a double night of celebration against the Blues.

Again, the Tigers have been able to retain the majority of their premiership players, though they have lost Oleg Markov and Jack Higgins to the Gold Coast Suns and St Kilda, respectively.

Meantime, David Teague will begin his second full season as Carlton coach and after a modest season which returned a 7-10 record and an 11th-place finish, the time for excuses at Princes Park is well and truly over.

Once again, the Blues will be led by Patrick Cripps and Sam Docherty as co-captains, and the former will need to step up his game if he is to lead the club to its first finals berth since 2013, amid rumours he could seek a trade to a WA-based club if the Blues’ lack of success continues into 2021.

Patrick Cripps of the Blues smiles after victory

(Photo by Graham Denholm/AFL Photos via Getty Images )

While the Blues will be expected to challenge, I think the Tigers will prove too strong as they finally get to play in front of their Victorian-based fans for the first time since the 2019 grand final.

Richmond by 25 points.

Collingwood vs Western Bulldogs
Without doubt, this is the match we’ve all been waiting for – the grudge match between Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs at the MCG.

The Pies made headlines during the off-season when they elected to offload Adam Treloar despite him still being contracted to the club, and the decision was made at the death to trade him to the Western Bulldogs.

This has set the fuse for what promises to be an explosive Friday night at the MCG – and it’s not the first time a Round 1 match between the Pies and Bulldogs has been so highly anticipated.

You’ll remember back in 2016, the Pies offloaded Travis Cloke to the Dogs and such was the hype surrounding his trade to Whitten Oval, the AFL scheduled a Friday night grudge match between the two sides in the opening round of the 2017 season, with Cloke kicking a first-quarter goal against his old side.

As was the case four years ago when the Pies fans turned against Cloke, they’ll also be expected to turn against Treloar when he debuts in the red, white and blue for the first time against his old club.

Treloar’s departure from the Holden Centre has again led to predictions that the Pies will again regress, having gone from grand finalists in 2018 to preliminary finalists in 2019 and then semi-finalists last year.

Adam Treloar

Adam Treloar (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)

On the flipside, his acquisition by the Bulldogs could be what they need as they attempt to put behind consecutive elimination final losses and continue moving up the ladder.

But could Treloar be the difference between the two sides this Friday night?

Despite losing him, I still think the Pies should take the points at the MCG.

Collingwood by 12 points.

Melbourne vs Fremantle
The first of four matches on Saturday sees Melbourne return home to the MCG for the first time since Round 5 last season when they host fellow potential improvers Fremantle.

After finishing second-last in 2019, the Dees improved significantly in 2020, but still fell short of a finals berth, finishing ninth and half a game out of the eight, with late-season losses to the Sydney Swans and the Dockers, their opponents this weekend, proving costly.

Now in his fifth season as coach, Simon Goodwin knows he will have to take the club back into the finals, otherwise, he could face being the latest Melbourne coach to be punted before the end of the season, after Neale Daniher (2007), Dean Bailey (2011) and Mark Neeld (2013).

The Dees recruited strongly during the off-season, landing Ben Brown and Majak Daw from North Melbourne, the latter just a matter of days ago.

Majak Daw

Daw is a new face at Melbourne (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Brown, sadly, won’t feature for the Dees this weekend due to a knee injury, while defender Marty Hore will miss another season after rupturing his ACL during pre-season training in January.

Meanwhile, Fremantle enters the new season on the back of a promising first season under Justin Longmuir in which they finished twelfth with seven wins from 17 matches.

They have managed to retain the majority of their playing list for season 2021, though Cam McCarthy, Brandon Matera and Jesse Hogan all left the club at the end of last season, with Hogan being traded to the GWS Giants.

Nat Fyfe will gear up for another season as captain and while nothing much is expected of the Dockers this year, Melbourne’s tendency of losing winnable matches could see the Dockers pull off an upset at the G.

Fremantle by 10 points.

Adelaide Crows vs Geelong Cats
For the third consecutive year, and for the fifth time in seven years, the Adelaide Crows have the honour of opening the season at the Adelaide Oval and this year will do so with a tough first up clash against last year’s runners-up, the Geelong Cats.

Having been part of Port Adelaide’s rebuild nearly a decade ago, Matthew Nicks learnt first-hand how painful rebuilding a side can be as head coach, with the Crows losing their first 13 matches and ultimately winning just three on their way to claiming the wooden spoon.

Not only that, they’ve also lost key players such as 2019 best-and-fairest Brad Crouch and Rory Atkins to St Kilda and the Gold Coast Suns, respectively, while Kyle Hartigan was traded to Hawthorn during the off-season.

That contrasts with the Geelong Cats, which defied an ageing playing list to reach its first grand final since 2011, only to be denied by a machine called the Richmond Football Club and a certain man by the name of Dustin Martin.

It denied Cats champion Gary Ablett Jr a premiership farewell, while veteran defender Harry Taylor also hung up his boots after the defeat.

But they were able to land some big fish during the trade period, not least Jeremy Cameron, who led the GWS Giants’ goalkicking in each of their first nine seasons in the AFL and will join 2020 Coleman Medallist Tom Hawkins in a towering forward line.

