We have only one request for AFL Round 1, aside from picking all the winners.
Broadcasters, please absolutely DIAL UP the crowd noise on the coverage this weekend. The fans are back in every state, they are craving a return to normality, and there is nothing better than organising your entire social calendar around the footy season.
Richmond v Carlton will be one of the great event games in recent memory – 50,000 at the MCG, the Tigers unfurling TWO flags in front of a home crowd, our first look at the rule tweaks in a meaningful game, and the start of a full-length season that just *feels* like it could be one of the most entertaining years of footy for quite some time.
So let’s get into it!
Best Matchup – Collingwood v Western Bulldogs
Best Underdog – Essendon
Team Under Pressure – Carlton
Player To Watch – Jeremy Cameron
Game previews below…
AFL Round 1: Richmond v Carlton
You have to feel for Carlton – locked in for a season-opening blockbuster since 2015, against the best in team in the comp over the past four years. Consistently starting 0-1 every year would be tiresome even if not disastrous, so it’s time the Blues came out and flipped the script. If they can.
So can they?
While it’s not outside the realms of possibility, with Curnow, McGovern, Martin, Williams and Marchbank all sidelined and a few others under an injury cloud, it is more of a long shot than it may have been if they were healthy.
Typically, the Tigers have only Houli and Pickett (who is fit but not selected) on the sidelines from their 2020 Premiership team and don’t show any signs of slowing down.
If the Blues were to win this they would have to find a way to keep the scoreboard ticking over, particularly in what might be a pretty slick first term. Trying to do that with an undermanned forward line against a team with the second-lowest points against column from last year (and a relatively unchanged line-up) could prove very difficult.
Last year Carlton showed they could get off to a fast start – they held a first quarter lead against the likes of Geelong (a game they won), the Bulldogs, Port Adelaide and Brisbane, all quality teams. But they’ve got to do it first up against a serious side. Richmond were ahead at quarter time in 11 of their 17 matches last season, and level in another – they won all of them.
What a fascinating first quarter it will be.
Up the other end, the Blues defence has a mighty job to do – when the Tigers failed last year it was generally on the back of being held to a relatively low total. Can Carlton somehow keep them under 70 points?
As we said in the preview, the longer quarters will help the Tigers more than anyone. Expect them to wear Carlton down if the Blues can’t find a way to jump them in front of a largely pro-Richmond crowd.
Pick: Richmond by 28
AFL Round 1: Collingwood v Western Bulldogs
As it was in 2020, this is an intriguing contest between a team widely tipped to be on the rise this season (the Bulldogs), and a side many have tipped to miss the finals in a very competitive year for spots.
The Collingwood talent fire-sale of talent in the off-season has robbed them of significant depth, something which might backfire when backup soldiers are needed across a long season. Yet there is still heap of talent in that list – Behind The Footy had been convinced the Pies were a genuine threat last year until they somehow couldn’t find avenues to goal.
If their underrated defence can take care of the swarm of Bulldogs midfielders charging down there, they are in with a shot. But the Dogs leg speed could just as easily overpower Collingwood – at Marvel Stadium it would be more evident, but they meet at the MCG which could level things out a little.
Where does the improvement for the Bulldogs come from? Treloar will certainly help, as will a fit Aaron Naughton. Josh Bruce is the most interesting prospect this year, having openly admitted to not enjoying hub life along with having a child in the same season. He may just find his spark again thanks to plenty of supply from all those midfielders.
Defensively, there are still question marks over the Dogs. This is where the game will be won and lost on Friday night, for mine. Can the Pies generate enough marks inside 50 to threaten? They have a midfield capable of winning their fair share (Sidebottom missing is unfortunate) and a defence well and truly up to the task.
A questionable Dogs defence vs perhaps an even more questionable Pies offence. What a matchup.
Siding with the Dogs in this one, but only just.
Pick: Western Bulldogs by 10
AFL Round 1: Melbourne v Fremantle
The MCG hosts its third game in a row to kick off AFL Round 1, with a critical game for the Demons and Dockers finals chances.
