KEY reinforcements for Collingwood and Geelong will ensure the teams for tonight's grand final rematch at the MCG will bear a strong resemblance to last year's decider.
Dale Thomas' return for the Magpies after four matches sidelined with a hamstring injury will be complemented by that of ruckman Darren Jolly, as well as forwards Chris Dawes and Alex Fasolo.
Geelong's line-up will be fortified by the inclusion of Jimmy Bartel, last year's Norm Smith medallist, after an ankle injury, as well as premier defender Matthew Scarlett after a thigh complaint. Small forward Mathew Stokes is the other notable inclusion, which should help the Cats cover the loss of Allen Christensen (calf).
Collingwood defender Chris Tarrant during a training session at Gosch's Paddock. Photo: Paul Rovere
Scarlett was a late withdrawal from the team that lost to Adelaide last weekend. He was put through a rigorous training session to gauge his fitness, and while a final decision will be made today, the club's football manager, Neil Balme, said he was optimistic the decorated full-back would return. ''We definitely expect him to play,'' Balme said yesterday.
Barring any late changes, the Cats will boast 17 of their premiership-winning team, while the Magpies will have 16 from the grand final, which the Cats won by 38 points.
Both teams have had similar preparations, after travelling interstate to play last weekend, but Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley said the infusion of players with ''some fresh legs is not going to hurt''.
The Magpies (5-2) are aiming for their fifth consecutive victory, while the Cats (4-3) are barely in positive territory after seven rounds. But Buckley insisted his club would not be comforted by the Cats' subdued start to their premiership defence.
''Geelong are still a quality football side; they have been for a number of years,'' he said. ''We definitely don't underrate them internally at Collingwood.
''We've looked at their last month. They've won three out of four and they faced a very good football side last week on their own home soil, in Adelaide. That performance stands alone, but that's the past. You've got to worry about what's coming up.''
Buckley said tonight's match would be ''an arm-wrestle … a real battle'', a scenario he insisted his team was prepared for.
North Melbourne and Port Adelaide have made some significant omissions after defeats last weekend, although the greatest rebuke has seemingly been delivered by the Gold Coast match committee.
Enigmatic utility Jared Brennan has been axed by the Suns following their loss to fellow expansion club Greater Western Sydney, as has midfielder Trent McKenzie. The pair was among six changes made by Gold Coast for its match against the Western Bulldogs at TIO Stadium in Darwin tomorrow night.
Among their replacements is former St Kilda player Andrew McQualter, who has been in the Suns' leadership group all season despite only being upgraded from their rookie list this week.
The Bulldogs have made a like-for-like swap for injured pair Jordan Roughead (calf) and Patrick Veszpremi (groin), with Liam Jones and Nathan Djerrkura included.
Admired midfielder David Rodan was one of four casualties at Port Adelaide, while North Melbourne dumped midfielder Liam Anthony, despite him ranking just below captain Andrew Swallow for possessions at the Kangaroos. Key defender Nathan Grima has been named to play his first match of the season.
Hawthorn has regained underrated defender Josh Gibson for its home match in Launceston against Fremantle, but is without captain Luke Hodge, who has managed only two matches so far in an injury-hampered start to the season.
While Essendon regained key forward Michael Hurley from injury for tomorrow night's Dreamtime match at the MCG, its opponent, Richmond, was unable to recall one of its key forwards, Ty Vickery, due to a lingering calf injury.
Carlton has chosen explosive defender Chris Yarran after a three-match absence for Sunday's match against Adelaide. The Crows will be bolstered by the return of midfielder Bernie Vince after he recovered from a broken left hand.
With JAKE NIALL