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by Johnson Leung reporting for AFANA from Melbourne

There was two surprises in the 2018 schedule revealed at the end of October. First surprise was that Carlton, which finished 16th at the end of 2017 season, were given four Friday night games next year, while 15th placed North Melbourne missed out on Friday night action along with Brisbane, Fremantle and Gold Coast. In the past couple of years, Friday night games were allocated to clubs which had the best on-field form in the previous season. AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan admitted it was worth a gamble to give the Blues so many Friday night games next year, because they are building a strong team and are well coached by Brendon Bolton.

The other surprise was that North Melbourne would play St Kilda on Good Friday next year instead of the Western Bulldogs. The Roos-Dogs clash this year was a great success with 42,814 attending the first ever Good Friday game. Bulldogs President Peter Gordon said the club was disappointed with the decision and would seek a meeting with the AFL Commission to find out the reasons for the snub.

Richmond and Carlton will again kick off the season, however the March 22 game will have extra significance with the Tigers unfurling their 2017 premiership flag in front of an expected crowd of more than 80,000. Richmond was rewarded for their first premiership in 37 years with five Friday games and three Thursday night games, including the Grand Final rematch against the Crows in Adelaide in Round 2. This year the Tigers did not play on a Friday night until they made the Finals.

The new Perth Stadium will make its debut as a full-time AFL venue with West Coast hosting Sydney in the opening round, while Fremantle will have its first game at the A$1.6 billion venue in Round 2. The Dockers will play a Saturday afternoon “away” game at the stadium against the Gold Coast in Round 3, before West Coast take on Geelong at the same place the following day. The Suns will spend a week in Perth before returning to face the Eagles in Round 5. The stadium will then host its first western derby in Round 6. Perth Stadium was ruled out of Friday night games in the first half of the 2018 season because of transport issues and worries about getting the crowds to the game on time, but the AFL has resisted the urge to schedule the key time slot in the back half.

The clash against Fremantle at Perth Stadium is one of Gold Coast’s four home games to be played away from Metricon Stadium, as the Suns' home ground is not available for AFL games for the first ten rounds of the season due to the Commonwealth Games from April 5-16. The Suns will also play home games in Cairns (Round 1), Brisbane (Round Eight) and Shanghai, China against Port Adelaide (Round 9). The Suns’ first home game at Metricon will be in Round 11 against Geelong, which also marks Gary Ablett’s first game against his former club after he returned to the Cats in the recent trade period.

Adelaide has been rewarded for its stunning 2017 campaign with five Friday night games, as well as two Thursday night games next year. Sydney will again feature prominently in prime time, with five Friday night and two Thursday night game for the season. Hawthorn and GWS are the big losers with only one Friday night game each. This year the Hawks played four Thursday/Friday games, as well as the Round 23 clash against the Western Bulldogs that was confirmed later in the season to be on a Friday night, while the Giants were scheduled in for three Friday night games. The number of Thursday night games have been reduced from eight this year to seven next year.

The 2018 season will feature several games involving players facing their former teams. In Round 3, ousted Bulldogs premiership forward Jake Stringer is set to face his former side when he runs out for Essendon, while Port Adelaide recruit Tom Rockliff is expected to play his former side Brisbane at the Adelaide Oval, and Fremantle recruit Lachie Weller will play against Gold Coast in Perth. Games to look for also include Port Adelaide’s Steven Motlop against the Geelong Cats in Round 5, Adelaide’s Bryce Gibbs against Carlton in Round 7, Brisbane’s Luke Hodge against the club he captained to three premierships in Hawthorn in Round 9, Essendon’s Devon Smith against the GWS Giants in Round 10, Melbourne’s Jake Lever against Adelaide in Round 10, the Western Bulldogs’ Jackson Trengove against Port Adelaide in Round 13, Port Adelaide’s Jack Watts against Melbourne in Round 14, Essendon’s Adam Saad against the Gold Coast Suns in round 17 and Brisbane’s Charlie Cameron against the Crows in Round 18.

The traditional Anzac Day (April 25) game between Essendon and Collingwood will be played on a Wednesday next year, with Richmond and Melbourne again facing off at the MCG on the Tuesday night. The same four teams will play each other the following round on Sunday afternoon, with Essendon playing against Melbourne and Collingwood hosting Richmond. The Tigers-Demons clash will be the first Tuesday night game for premiership points since 1996, when Essendon and Geelong completed their game at Waverley Park, which was halted during the third quarter of the original Saturday night encounter due to a power outage.

Indigenous Round will be the only themed Round in 2018, with the AFL dropping Multicultural Round after seven seasons, in favor of promoting 'a variety of community messages' over the entire year, to promote Australia’s cultural diversity and highlight the League’s support of people from all backgrounds. The AFL’s Diversity Department will implement programs at all levels of Aussie Rules as part of this new approach.

In some good news for the clubs, the number of back-to-back six day breaks has been reduced from 15 in 2017 to seven next year (Adelaide, Carlton, Collingwood, Essendon, Port Adelaide, St Kilda, Sydney). The mid-season bye takes place in Rounds 11-13 except for Port Adelaide and Gold Coast, which will have their time off in Round 10 after returning from their Shanghai encounter. All four teams coming off a bye between Round 12 and 13 play opponents coming off six-day breaks. Gold Coast (three) and Brisbane (four) have the least number of six-day breaks.

Both Adelaide and Fremantle will make their first visit to Canberra in 15 years when they face GWS at Manuka Oval next year. Back in 2002, North Melbourne defeated the Crows by 17 points in Round 6 at Manuka, then beat the Dockers by one point in Round 15.

