Carlton v Richmond: Thursday 23/3 – 7.40pm at MCG
Woohoo! It’s back — the real stuff. And it kicks off with a match which has become an opening round tradition over recent years.
The Blues will be desperate to improve on last season’s efforts after a second consecutive elimination final exit. Their list has been together for a few years now and with names like Bryce Gibbs, March Murphy, Chris Yarran and Mitch Robinson all yet to peak in terms of talent, there’s no reason why the Blues can’t go one step further in 2011.
Richmond’s pre-season wasn’t anything to gloat about. The Tigers lost both NAB Cup games to Carlton and Collingwood, then suffered an embarrassing 68-point NAB Challenge loss to Adelaide, which was described as ‘soul destroying’ by coach Damien Hardwick. They may improve slightly this year, but they’re still a long way off top eight contention.
Carlton has won the past two opening round encounters over the Tigers by an average of 70 points. It might be a little closer this time round, but the Blues should still win comfortably.
Carlton by 30
Geelong v St Kilda: Friday 24/3 – 7.45pm at MCG
The majority of the matches in the opening round seem pretty even on paper, but this one might just be the pick of the lot.
It’s been a horrendous off-season for St Kilda, mainly due to those notorious off-field issues. However the Saints now have a chance to put all that behind them and do what they do best — play footy. They still possess a star-studded midfield and the forward line additions of Sam Gilbert and Ryan Gamble should help skipper Nick Riewoldt immensely.
When Collingwood thrashed the Cats by 41 points in last year’s preliminary final, critics were questioning whether the Cats’ dynasty is over. But under new coach Chris Scott, there is no doubt the host of Geelong veterans will be as hungry as ever for premiership success. How long it takes them to adapt to Scott’s style will be the biggest question.
Geelong and St Kilda have been the best two teams over the past three seasons if you purely look at win to loss ratio. They have also played out some of most memorable matches in AFL history — most notably the 2009 Grand Final. But with a few fitness queries over some key Geelong players, the Saints should start their 2011 campaign with a win.
St Kilda by 6
Collingwood v Port Adelaide: Saturday 25/3 – 2.10pm at Etihad Stadium
The reigning premiers are back — the scary thing is, better than ever.
After taking out the 2010 premiership, the Pies endured a hugely successful pre-season campaign, which culminated in a hard-fought NAB Cup victory over Essendon. Perhaps the most pleasing aspect for Collingwood supporters about their team’s performances over the past month was how players such as Leon Davis and Heath Shaw performed so brilliantly in positions they normally don’t play in.
Port Adelaide had an inconsistent pre-season, but when you look at it, that’s been the story of the footy club for the past five to six years. The Power suffered heavy losses to Adelaide, Melbourne and Richmond, but then bounced back with thumping wins over Geelong (84 points) and Greater Western Sydney (95 points). Try and read into that.
Collingwood is predicted to go back-to-back for the first time since 1935-36 this season, while the Power are likely to finish towards the bottom of the ladder. Expect a pretty lopsided Etihad Stadium scoreboard in the Pies’ favour on Saturday afternoon — this one could get ugly.
Collingwood by 60
Adelaide v Hawthorn: Saturday 25/3 – 7.10pm at AAMI Stadium
It’s been 20 years since the Crows entered the AFL and they will celebrate their anniversary on Saturday night with a match against Hawthorn — the first AFL team they faced back in 1991.
Adelaide is the enigma of the 2011 season because no one knows exactly where it’s going to finish. The loss of veterans Andrew McLeod, Tyson Edwards, Simon Goodwin and Brett Burton will hurt the Crows deeply, but there is an exciting brigade of youngsters coming through, led by impressive new captain Nathan van Berlo.
Most footy experts believe the Hawks will be the big movers this season. After winning the 2008 flag, they have been extremely disappointing over the past two years, finishing ninth and seventh respectively. But with Luke Hodge replacing Sam Mitchell as captain and guys like Lance Franklin, Cyril Rioli, Shaun Burgoyne and Brad Sewell all expected to improve, Hawthorn could mount a big premiership challenge in 2011.
This has the potential to be a close yet scrappy game of footy. But expect the Hawks to live up to their pre-season expectations and spoil the Crows’ anniversary party.