All eyes on the forward line of both teams – Fremantle were ahead of only North Melbourne and the Adelaide Crows last year in points scored, while the Demons have their own issues. With Brown and Weideman sidelined, the Dees will have to rely on McDonald and Jackson as their main targets.
Does Max Gawn wander down there a bit more on Saturday? If they can exploit his matchup against Lloyd Meek (a first gamer) then he’s half a chance to hit the scoreboard pretty regularly.
Justin Longmuir has built this Fremantle side around defending first, which is a great foundation. His 7-win team had the fifth best points against total in 2020. But can they absorb a few more goals as the games return to their normal lengths and fatigue makes it harder to defend?
Without any real confidence in their scoring capability up the other end it just seems like the Dockers have only one real method of winning – strangle a side to death and pinch enough goals to get over the line.
If they are serious about making finals this year, the Demons just get the job done here. Their midfield should give them enough supply – big watch on their inside 50 delivery, which has been an achilles heel for many years – and the likes of May and Lever should take the next step this season.
Melbourne wouldn’t want to take Fremantle lightly (or panic if it’s super close for a long time), but it is theirs to win. It doesn’t have to be pretty, just bank the four points and start the season off the right way for the fans watching on.
Pick: Melbourne by 16
AFL Round 1: Adelaide v Geelong
The poor Crows have to cop a stacked Geelong side ready to get serious again. Adelaide match up reasonably well against slower ball-movement sides without much leg speed as long as they bring their intensity. The problem they have is keeping up for four quarters.
In the corresponding game last year, the Crows kept the Cats to only 65 points and were still within 9 points at the last break. The final quarter? 0.1 to 3.2…
With the increased game length and rule tweaks which should encourage speed even further, their ability to stick with their opponent will be seriously tested this season. Even though the Cats aren’t the fastest team on earth, they could do some serious damage early on and never get out of third gear.
Can’t wait to see Jeremy Cameron in the Geelong hoops. How will the Hawkins/Cameron/Dangerfield combo work together? The number one offence of last season just got better, which is scary.
We might have to watch this game for specifics like that, because there’s little chance the Crows get near the Cats unless they miss their plane.
Pick: Geelong by 33
AFL Round 1: Brisbane v Sydney
Big Joe in Lions colours. Fit. Happy. And critical to Brisbane’s chances this year.
Daniher is never a dull watch, so he could do anything here. Does McCartin (who is a super talent himself) get first crack at him? That match up alone would be worth watching.
The Swans are fairly outmatched in this one despite having everyone but Franklin and Naismith available. It’s just hard to see the Sydney midfield containing the likes of Neale, Zorko, Lyons, Berry and McCluggage, particularly at centre bounces. The Lions had the most scoring shots from centre bounces last season and the best strike rate at scoring from all stoppages, so the neutralising the midfield battle will be critical to the Swans’ fortunes.
Brisbane too good to drop this one, surely.
Pick: Brisbane by 28
AFL Round 1: Essendon v Hawthorn
What a matchup. Many are predicting both sides to have a fairly painful season. And they are probably right.
These two teams dead set hate each other, so to kick them off in AFL Round 1 is absolutely brilliant. Neither of them will have anything close to their best team on the field so it should be fascinating to see how they go.
No Hurley or Stringer for the Bombers, no Gunston, Sicily or Wingard for the Hawks. So who wins?
This could be super close, but just get the feeling the Bombers aren’t nearly as bad as some might think. Marvel Stadium might suit them a little more than the Hawks, and the return of a pro-Bombers crowd could get them going. Their performance against Geelong in the pre-season game was pretty solid. Enough to suggest they are prepared well enough to find a win against a reasonably weak opponent first up.
The Hawks won’t lie down, of course, and we get to see a couple of debutants in Koschitzke and Brockman strut their stuff up forward after combining for 14 scoring shots in the pre-season hitout against the Roos.
Watch for the game to resemble circle work in the last quarter as the inevitable fatigue sets in – a four-goal lead at 3/4 time might not be safe…
Pick: Essendon by 10
AFL Round 1: North Melbourne v Port Adelaide
Traditionally, games between these two have been a magnet for blowouts. Only one of the past five has been within 30 points, and Port have won four of them. The outlier was a Round 22 battle with both teams out of finals contention where Ben Brown kicked a lazy ten.
