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by Johnson Leung reporting for AFANA from Melbourne
The 2014 AFL schedule last week contains several changes from previous season schedules. In the past, the AFL regular season began in late March, giving the National Rugby League, which usually kicks off its season in mid-March, a two-week head start in NSW and Queensland. To ratify this, the AFL has decided to start the 2014 regular season on March 14, with Round One split over two weekends. The League has opted for four games in the first week and five games in the second (rather than two games on the opening weekend, as was the case in 2013). Melbourne's Etihad Stadium will host four games in Round One while the MCG remains unavailable until Round Two due to domestic cricket.
Next year will feature a record six Thursday night games and six Sunday night games. AFL games have been held on both Thursday and Sunday nights before but only on one or two occasions per year. The first two Sunday night games will be held during Round One when Carlton hosts Port Adelaide, followed by the Eagles-Bulldogs clash one week later. Carlton will play Sunday night blockbuster games against Essendon and Collingwood in Rounds Three and 15 respectively. The other two Sunday night games feature North Melbourne in consecutive weeks, away against West Coast in Round 11 and at home against Richmond in Round 12.
The first Thursday night game will also be played in Round One when Geelong hosts Adelaide at Simonds Stadium. This will be the first time the venue hosts a Thursday night game. Round Two will feature traditional rivals Richmond and Carlton at the MCG. Thursday night games will also be played in Brisbane, Adelaide, Sydney and Perth during the season.
The 2014 regular season will be played in 23 rounds across 25 weeks. To accommodate the introduction of the second bye, the season will comprise 18 rounds of nine games, two rounds (Rounds One and 18) in which nine games are spread over two weekends and three rounds (eight to ten) where six games will be played each weekend.
The League has introduced a weighting system to help determine which clubs meet twice during next season. The 18 teams are split into three groups of six (1-6, 7-12, 13-18), based on their standings at the end of the 2013 season, with more games against sides in their own group. The goal is to make the schedule more even and fair to all.
Adelaide Oval will be the new home to the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide from 2014 and, like the MCG, will be not available until Round Two due to domestic cricket obligations. Port Adelaide will host the first game at the venue as a home Showdown against the Crows on Saturday March 29. The Crows will have to wait until Round Three for their first home game at the venue against Sydney.
Hawthorn will start its Premiership defense with a home game against the Brisbane Lions in Launceston, one of the Hawks' four home games in Tasmania during the year. In Round Three the Hawks will host the Grand Final re-match against Fremantle in a Friday night blockbuster at the MCG. Hawthorn has the toughest schedule for a second year in a row. They will play all three Top Four rivals from this year (Fremantle, Geelong and Sydney) twice, plus Collingwood and Gold Coast twice. They will also have to negotiate nine six-day breaks, the most of any team in the competition, including three in a row from Round Six to Round Eight. The Hawks also have a tough finish to the regular season with games against Fremantle, Geelong and Collingwood in the final three rounds.
Fremantle has been rewarded for its first Grand Final appearance with a high profile schedule that will give them enormous national exposure. The Dockers will play the season opener against Collingwood at Etihad Stadium on Friday March 14 and then play another three Friday night games and one Thursday night game throughout the season. The Dockers will play five 2013 finalists in the first nine weeks, plus games against Essendon, North Melbourne and West Coast. They finish the season with four of their last five games against Top Eight teams.
Other features of the 2014 schedule include:
Anzac Day is on a Friday (April 25) and will feature three games - the traditional Collingwood v Essendon match, St Kilda v Brisbane in Wellington, New Zealand and Fremantle v North Melbourne at night.
New West Coast Coach Adam Simpson will lead the team against the club he captained - North Melbourne - in Round 11 and the club for which he was assistant coach - Hawthorn - in Round 12.
St Kilda and Carlton's Round Eight clash at Etihad Stadium will be the only Monday night game during the season.