Tom Hawkins of the Cats celebrates a goal

(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

His arrival, as well as that of Shaun Higgins from North Melbourne, has led to elevated expectations for the Cats and it’s fair to say that this could be the last chance for captain Joel Selwood to lead his team to another flag before his inevitable retirement, whenever that will come.

Their star power will be too much for the Crows and there is no way the Cats drop their season opener.

Geelong Cats by 20 points.

Essendon vs Hawthorn
A Docklands blockbuster awaits us on Saturday night when Essendon and Hawthorn face off in the first men’s premiership match at the ground since Round 5 last season.

In recent weeks, following the news that stadiums in Victoria would be allowed to hold 50 per cent capacity, the Bombers pushed for this match to be played at the MCG so as to maximise the COVID-safe attendance, however the AFL has confirmed the match will remain at Docklands.

That has naturally left fans of both the Bombers and Hawks disappointed; nonetheless, a COVID-safe crowd of about 26,000 or so is expected to park Marvel Stadium for what should be another grudge match between two sides who clearly don’t like each other.

The Bombers have a new coach with Ben Rutten officially assuming the senior coaching role from John Worsfold after the latter departed at the end of last season following five modest seasons at the helm.

He will have plenty of work to do with his side, which won only one of its final ten matches last season to finish 12th on the ladder, has not reached consecutive finals series since 2003-04 and hasn’t won a final in 17 years.

They have added some height to their ruck/forward line with Peter Wright arriving at the club from the Gold Coast Suns, while Jye Caldwell (GWS Giants) and Nick Hind (St Kilda) are also notable arrivals to Windy Hill.

On the other hand, the Hawks will be keen for an improved season after finishing 15th with a 5-12 record, winning only two matches after Round 4 and then having to hub in South Australia in the second half of the season.

They have also been weakened by the retirements of premiership veterans Ben Stratton and Paul Puopolo, while Shaun Burgoyne will gear up for one more season, after which it is expected he will hang up his boots.

It was the club’s worst season since 2004, and also the worst since Alastair Clarkson took the reins in 2005 when the club was at its lowest ebb.

Alastair Clarkson

Alastair Clarkson (Dylan Burns/AFL Photos)

Thus, Clarkson knows how painful a rebuild can be, but will be up to the task to restore the club’s status as a powerhouse before his time as coach comes to an end.

On their home deck, the Bombers should take the points and get the Ben Rutten era off to a winning start.

Essendon by 24 points.

Brisbane Lions vs Sydney Swans
The other match on Saturday night sees premiership favourites Brisbane Lions get a dream start to the new season against likely strugglers Sydney Swans at the Gabba.

After being the major beneficiary of last year’s COVID-ravaged season, the Lions missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win a premiership flag in their own backyard when they lost to the Geelong Cats in the preliminary final at the Gabba.

By the time the AFL moved its operations to the sunshine state last year, Chris Fagan’s side had already played the majority of the non-Victorian clubs and therefore barely had to travel, but had to fly up to Cairns for an ‘away’ match against the Swans in Round 17.

But despite starting hot favourites against the Cats, it seemed complacency caught up to them as they believed they would be given an armchair’s ride to the premiership, such was their lack of travel after Round 8.

During the off-season, the Lions landed more big fish in ex-Essendon forward Joe Daniher, who many believe is the final piece in their premiership puzzle.

It comes 12 months after he was unsuccessful in landing a trade to Sydney, and it now happens to be that he and the Lions will face the Swans to start off the season.

But the Lions have suffered a major setback, with former No. 1 draft pick Cameron Rayner to miss the entire season after rupturing his ACL during the AAMI Community series, while Dan McStay and Darcy Gardiner both won’t play on Saturday night.

In contrast to the Lions’ recent revival that has them primed for premiership glory this year, for the Sydney Swans, their trip to the Gabba is a horror start to a season which also includes facing Richmond at the MCG in Round 3 and another trip to Queensland to face the Gold Coast Suns in Round 6.

The AFL experts have not been kind to the Swans, with many predicting they will again wallow in the bottom part of the ladder as its rebuild of its playing list continues.

John Longmire

(AAP Image/Joel Carrett)

The Swans crashed to a second consecutive bottom-four finish last season, playing only four games at the SCG after a second wave of coronavirus cases in New South Wales forced them out of the state after Round 8, after which they won only two matches.

Their final record of 5-12 was their worst since they claimed the wooden spoon in 1994, and their final placing of 16th was also their lowest since the AFL became a 16-club league in 1995.

Already, full-forward Lance Franklin, who didn’t feature at all in season 2020 due to injury, has been ruled out of the trip to the sunshine capital, which makes the club’s clash against the Lions even more tougher.

At home, expect the Lions, anchored by new recruit Joe Daniher and reigning Brownlow Medallist Lachie Neale, to make a huge statement on Saturday night and sentence the Swans to an embarrassing start to the new season.

Brisbane Lions by 60 points.

North Melbourne vs Port Adelaide
The first of three matches on Sunday sees a new-look North Melbourne welcome last year’s minor premiers, Port Adelaide, to Marvel Stadium.