Hawthorn by 12
Brisbane Lions v Fremantle: Saturday 25/3 – 7.10pm at Gabba
Two teams who have had ordinary pre-seasons will face-off under the Gabba lights on Saturday night.
Like St Kilda, the Lions have had a pre-season to forget. First they sacked Albert Proud due to disciplinary issues and then of course the whole Brendan Fevola saga, which caught the attention of almost every footy fan. Brisbane’s 2011 prospects on the field don’t look too great either and many are tipping Michael Voss’ men to claim the wooden spoon.
Fremantle had an ordinary pre-season too, but for an entirely different reason. Key players Michael Barlow, Roger Hayden, Garrick Ibbotson and recruit Tendai Mzungu all suffered serious injuries and will not play for at least the first few weeks of the season. Also don’t forget the season-ending knee injury to young gun Anthony Morabito, who last year showed signs he could be the next Adam Goodes.
The Dockers will travel up to the Gabba without six of their best 22 players on Saturday night, while the Lions are only missing Josh Drummond from their best team. Brisbane will be keen to prove its critics wrong and might cause an upset at home.
Brisbane by 12
Essendon v Western Bulldogs: Sunday 26/3 – 1.10pm at Etihad Stadium
The Bombers have a new coach, a new defensive game style and a new hope, but the Dogs will be keen to shut them up.
Essendon has clearly been the biggest on-field talking point over the off-season. The appointment of James Hird as senior coach and an impressive NAB Cup campaign has Bombers fans super excited about the season ahead. However it’s common knowledge one man can’t change a team overnight and it will take time for the entire team to adapt.
The Bulldogs have been preliminary finalists for the last three years, but have never been able to take that extra step. But many believe the Dogs will challenge once again in 2011, especially after a successful recruiting season where they picked up Nathan Djerkurra, Justin Sherman, Patrick Veszpremi, Zephaniah Skinner, Mitch Wallis and Tom Liberatore.
All eyes will be on Hird and how he handles himself in his official coaching debut. But Rodney Eade’s men should upstage Hird-mania with a classy and skilful victory.
Western Bulldogs by 36
Melbourne v Sydney: Sunday 26/3 – 2.10pm at MCG
We get our first look at a young and promising Demons side on Sunday as they host a Sydney, a side who will be under a brand new coach for the first time since 2003.
Melbourne went from four and a half wins in 2009 to eight wins in 2010 — a massive improvement. But with a plethora of top-20 draft selections at their disposal, the time has come for the Dees to make a significant impact on the competition. The expectations on them are massive, but this team is capable of finishing in the top eight if they develop consistency.
When the Swans last travelled south to play the Dee’s at the MCG, the result couldn’t have been any worse. They lost by 73 points, the worst loss in former coach Paul Roos’ history. But under new coach John Longmire, the Swans will be keen to make-up for that humiliating loss in 2010.
Sydney has a knack of defying the odds, but it’s tough to see it happening on this occasion. Despite missing Tom Scully through injury, Melbourne should be fired up on Sunday afternoon and should make a strong impression in their first game for the season.
Melbourne by 24
West Coast Eagles v North Melbourne: Sunday 26/3 – 4.10pm at Patersons Stadium
At the end of 2010, this match would’ve seen the ninth-placed team pitted against the 16th-placed team. But this time round, things should be a lot tighter.
West Coast endured its worst AFL last season, claiming the dreaded wooden spoon. But the Eagles finally had some luck over the pre-season, with the majority of their list remaining relatively healthy and unscathed. They should have close to a full strength list to choose from for Sunday’s game.
Conversely, the Kangaroos probably had the worst run of any team in the off-season. Ryan Bastinac, Matthew Campbell, Ed Lower, Hamish McIntosh and Levi Greenwood all suffered injuries and will miss the opening few rounds of the season. However the Roos finally received some good news recently, with youngsters Ben Cunnington, Lachlan Hansen and Ben Cunnington all available for selection after passing fitness tests.
On paper, North Melbourne has a far more promising list than West Coast. But the Roos’ wretched run with injuries over the pre-season could mean it will take them at least three to four weeks to really get going, which could prove costly towards the end of the season. Back the Eagles here.
West Coast by 18