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by Johnson Leung reporting for AFANA from Melbourne

The 2016 AFL schedule was announced last week. The biggest change is the addition of a bye week between the end of Round 23 and the Finals. In Round 23 this year, Fremantle and North Melbourne controversially rested a total of 20 players so they could be refreshed for the Finals. AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan conceded the moves by the two clubs were unsatisfactory and "a drag on the integrity of our competition", thus the extra week off was introduced to ensure similar situations would not happen again. The League plans to showcase a range of events and awards during the bye week, which could include a women's game, the All-Australian Awards and Rising Star Awards.

Once again, traditional rivals Richmond and Carlton will kick off the season with a Thursday night clash at the MCG on March 24, the day before Good Friday. Five days later Hawthorn will begin their Premiership defense at the same venue, against a new-look Geelong side which will likely include recruits Patrick Dangerfield, Scott Selwood and Lachie Henderson. For the second year in a row, the Grand Final will be held in the first Saturday in October. Next year it falls on October 1.

There are two new themed games next year. The first is a "Country Game" between Essendon and Geelong at the MCG in Round 4 to honor Australian farmers, with the Yarra Park precinct around the venue set to be transformed into a country festival prior to the game, featuring a live concert, farmers market and field shows. It was Essendon legend Kevin Sheedy, who was the architect of the Anzac Day clash and "Dreamtime at the G", who came up with the "Country Game" concept. The second is the "Pride Match" between St Kilda and Sydney in Round 21 next season, a Saturday night game on August 13 at Etihad Stadium to celebrate diversity and take a stance against prejudice surrounding the LGBTI community. St Kilda Chief Executive Matt Finnis said the game was inspired by country footballer Jason Ball, who was the first player at any level of the game to come out, and the Pride Cup he and his Yarra Glen teammates have held for the past two years.

From next year, the Indigenous Round has been renamed in honor of Sir Doug Nicholls (1906-1988), the only VFL/AFL player to have been knighted and to have served as a state governor. Sir Doug, who played 54 games with Fitzroy from 1932 to 1937, was the Governor of South Australia from December 1976 to April 1977 and spent most of his life devoted to the well-being of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. While next year's Sir Doug Nicholls Round (which falls into Round 10) will again be highlighted by the annual "Dreamtime at the G" game between Essendon and Richmond on the Saturday night, it will also mark Hawthorn's first game in Brisbane since Round 5, 2008.

Carlton is one of big losers from the schedule. The Blues will not play any Friday nights in 2016 as the result of their poor form in this time slot in 2015. The Blues, who finished on the bottom of the Ladder in 2015, failed to win any of their six Friday night games during the regular season, losing by an average margin of 75 points, including a 138-point thrashing by Hawthorn in Round 17. Apart from Carlton, Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast, GWS, St Kilda and Melbourne will not play any Friday night games next year. Richmond and Hawthorn will play six times each on Friday nights while Collingwood and North Melbourne will each play five Friday night games. Tasmania will host its first ever Friday night game in Round 11 with North Melbourne taking on Richmond.

Sunday Night Football will make a one-off return next year when Richmond and Melbourne play at the MCG on April 24, on the eve of the Anzac Day public holiday. Sunday night games were dumped 12 months ago due to low attendances in 2014. Meanwhile, the Anzac Day encounter between Collingwood and Essendon will be the only time the two teams play each other during the regular season.

The AFL has scheduled three games at ANZ Stadium next season, in Rounds 1, 7 and 18, but remains open to moving them to the SCG if a new super trust (which will see New South Wales State Government control both venues) approves it. ANZ Stadium's current deal with the League expires at the end of 2016, with the Swans playing all their home games plus any Finals game at the SCG from 2017.

2016 will feature five Thursday night games. Apart from the season opener, the Thursday night games will be played in Adelaide (Rounds 14 and 16), Perth (Round 15) and Sydney (Round 17). Some of the most anticipated games next year include Dangerfield's first game against his former club Adelaide (Round Eight), Steve Johnson facing his old club Geelong in Rounds 2 and 11, Matt Suckling's first match against his old club Hawthorn (Round 3), Chris Yarran's first clash against his old club Carlton in the season opener, Jake Carlisle playing his former club Essendon in Round 9, while new Essendon coach John Worsfold will face his former club West Coast in Round 15.

This is the last time AFL General Manager Broadcasting, Scheduling and Major Projects Simon Lethlean will be in charge in scheduling, before he moves to another senior role within the League next year.

Here is how each club fares in the schedule:

ADELAIDE
The Crows under new coach Don Pyke have a tough start to 2016, playing six of this year's finalists in the first eight rounds. However four of their last five games are at Adelaide Oval. The five teams that they play twice (North Melbourne, Port Adelaide, Fremantle, Geelong and West Coast) could all play Finals. They also have consecutive interstate games in July.

