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Footy is back... already!

Our footy experts preview the new rules, new coaches and new players for this weekend's opening round of the NAB Cup.

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TONIGHT, suddenly, football is upon us again. It seems almost indecently soon. Last season finished in October, and this is only February. It is just 139 days since the last grand final, and already it is fusty history. What matters now is that it is only 227 to the next.

There is still so much to be sorted out and bedded down. Of course, this is the standard business of the pre-season competition. It is like the preview performance of an opera, the real thing, but not. It is a phoney war, culminating in a faux grand final that no one tries especially hard to reach or win. Or at least affects not to try.

Thought of another way, the pre-season competition is an advance screening, for critics. It is just that, with football, everyone is a critic.

This year, there is more to come to grips with than usual in this half-dawn: a new team, five brand new coaches and two old ones at new clubs, yet more new rules, and new ways of watching football: any or all of free-to-air television, pay television, iPad and iPhone, not to mention those poachers from Optus' TV Now, and the AFL tries not to. There is also that quaint and hardy though still fashionable way of watching: by going to a ground.

From today, football will be like loud-mouth on her mobile phone on the train, inescapable. Everyone will be drawn in, wittingly or not. For the first time, every game will be live on pay television, and the pre-season competition - other than the finale - will be available only on pay. Flaunting what it has got, Foxtel tonight relaunches Fox Footy, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From tonight, Eddie will be even more everywhere-er.

Despite all these manoeuvrings, football somehow has sneaked up from outside our sporting consciousness this year. The tennis just finished. Cricket still is far from done, and so is Black Caviar. In a world collapsed by technology to the size of a TV screen, others are preoccupied with European soccer teams, or with Jeremy Lin, the fairytale basketballer now on the tip of all tongues in the US. As much as football has an off-season, we were in it. Then football's minutiae began to appear, welcomed by some, an intrusion to others: here a hamstring, there a re-signing, everywhere a grandiose announcement of nothing much.

For a code derided by its rivals for having no rules, the AFL loves to make and tinker with them. This pre-season, ruckmen will be forbidden to touch each other until the ball leaves the umpire's hands, and a free kick will be paid against the last team to dispose of the ball - as distinct from touch it - when it goes out of bounds. Like last pre-season, video umpiring will be available. Of these experiments, only video umpiring is likely to be seen in the season proper.

The pre-season cup is football's soft start, but it is a start. For some fans, it will feel like jet lag. For others, and for the players especially, it could not have come too soon. Tonight, Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Richmond kick off at Etihad Stadium in a kind of buy-two-get-one-free arrangement. Tomorrow, it will be Collingwood, the Bulldogs and Greater Western Sydney in Sydney. On Sunday, Essendon goes to take on the two WA clubs in Perth.

The loosening of the gloves will have begun. Think of it this way: this morning, for the last time this year, everyone is unbeaten.