There’s no Big Ben Brown here, and it’s hard to see anything other than a Port Adelaide win.
Marvel Stadium will suit Port Adelaide’s speed and weapons up forward. If I was a North Melbourne defender I’d be having nightmares about how fast the ball might be coming in on Sunday – could Port notch up 65 inside 50s for the day?
From a North perspective, we get to see how David Noble sets his team to play. It might not mean they execute it well at all on their first real crack under the pressure of Premiership Points, but hopefully we get some indication as to how he wants them to go about it. That’s all we can hope for with a team clearly at the wrong end of a list cycle.
Pick: Port Adelaide by 44
AFL Round 1: GWS v St Kilda
To illustrate the circumstances around this match, it’s best to leave it to the experts. This graph from pm6design highlights just how much injury trouble the Saints find themselves in even before Round 1 has started…
Worth checking out all of their work – they do some great visualisations that are easy to understand.
The loss of James Frawley leaves them vulnerable down back, Brad Crouch’s suspension leaves them without their key midfield signing from the off-season, and a golf ball to the head of Max King leaves them without their best forward.
Can they still win? Absolutely. But it makes things bloody difficult.
The Giants are a team some love to hate, for some reason. They failed to play together last year and the ball movement would have easily been their number one focus over pre-season. Expect them to come out looking fairly different from last season, particularly given Jeremy Cameron opted out of their forward line.
There are enough genuine top-line players in the Giants side to take advantage of St Kilda’s vulnerability. The predicted wet weather should bring them even closer together and turn this into an absolute coin flip.
Perhaps the Saints’ style of play could be severely dulled by any rain, so the Giants have a great opportunity to kick their season off on a winning note.
Pick: GWS by 8
AFL Round 1: West Coast v Gold Coast
Around this time last year, the Suns absolutely jumped the Eagles and smashed them by 44 points. Clearly the circumstances are different in 2021 – there is no hub life to complain about (yet), and the Eagles start their season in front of a rabid home crowd to cheer them on (they love two things, Eagles fans: clapping and booing).
From an injury point of view, the Suns nearly have a full list to choose from. The Eagles will be without Shuey and Yeo at the very least, but it looks like Tim Kelly and Josh Kennedy will both be available.
Clearly the Eagles shouldn’t take the Suns lightly here. Gold Coast are the kind of antidote to how the Eagles want to play – a scrappy, contested team willing to get their hands dirty and go quick when they win it back.
Where does the Suns’ improvement come from? How do they go from a 5-win team to at least 8 or 9 wins this season? Can they turn into a contested possession side now with Matt Rowell leading the charge? They haven’t been better than bottom six for contested possession differential since 2013 when Gary Ablett was running amok.
At least they get to go up against a team that aren’t brilliant at contested ball themselves. So the only avenue for the Suns to upset West Coast this weekend will be keeping the ball on the ground, earning their fair share of possession and going with speed the other way when they do. Anything less than a +5 midfield turnover tally in this one and they will be fighting an uphill battle.
Eagles to win, but really interested to see if the Suns have improved. If they have, they could be a fun team to watch this season.
Pick: West Coast by 23
AFL Round 1 Burning Question
How much will the “Injury Sub” dominate discussion?
Already tired of talking about it, but it’s certainly an interesting move on the eve of the first game!
As always, we like to approach things from a different angle – spare a thought for the likes of Champion Data, who now have to somehow include an injury substitute in their software and databases with less than a week’s notice.
And also watch the sub create havoc with the numbers for a little while – anyone who starts the game as the sub but doesn’t take the field is (apparently) still credited with a game. Get ready for his poor averages to take a massive hit!
Can’t wait for Round 1!
Pete Roberts from Behind The Footy is sharing some of his great content with us for the 2021 AFL season. Pete spent fifteen years in AFL coaching boxes as an analyst. He now shares those insights with footy fans.
Don't spend this season making donations to the bookies. AFL Tips is back for 2022: get on board now and start betting with an edge.
Don't spend this season making donations to the bookies. AFL Tips is back for 2022: get on board now and start betting with an edge.