Hope springs eternal at the start of another AFL pre-season competition, when footy fans get to see their club's gun draft picks in action, pundits can tip the big improvers and sliders, and fantasy coaches identify potential recruits. As reigning premiers Hawthorn kick off the NAB Challenge against Carlton in Launceston on Thursday night, here's your guide to the weekend's matches.
WHAT'S THAT UMPIRE DOING?
Unlike in previous years, the AFL is not taking a look at any radical rule changes but there are some interpretative changes:
▪ Dangerous tackles: Umpires will be given a stricter adjudication of tackles with a lifting, slinging or rotating technique, while the Match Review Panel guidelines will now enforce a stricter definition of dangerous tackles that cause forceful high contact.
▪ Protected area: The size of the protected area around the mark will be increased, while umpires will also be given a stricter adjudication on ruling on players engaged in a handover of who is guarding the mark.
▪ Boundary line play: A stricter interpretation of deliberate out of bounds will be enforced, while the AFL will monitor the new rule around last kick/last handball that is being adopted in the SANFL.
▪ Third man up: No change for 2016, but the AFL will continue to monitor the tactic.
Perhaps most welcome of all by the players will be the return of four men on the bench with no substitute position. The cap on rotations will, however, be lowered to 90 per match.
According to the AFL's general manager of football operations, Mark Evans, the tweaks will meet several goals for the new season. "The AFL has continued to seek to spread the game out, continue to enhance player safety, improve the umpiring of our game and consider the feedback of our fans that is received across our fan surveys," he said.
SIX OF THE BEST
1. Hawks v Blues
The earliest of season showdowns between the master and the apprentice. Brendon Bolton takes on his old mentor Alastair Clarkson as he tries to bring Hawthorn's winning ethos to a Carlton who have been ground down to junk bond status in recent years. Bolton and list manager Stephen Silvagni had a strong hand at the pre-season draft and they played it well, with 15 new players arriving during the off-season, including four top 20 picks from the same draft for the first time in the club's history, and four newbies from Greater Western Sydney who all fit the 21 to 24 age bracket.
Player watch: The Blues' No.1 draft pick Jacob Weitering was always destined to be ready to go come the start of the season. Carlton fans will be keen to see him in action. For the Hawks, the usual suspects will be expected to hold the show together, but two-game youngster Jonathan "Jono" O'Rourke may just be the next big thing.
Brendon Bolton will lead the Blues against his former club Hawthorn. Photo: Getty Images
2. Dockers v Tigers
Fremantle coach Ross Lyon has maintained that beating the Hawks in recent years has been done by teams that can lock them down. He looks set to continue to push a game plan that does just that while trying to find new and better avenues to goal. The Tigers' Damien Hardwick will not coach this week, with assistant Brendon Lade taking the reins. Still 'Dimma' knows the time is now for his developing team to not only make the finals, but make an impact.
Player watch: It's all about how Lyon's biggest gamble Harley Bennell settles into his new surroundings. If the former Gold Coast dilettante buys in and plays a big part, the Dockers midfield will be stronger for longer. Richmond is resting most senior players for the first game, but going forward the Tigers' version of Bennell is former Blue Chris Yarran. Will he be fit and can he be their "bonus steak knifes" as the season progresses?
Fremantle's gamble: Harley Bennell.
3. Saints v Roos
St Kilda coach Alan Richardson continues his rebuild, albeit without the immediate impact he'd hoped for with former Bomber Jake Carlisle. At North, Brad Scott has a cheerier prospect that involves establishing once and for all whether North overachieved as honourably beaten preliminary finalists or are truly in the mix for this year's flag. Both clubs have stuck with their veteran skippers this year, hoping for stability at the top as they continue to bring through a new generation.
Player watch: St Kilda's biggest gamble is on the hamstrings of former Pie Nathan Freeman and it's unlikely he'll be in action this week. Saints fans therefore will be looking to former No.1 pick Paddy McCartin to finally show he's building for a bigger future. Kangaroo veteran Daniel Wells has shed kilos and recovered from a foot injury that limited him last year. Look for early indications that he can have more of an impact on the Roos' flag tilt.
Back from injury: Daniel Wells. Photo: Getty Images
4. Swans v Power
Are these clubs set to be at the top of the tree again, or do they just have delusions of adequacy? The Swans fell away towards the end of the last season and John Longmire needs to find the spark and desire that has kept his club at the top of the tree for so long. Port underachieved in 2015 after a stellar 2014 and this year have hardly got off to a great start with banned Bombers Angus Monfries and Paddy Ryder now off the park.
Player watch: The Buddy factor will loom large over the Swans this year and in coming weeks we should get an inkling whether the mental illness problems that laid Lance Franklin low have been overcome. All reports from training are that he is fit and firing. For Port, big things are expected of big man Matthew Lobbe to cover the loss of Ryder.
5. Crows v Eagles
After a tumultuous 2015, the Don Pyke coached Crows get to see what life is like after Patrick Dangerfield. The Eagles return after a grand final belting, but with the sort of upside most clubs could only dream about.
Player watch: Matt Crouch managed 17 games last year and is being tipped to fill the hole left by Dangerfield. He has been used as a sub in the past but this year gets to show what he can do when an integral part of the starting line-up. After six seasons with the Swans, Lewis Jetta adds a new dimension to the Eagles' attacking options with an outstanding pedigree and the run to make the most of his new home ground.
Lewis Jetta adds a new dimension to the Eagles' attack. Photo: Getty Images
6. Lions v Suns
Beautiful one day, down the ladder the next. That could well be the story for both these clubs unless Lions coach Justin Leppitsch and Suns counterpart Rodney Eade can bring on the young players in a hurry. Both clubs disappointed last year and there's much work to do to fulfil the expected potential.
Player watch: The coming weeks may well establish where the young blokes are at, although the return of veterans Daniel Merrett at Brisbane Lions and Gary Ablett at the Gold Coast after full pre-seasons will give some sort of sniff about whether there will be experience on the park as the season progresses.
NAB CHALLENGE: WHO, WHERE AND WHEN
Thursday: Hawthorn v Carlton, Aurora Stadium (7.10pm)
Friday: Fremantle v Richmond, Rushton Park, Mandurah (7.10pm)
Saturday: St Kilda v North Melbourne, Norm Minns Oval, Wangaratta (2.05pm)
Sydney Swans v Port Adelaide, Blacktown International Sportspark (4.40pm)
Sunday: Adelaide v West Coast Eagles, Unley Oval, Adelaide (2.05pm)
Brisbane Lions v Gold Coast Suns, Moreton Bay Central Sports Complex, Burpengary (4.40pm)