BRISBANE
Also have a tough start to the season with games against West Coast, North Melbourne and Geelong. However the Lions have only one trip to Perth and don't have to travel to Tasmania. They will play seven games in Victoria - the most games since 2009. They will also host Collingwood, Hawthorn, Geelong and Carlton at the Gabba, all of which will help attract big crowds. They have consecutive home games on two occasions.

CARLTON
This year's wooden spooners keep the season opener and traditional clashes against Collingwood and Essendon twice. The Blues will face Hawthorn in Tasmania twice (the other during pre-season). They have a relatively easy schedule, playing only one 2015 finalist twice (Sydney) and finishing the season with games against St Kilda, Brisbane, Melbourne and Essendon. They only travel to Perth once and don't play in Adelaide. They have a tough patch after the mid-season bye with games against GWS, Collingwood, Adelaide, West Coast, Sydney and Hawthorn. They will play eight games on Sunday afternoons.

COLLINGWOOD
One of the big winners of the schedule with 14 games at the MCG, including early games against St Kilda, Melbourne and Essendon. The Magpies only travel outside Victoria five times, have just five six day breaks and don't face Hawthorn until the final round of the season. However they do play three of the 2015 top eight teams twice (Richmond, Western Bulldogs and West Coast).

ESSENDON
The Bombers have an easy schedule, playing Gold Coast and Melbourne in the first two games and Carlton in Round 6. They feature in high profile clashes like Anzac Day, "Dreamtime at the G" and the new country-themed game, and only play one 2015 top eight side twice (Richmond). However they have two trips to Adelaide and two trips to Perth, including the Saturday night game against Fremantle before taking on Hawthorn at home six days later.

FREMANTLE
The Dockers have a tough start with six of the Top Eight teams from 2015 in the first nine weeks but finish their season with four of the last five games in Perth (including consecutive home games from Round 19 to 21). They play games in Darwin, Brisbane, Gold Coast and Launceston, however only two of the interstate games are at night, allowing the team to get home much easier. They will be disappointed they only get one game at the MCG, against Collingwood in Round 15.

GEELONG
The biggest winner of the schedule. The Cats will play only two top eight teams (Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs) twice. Of the eight games at Simonds Stadium, two are on Friday night and two Saturday night. They will play seven night games from Round 12 to 19 including the mid season bye, however they only have to travel interstate once during the period.

GOLD COAST
The Suns have a relatively easy schedule with 13 games in Queensland and the least number of six day breaks (four). They play against Brisbane and Melbourne twice and only one Top Eight side twice (Fremantle). On the flip side they have to face Adelaide, West Coast, Sydney, Richmond and Hawthorn (in Tasmania for the third year in a row) mid-season. They get two games at the MCG but also have to fly to Perth twice.

GWS
The unavailability of Spotless Stadium early in the season due to the Sydney Royal Easter Show means the Giants will again be forced to travel. In the first five rounds they have only one game in NSW plus two home games at StarTrack Oval in Canberra. The national capital will host Giants' home games against Richmond, Geelong and Port Adelaide. The team will play the most twilight games (twelve) including their 100th AFL game, against the Swans in Round 12. Like Fremantle, GWS will only play once at the MCG.

HAWTHORN
The triple Premiers have a challenging schedule for most of the season. They start with their first three games against Geelong, West Coast and Western Bulldogs and finish the season with tough games against North Melbourne, the Eagles and Collingwood. They have eight six day breaks and will play three games in a row interstate with a bye between clashes in Gold Coast and Adelaide. Their four games in Launceston are against St Kilda, Fremantle, Gold Coast and Carlton. One consolation is that the Hawks will play six Friday night games and two Thursday night games which will give the team a lot of exposure.

MELBOURNE
The Demons play nine of their first 14 games at the MCG including four of the first five which is encouraging. They play just one 2015 finalist (Hawthorn) twice but Carlton and Brisbane only once. They will play just three Top Eight teams from 2015 (North Melbourne, Richmond and Western Bulldogs) in the opening ten rounds. The Demons don't have two six day breaks in a row and only head to Perth once and Adelaide once, but have a tough run home with games against Hawthorn, Port Adelaide, Carlton and Geelong. They also have a demanding travel schedule with games in every Australian state and territory except the ACT. They will play in Tasmania for premiership points for the first time.

NORTH MELBOURNE
Five Friday night games and one Thursday game give North Melbourne a profile in 2016 but at a cost. They have eight six day breaks like Hawthorn, including consecutive six day breaks on three occasions. They also play Hawthorn twice. On the upside the Kangaroos start their season with three of their first four games at home, and have a string of games in Melbourne in late season, which should ensure Brent Harvey will surpass Michael Tuck's VFL/AFL games record of 426.