The Roos were one of the biggest disappointments of season 2020; after winning their first two matches, they won only one more match thereafter (against wooden spooners the Adelaide Crows) to finish 17th on the ladder with a 3-14 record.

Still, they managed to achieved the highest score of the season by any side, booting 19.5 (119) against the Crows in Round 9, but were otherwise ordinary in what was their worst season since their last wooden spoon season in 1972.

Rhyce Shaw announced he would not continue as coach, leaving David Noble to pick up the pieces as he attempts to field a competitive North Melbourne side in season 2021.

His first task is attempting to take down the Power, which finished as wire-to-wire minor premiers last year only for past finals demons to return as they lost to eventual premiers Richmond by just six points in a heartstopping preliminary final at the Adelaide Oval.

Despite the heartbreaking end to last season, the Power remain up there among the contenders for this year’s flag and the missed opportunity will only spur them on to go one better in season 2021.

Defeating the Roos in their third consecutive Round 1 away match should be the right way to start the season.

Port Adelaide by 26 points.

GWS Giants vs St Kilda
The first match to be played in Sydney for eight months sees the GWS Giants play host to St Kilda in the free-to-air match at Giants Stadium.

After a second wave of coronavirus cases in the Harbour City saw all states close their borders to New South Wales, the Giants and Sydney Swans were forced into the south-east Queensland hub for the remainder of the season.

The Giants did not adapt to the hub well; after Round 10 (at which point they were 6-4 for the season), they won only two more matches to finish 10th on the ladder, missing out on the finals for the first time since 2015.

Their season ended with barely a whimper as they booted only three goals in a 53-point loss to St Kilda at the Gabba.

As if that was not enough, they also lost foundation forward Jeremy Cameron to the Geelong Cats, leaving a gaping hole in the club’s forward line that has since been filled by Fremantle import Jesse Hogan.

Jeremy Cameron

Jeremy Cameron will be missed at Giants Stadium (Robert Cianflone/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

One hundred and eighty-four days after having their season ended in brutal fashion by the Saints, the Giants have an early chance to bury some of the demons from last season when they face the same team, but this time they’ll have the support of the home crowd behind them.

Meantime, the Saints go into the new season on the back of having reached the finals for the first time since 2011, and again they have stocked up on their playing list as they bid to go one better in 2021.

They have acquired Jack Higgins and Brad Crouch from Richmond and the Adelaide Crows, respectively, but will be missing the latter due to a two-match suspension arising from drug charges last year.

They’ll also be without forward Max King, who suffered a concussion arising from being hit by a golf ball during a game of social golf, as well as Dan Hannebery, Paddy Ryder, co-captain Jarryn Geary, Rowan Marshall and reborn defender James Frawley, among others.

In contrast to the Saints’ injury woes, the Giants will have only Lachie Whitfield, Adam Kennedy, Jesse Hogan and Melbourne import Braydon Preuss missing from their best 22, but have given debuts to Tanner Bruhn and Matt Flynn, who will play his first game after being drafted back in 2015.

At home, the Giants can get their season of redemption off to a good start, but not without an almighty challenge from the Saints, who have never won at Giants Stadium from two attempts.

GWS Giants by 10 points.

West Coast Eagles vs Gold Coast Suns
The final match of the opening round sees the Gold Coast Suns make the toughest road trip in footy as they fly west to face the West Coast Eagles at Optus Stadium.

The Suns had started last season brightly, winning four of their first seven matches, but things went pear-shaped when first-year sensation Matt Rowell suffered a serious shoulder injury in the Round 5 loss to the Geelong Cats.

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal

Matthew Rowell of the Suns celebrates a goal (Photo by Jono Searle/AFL Photos/via Getty Images )

He had polled his first nine Brownlow Medal votes in three consecutive rounds, including a best-on-ground effort against the Eagles in Round 2 which also saw him take home a Rising Star nomination.

Stuart Dew’s side won only one match after Round 7 (albeit against fellow strugglers North Melbourne), but the club is otherwise satisfied with how the club is tracking under his watch and therefore granted him a two-year contract extension in July last year.

Now it happens to be that Rowell’s comeback match could be against the Eagles, should he be named, but this time it will be at Optus Stadium, where the Suns have never won.

This will have the Eagles, who will be without premiership duo Elliot Yeo and captain Luke Shuey due to injuries, on red alert as they fear the prospect of a repeat performance from Rowell.

Adam Simpson’s men struggled for consistency in last year’s COVID-ravaged season, in which they hubbed in south-east Queensland on two separate occasions on either side of a long stretch of home games between Rounds 7-13.

They managed to finish fifth at the end of last season and were, therefore, able to host an elimination final behind WA’s hard borders, but went down to Collingwood, who were dubbed the “dirty Pies” by the media during the week, by a solitary point, thus ending their season.

But now, with all states and territories open to each other for the first time in a year, normal service should resume, meaning the Eagles (and Dockers, for that matter) can re-adapt to their typical schedule of playing at home every second week.

Despite the injuries to two of their premiership stars, the Eagles should start off with a bang at home.

West Coast Eagles by 20 points.

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