Geelong premiership star Paul Chapman and Cats' premiership coach Mark Thompson (both now at Essendon) will confront their former club in Round 15, in one of several "grudge matches" scheduled for 2014. Swans' recruit Lance Franklin will play against his former team Hawthorn for the first time in Round Eight, when the two teams clash in a Friday night blockbuster at ANZ Stadium. The Hawks and the Swans clash again at the MCG in Round 18. Swans' forward Kurt Tippett will finally confront his old team Adelaide in Round Three at Adelaide Oval. Dale Thomas' first game as a Carlton player against Collingwood will be in Round Seven while Heath Shaw will face off against the Magpies for GWS in Round 22. New Kangaroo Nick Dal Santo has to wait until Round 17 to play against former team St Kilda. Swans' premiership coach Paul Roos will come up against his former club when Melbourne face Sydney at the MCG in Round Six.
Indigenous Round (Round 11) will feature St Kilda playing Collingwood on the Friday night in a tribute to Saints star Nicky Winmar, who famously lifted his jumper and showed his skin to the crowd at the end of the Saints' clash against Collingwood in 1993, after receiving racial gestures from members of the Pies' cheer squad. The round will also feature the first ever regular season game to be played in Alice Springs in Central Australia when Melbourne play Port Adelaide.
Port Adelaide's second home game at Adelaide Oval in Round Four offers the chance to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the 2004 AFL premiership triumph against Brisbane. The Power will play three Top Six clubs (Fremantle, Sydney and Carlton) twice. The second game against Carlton in Round 22 will be Port's first Friday night game at Adelaide Oval, when Port will honor its 1914 Champions of Australian team that went through the entire season undefeated, and ironically defeated Carlton at the same venue to become the national champion.
Richmond will start and finish a regular season with interstate trips for the first time in 24 years, with the Tigers scheduled to travel to Gold Coast in Round One and to Sydney to face the Swans in Round 23. Sydney is the only finalist the Tigers play twice, two of their six road trips are against GWS and the Gold Coast, and their sole trip to Perth is to play the Eagles.
Essendon, which missed out on a finals' spot in 2013 due to the AFL's investigations in the club's illegal supplements program, goes up against four 2013 finalists twice and has two lots of consecutive six-day breaks, plus a very tough start to the season against North Melbourne, Hawthorn, Carlton and Fremantle in Perth.
Collingwood plays three of the 2013 Top Four in the first three rounds, and five of the Top Eight by Round Seven. However they have a far friendlier run home with five of their seven games at the MCG.
North Melbourne, which pioneered Friday Night Football in the mid-1980s, has been handed five coveted Friday night games (up from three this year) despite missing the Finals this season. The redevelopment of Blundstone Arena means North's two games in Hobart will be in the second half of the season, the first against St Kilda in Round 17 and the second against Adelaide in Round 22. The Kangaroos will get eight six-day breaks, including two sets of back-to-back six-day breaks during the season.
The Cats had pushed for eight home games at Geelong but were awarded only seven - paying a price for hosting a Qualifying Final at Simonds Stadium - with Etihad Stadium receiving two extra games next season as a result of the deal it struck with the AFL. At least five of those seven matches will be played under lights - four at night and one in twilight. Geelong also has a tough schedule, playing return clashes against both of this year's grand finalists, Hawthorn and Fremantle, as well as Carlton and North Melbourne.
Carlton has again emerged as primetime darlings of the AFL, with six Friday night games, two Thursday nights and the Monday night game against St Kilda. The Blues' final home-and-away game is against Essendon in the Round 23 floating schedule that could prove a seventh Friday night. Like North Melbourne, Carlton has been dealt eight six-day breaks, and has the even more difficult hurdle of consecutive six-day breaks on three different occasions during the season.
Melbourne will play 12 games at the MCG in 2014, eight of which are home games. It will play two homes games in the Northern Territory (against Port Adelaide in Round 11 and against Fremantle in Darwin in Round 16). The Demons do not play any of 2013's top three teams until Round 16.
The Western Bulldogs appear to have been dealt a decent hand for 2014. It is the only team which doesn't play a single member of this year's top six twice, and three of its road trips are against GWS or Gold Coast.
Melbourne, Gold Coast, GWS and the Western Bulldogs won't play any Friday night games in 2014, as the case this year.
The AFL has also announced a cramped and controversial schedule for the 2014 pre-season competition. All 18 AFL clubs will play 18 games in 18 days, from February 12 to March 1, as part of the revised NAB Challenge competition. Each club will play two games with a minimum six-day break between their games. All games will be shown live across Australia on pay TV.
Sources: afl.com.au, Melbourne Age, Herald Sun, The West Australian, The Advertiser, AAP
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