PORT ADELAIDE
Port have a good schedule due to their poor finish this year. They play four games at Adelaide Oval in the first five rounds, but also have consecutive six day breaks in the same period.  Port don't play any of this year's top five teams twice but will play against Brisbane and Melbourne twice. They have a demanding travel schedule, playing in every Australian state and territory except Tasmania. They finish the season with winnable games against GWS, Brisbane, Melbourne and Gold Coast in the final six rounds.

RICHMOND
The Tigers have an MCG-friendly schedule with 14 games at the venue (equal most with Collingwood). 13 night games (including six on Friday nights) will give the team exposure. On the downside they have eight six day breaks, and travel interstate six times, including two trips to Perth and their first ever game in Canberra. They also have to face Hawthorn, Sydney and Fremantle between Round 7 and Round 9 plus the Hawks in Round 18 and the Swans in Round 23.

ST KILDA
St Kilda will be involved in three milestone games next year: Nick Riewoldt's 300th game in Round 2 against the Western Bulldogs, the Round 3 game against Collingwood which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Saints' 1966 VFL premiership and the "Pride Match" against Sydney. They play only one Sunday twilight home game (down from four this year), play only one 2015 finalist (Bulldogs) twice and don't have consecutive six day breaks or interstate trips. However they play only five night games. The Saints will not play any games in New Zealand next year after an initial three year contract with the Wellington City Council (which saw the Saints playing at the city's Westpac Stadium) ended, and discussions between the club and the Christchurch City Council fell through.

SYDNEY
The Swans' 2016 schedule is a mixed bag with clashes against Collingwood, Carlton and GWS in the first three rounds, and four of the 2015 finalists in the last five rounds. The Swans play five games in Victoria (including two MCG games) but head to Adelaide and Perth only once. They have three Friday night games and one on Thursday night which will give them good exposure. They have consecutive six day breaks in Rounds 15 to 17 with games against Western Bulldogs, Geelong and Hawthorn which will be a tough ask.

WEST COAST
Will have a tough start to the season with four games in a row against 2015 finalists from Round 2 to Round 5, but two of those will be played at Domain Stadium. The Thursday night meeting with Essendon in Round 15 will mark the return of 2006 premiership coach and club legend John Worsfold, who is now in charge of Essendon. The Eagles will have to negotiate eight six day breaks like Hawthorn, North Melbourne and Richmond next season, but have been granted their wish to play more games at the MCG in 2016 with clashes against Hawthorn, Carlton and Collingwood. They avoid trips to Darwin, Alice Springs, Tasmania and the Gold Coast which is a bonus.

WESTERN BULLDOGS
The Bulldogs have been rewarded for their meteoric rise during 2015 with 12 night games next year, including three on Friday nights (the first time since 2013 the club will play on Friday night). They play 14 times at Etihad Stadium including the first seven games. However they have a tougher schedule than this year, with two games each against Fremantle, North Melbourne, West Coast and Collingwood. They have five interstate trips, one less than 2015, and play just once in Adelaide and Perth.

PRE-SEASON SCHEDULE
The 2016 NAB Challenge schedule was announced on October 26, three days before the regular season schedule. The major talking point is that new Carlton coach Brendon Bolton will face a baptism of fire when he takes on his former club and his long-time mentor in the opening game, at Aurora Stadium in Launceston on February 18, clashing with Alastair Clarkson's Hawthorn to open the pre-season competition. Bolton, who comes from Tasmania, spent five years as an assistant coach with the Hawks, including five weeks as interim senior coach in 2014 when Clarkson was ill, before his departure on the eve of this year's Finals to join the Blues. Adding to the 'master-pupil' theme on the opening weekend, Don Pyke's first pre-season game as Adelaide coach will be against his former club, West Coast.

As was the case last year, 27 games will be played over four weekends. All teams will play three games - two over the first three weeks and one on the final weekend. Like last year there will not be an overall winner.

Nearly every game over the first three weeks will be played at suburban and regional venues around the country and among those to be hosting pre-season games for the first time include Mackay in north Queensland, Beaconsfield on the fringes of Melbourne's south east, Mount Barker in Western Australia (the original home of Jim and Phil Krakouer), Unley Oval in the east of Adelaide and Playford Alive Oval in Adelaide's north. One of the most anticipated pre-season games will be Carlton v Essendon at Princes Park on Sunday, February 28, which will see John Worsfold in charge of the Bombers for the first time.

One change from previous years is that there will be no pre-season meetings between Adelaide and Port Adelaide or Fremantle and West Coast.

Essendon and Geelong will also play an annual NAB Challenge game at a regional venue to raise awareness into the issues facing rural and regional Australia.

Sources: Patrick Keane, AFL Media Release; afl.com.au, Melbourne Age, Herald Sun, abc.net.au



Article last changed on Thursday, November 05, 2015 - 5:42 AM EST


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