Fixture winners and losers: Hawks’ nightmare start
As Geelong's stars got back to contact work at GMHBA Stadium on Monday, Gary Ablett could have been forgiven for giving a fist pump as he re-starts footy's last dance.
The AFL delivered a fixture that gives Sunday night football a realistic chance of survival in a draw that does all it can to satisfy the league's broadcast partners.
But amid the flurry of blockbuster games and compromises made to get away 144 games, Ablett and his veteran mates were the real winners.
Ablett is in his last season of AFL football, quietly hitting 36 years of age in recent weeks and aware there is no 2021 for him.
His captain Joel Selwood turns 32 on Tuesday, Harry Taylor is 34 next month, Tom Hawkins 32 in July and Patty Dangerfield, Zach Tuohy and Jack Steven have all hit 30 in recent months.
Geelong's much-lauded warriors will never have a better chance to set up a premiership tilt than in a season where they could play every home game at their fortress, the old Kardinia Park.
It is a venue where they have lost only four of their past 37 games, albeit rarely against footy's superpowers.
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But the advantage the AFL handed Geelong is the perfect platform to set up another top-two home-and-away finish.
The big wins there hand them valuable percentage points, allow them to rest older players late in games and to conserve energy for mightier battles ahead.
And while the finals question marks will linger, they will tell themselves they dispatched concerns last year that they are a flat track bully who struggles at the MCG in September.
Others will reserve their judgment, but Geelong was an hour of finals football from smacking that assertion out of the park last year.
The Cats last year knocked off Collingwood (Round 1), Hawthorn (Round 5), Essendon (Round 7), and Richmond (Round 12) at the MCG in a quartet of exceptional home-and-away performances before a late-season loss to the Hawks.
At the MCG in finals it lost by 10 points to Collingwood and beat West Coast and while they faded against Richmond, they showed they can handle the wide-open expanses of that venue.
Geelong's Round 2 opponent Hawthorn faces an unenviable month of footy - against GWS, Richmond and the Cats - while West Coast faces Richmond in a home game in Queensland.
Travis Auld admitted the league simply ran out of games to schedule the Eagles in while they remain in a hub, but surely they would have accepted anyone else but the premiers.
Everything about the trends of world sport would suggest Sunday night footy is crucial if the AFL is to maximise its TV dollars.
Sunday night football was an attendance fizzer when Carlton and Collingwood played a contentious Sunday night game in 2014, with just 40,939 fans at the MCG but a massive TV audience of 1.019 million.
If it rates it socks off on Fox Footy as an exclusive property, look for it to become a regular fixture in years to come.
Sunday night was once a night of blockbuster TV movies.
But if the competition is Nine's flagship current affairs show "60 Minutes" featuring dud interviews like Karl Stefanovic interviewing Kyle Sandilands as it did this week, why wouldn't you want to watch the footy instead?
When fans return, just schedule a 4.40pm local game every Sunday night in Perth to ensure prime time viewing on the eastern seaboard.
Not only are the marquee games designer-built for drama, the stakes are incredibly high for a quartet of Victorian teams early.
St Kilda plays the Bulldogs in Round 2 and Carlton hosts Melbourne.
By the end of that round two of those four teams will be winless in a 17-round competition where teams might need to finish 10-7 to play finals.
Heaven forbid the Dogs lose to St Kilda ahead of a Round 3 clash against GWS, which handed them the mother of all smack-downs in the elimination final.
Either way, get your Michael Jackson popcorn memes ready for that clash and the Toby Greene-Marcus Bontempelli rematch.
LAUREN WOOD'S FIXTURE WINNERS AND LOSERS
WHO ARE THE WINNERS?
Brisbane Lions -Don't leave the Gabba in the first month of football's return. Enough said.
Geelong - Have long rallied, and now finally get to host big Victorian rivals.
Sydney - Three games at the SCG and one trip south to meet the Roos. Could well be 5-0.
WHO ARE THE LOSERS?
West Coast - will host a "home" game against reigning premier Richmond at Metricon Stadium as it begins life in the "high performance village" on the Gold Coast.
