Winning the pre-season Wizard Cup in 2004 was not enough to draw a smile from then St Kilda coach Grant Thomas and Lenny Hayes. Photo: John French
The NAB Cup, despite its status as a semi-serious lead-up to the home-and-away season, at least had a fraction of credibility and enough interest for fans thanks to its knock-out format.
The AFL was fully entitled over the years to experiment with the pre-season competition, but clubs had one element of certainty: winning was usually the overriding aim to reach the next stage. Sure, some clubs took it more seriously than others and put genuine value on a grand final berth - or at least on the importance of going deep in the tournament - but footy fans were rarely bothered as everyone knew where they stood.
Just the pre-season? ... Winning last year's NAB Cup didn't help Michael Voss. Photo: Sebastian Costanzo
With the abandonment of the NAB Cup, the AFL was forced to rethink its approach in the crucial weeks before round one. With sponsors and broadcasters to appease, along with the desires of clubs to have serious competition, the new format was never going to be straightforward. Footy officials even seriously flirted with the idea of a 'captain's pick' representative game as part of the mix.
What they did lob for this year, however, is the concept of a 'round-robin' of footy - 18 games over 18 days - to please a footy-starved audience (not to mention a very important sponsor looking to endorse a credible and believable concept!).
Described as a 'carnival of footy', the 18-day extravaganza will certainly get fans reaccustomed to wall-to-wall footy but let's get one thing straight - it is nothing but a stack of practice games played on successive days! There's not even an obscure trophy to take home at the end of it. *
The AFL revealed the NAB Challenge format back in late October, making special mention of the fact that the matches would be played in all states and territories and would take footy to venues that don't normally host footy during the premiership season. Well, ahem, that's what praccy games have been about since Dustin Fletcher was a boy.
"After a comprehensive review of both the pre-season period and the premiership season by the AFL commission and executive during 2013, it was determined that the consensus view among clubs was that two competitive matches was the appropriate preparation for the regular season, resulting in a revised NAB Challenge format," the AFL said in its media release.
Well, that's fine, if two games (with a minimum six-day break) is the ideal number of games clubs are seeking as genuine hit-outs in the countdown to the real season. It just gets a little more perplexing when you realise what happens in the period after the NAB Challenge finishes and the first bounce of round one.
The's AFL general manager of broadcasting Simon Lethlean goes further to explain the 'new' format: "All clubs have a minimum six-day break between their games and every match has been scheduled either as a night game or late-afternoon match to avoid the peak heat in the late summer period,” he said in the release.
"The shortened format enables clubs to use their senior players as they see fit to prepare for the opening to the premiership season, as well as offering the flexibility to provide opportunities for new players and rookies that is such a key feature of the NAB Challenge.
"As we introduced for the 2012 season, by having fixtured each club's matches for the NAB Challenge, clubs are aware of their travel schedule and can fully plan their preparation and training workload as they build up to the start of the premiership season."
A definite thumbs up! Nothing really radical there. So, what actually happens when the 'carnival of footy' ends after the GWS Giants v St Kilda clash in Wagga Wagga on Sunday, 1 March?
Surely, that means all clubs put their feet up before Collingwood and Fremantle go head-to-head for the first four premiership points of the season at Etihad Stadium barely two weeks later?
Well, actually no! The AFL has already confirmed the schedule for - wait for it, drum roll please - a series of practice matches for all clubs AFTER the NAB Challenge. And guess what? Some of those games are in 'non-traditional' venues such as Burpengary in Queensland (Lions v Swans) with the 50-50 chance the Essendon-Richmond game will take place in Craigieburn.
Yes, that's right. Clubs, in fact, have THREE practice games - that's three games played without points against fellow AFL teams - before the ball is bounced in anger.
It just goes to show - spin is not solely reserved for cricket fields during the summer months.
We're not really fazed that the NAB Cup has been given the boot after all these years, but please remember this: a practice match is, well, simply a practice match.
* The AFL may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat on this one.