Hawthorn - difficult first month of return games, starting with a trip down the highway to Geelong for the first time since 2006 and a meeting with Richmond a week later.
Port Adelaide - A crowdless Showdown followed by a lost "home" game against West Coast. Not ideal, plus still aren't thrilled about sharing digs with the Crows.
WHY IS MY TEAM PLAYING GAMES AT A DIFFERENT "HOME" GROUND?
The AFL has fixtured games according to where teams are located, with West Coast, Fremantle, Adelaide and Port Adelaide to be based on the Gold Coast for the first four weeks of football's restart, meaning "home" games at Metricon Stadium and the Gabba. Metricon Stadium will be used for double-headers in Rounds 3 and 4.
WHICH TEAM(S) HIT THE ROAD FIRST … AND WHICH DON'T?
The Western Bulldogs travel to Sydney to meet the Swans in Round 3, with Collingwood set to meet the Giants in the Harbour City the following day. The league has made clear its preference for teams to share flights where possible. Brisbane, Carlton, Geelong and St Kilda do not leave their home states in the first stanza of the fixture.
WHICH TEAM LEAVES QUEENSLAND FIRST?
The "hub" will house Western Australian and South Australian teams. Gold Coast will not be bound by hub rules, and will be the first Queensland team to travel south when it plays Geelong at GMHBA Stadium in Round 5.
WHAT ABOUT SYDNEY & GWS?
Both teams will play at home in Round 2 before both travelling to Melbourne in Round 3. They could share a flight to and from Sydney, depending on whether the AFL clamps down on teams travelling to and from interstate games on the same day.
WHEN WILL THE NEXT PORTION OF THE FIXTURE BE RELEASED?
The AFL anticipates that Round 6 and 7 of the 2020 fixture will be released after Round 3.
WHY ARE THERE GAMES ON SUNDAY NIGHTS?
The AFL had a crack at the Sunday night timeslot in Round 1 and broadcasting chief Travis Auld admits this is the year to trial different things. It could change once crowds come back. He has also forecast more Thursday night games in 2020.
WHEN WILL CROWDS BE ABLE TO ATTEND?
That remains unknown. The Victorian government has stipulated that until at least May 31, supporters are not considered "necessary" to the staging of a professional sporting event. From June 22, up to 50 people will allowed in Victorian stadiums but that may not yet apply to AFL with government yet to rule on professional sport.
WHICH ARE SOME KEY GAMES?
It goes without saying that Round 2 is set to dish up some mouth-watering blockbusters. But what about beyond that?
R3 - Western Bulldogs v Greater Western Sydney, Marvel Stadium
The history between these two clubs is brewing to be something special … and spicy. Since the 2016 preliminary final, the Dogs and GWS have developed what has become a very healthy rivalry, and expect this one to be no different as they prepare to meet for the first time since last year's elimination final.
R5 - West Coast v Richmond, Metricon Stadium
The last two premiership winners to meet on neutral territory for the first time. No excuses of any advantage here.
R5 - Collingwood v Essendon, MCG
Anzac Day it is not but a Friday night at the MCG is always a welcome fixture for two powerhouse clubs to face off.
R5 - Adelaide v Fremantle, Metricon Stadium
Two interstate clubs meeting at the home of football in the time-honoured home of football in Queensland's southeast, Metricon Stadium. Sure, both teams have only played there a handful of times, but it could be - they hope, at least - the last game in the Queensland hub should state governments come to the party.
R5 - Geelong v Gold Coast, GMHBA Stadium
If all goes smoothly, this could be Gary Ablett Jnr's 350th game. The AFL insisted that it "wasn't by design" that Ablett would face his former team for the occasion, but it's a happy coincidence.
WHAT ABOUT THE RULES?
Restrictions on AFL players social activities remain in place. They and nominated club officials will continue to be tested for coronavirus twice per week, with results made known before contact training sessions and game days.
Originally published as Fixture winners and losers: Hawks' nightmare start