Here are how the 18 teams fare in the 2018 schedule.

Crows inaugural captain Chris McDermott described his former team as the “night owl” of the AFL in 2018 with a good reason. The 2017 runner-up plays 14 night games and six twilight games, but only one day game. Otherwise, the club has a good schedule, with seven of the first 11 games at Adelaide Oval, including four games in a row for the first time from Round 6-9, and only face three fellow finalists from this year (Port Adelaide, Richmond, GWS) twice. Adelaide will play GWS in Canberra for the first time, the first match since the Crows thrashed the Giants in this year’s qualifying final. The club will start and finish the regular season with an away game.

Brisbane has a difficult start to the 2018 season with three interstate games in the first four weeks, including games against 2017 finalists Port Adelaide and Richmond. They will play consecutive home games in Round 9 (Hawthorn) and Round 10 (Sydney). On the other side, the Lions only play a 2017 finalist twice (GWS) and get to host big Victorian clubs Essendon, Collingwood, Hawthorn and Carlton which should generate decent crowds.

Carlton plays five of the first six games in Melbourne, only two of which are against 2017 finalists (Richmond and West Coast). The Blues will travel to Hobart for the first time in Round 4 for a Saturday night game against North Melbourne. The Blues will play six home games at Etihad Stadium next year, one more than in 2017. The club will have seven six-day breaks, the second most in the AFL behind Sydney, and will also travel interstate six times, including their first game in Adelaide against the Crows since 2010.

Collingwood is arguably the biggest winner of the schedule. They will play only two of this year’s finalists twice (Richmond and Essendon). They will play 14 games at the MCG, including five in the first six rounds, and seven games in mid-season. They only travel interstate five times. They have three Friday night games, one more than 2017. The Magpies will have a 12-day break leading into the Anzac Day game but only four days rest before their next game against Richmond.

Essendon has been rewarded for making the finals this year with four Friday night games in 2018, including the Round 1 game against Adelaide. The Bombers have arguably the toughest run next year when it plays three games in 11 days (Anzac Day clash against Collingwood, Melbourne four days later and Hawthorn another six days later). Apart from that they have a good schedule, playing only one 2017 top six team twice (Richmond) and only two 2017 finalists in the first eight weeks, plus two of 2017 bottom six teams twice (Collingwood and Fremantle) during the season. They also play eight of the first nine games in Melbourne.

Fremantle is one of only two non-finalists to be asked to face three of this year’s top eight twice (the other team is Hawthorn). On top of that, six of the Dockers’ first nine games are against 2017 finalists, four of them outside WA. The Dockers will play four of their first six games at their new home ground Perth Stadium, including a Gold Coast "home" game. In all the Dockers will play 13 games at Perth Stadium, uncluding four of their final five games. They have only five six-day breaks, none of them on consecutive weeks. The club has games in Canberra, Geelong and Darwin but avoids trips to Tasmania and Queensland.

For the first time since 1999, Geelong will play nine home games at Kardinia Park, which has been renamed GMHBA Stadium after local health fund GMHBA signed a 10-year naming rights agreement with the club. They will host Carlton at Kardinia Park for the first time since 1997. The Cats will play two home games at the MCG, against Hawthorn and Richmond. Their only game at Etihad Stadium (where they played at least one home game each year since the venue opened in 2000) will be against Western Bulldogs in Round 15. The Cats’ last six games will be in Victoria including home games against Melbourne, Brisbane, Fremantle and Gold Coast. On the other hand, they travel twice in the first five weeks and have back-to-back interstate trips in Round 16 (Sydney) and Round 17 (Adelaide).

It will be a big challenge for new Gold Coast coach Stuart Dew, with the team forced to go on the road for the first ten rounds of the season due to the Commonwealth Games. In the first nine rounds they will play in eight different cities, starting in Cairns and finishing in Shanghai, before the Round 10 bye. However, four of the Suns’ first five games are against this year’s bottom five. Things should be easier from Round 11 onwards, with seven home games at Metricon Stadium, including back-to-back games in Round 21 and 22.

Like previous years, GWS will not be able to play at Spotless Stadium until after the Sydney Royal Easter Show. They will play their first two home games at Canberra’s Manuka Oval against the Western Bulldogs (Round 1) and Fremantle (Round 4) before returning in Round 21 to host Adelaide. Their first game at Spotless Stadium will be against Brisbane in Round 6. All of the Giants’ eight games at Spotless Stadium will be on Saturdays which should attract good crowds. Six of the Giants’ first seven opponents missed this year’s finals, however they have been drawn to play three other top six teams from 2017 twice. They have only one Friday night game next year, away to Geelong in Round 7.

Hawthorn faces a challenging schedule in order to return to the finals in 2018. They are one of only two non-finalists to be asked to face three of this year’s top eight twice (Geelong, Sydney and Essendon). The Hawks will play only one of this year’s bottom six team twice, and will finish the regular season against Essendon, Geelong, St Kilda and Sydney. On the upside, seven of the Hawks’ first eight games are in Melbourne, including six at the MCG. Aside from the first Saturday night clash in Launceston against St Kilda in Round 6, the Hawks will also clash with Port Adelaide (round 11), Gold Coast (round 14) and Brisbane (round 17) in Launceston. It will be the ninth time the Lions have played in the northern Tasmanian city since 2008, while Gold Coast will face the Hawks in Launceston for the fifth time since entering the competition in 2011. To compensate, the Hawks do not have to travel to South Australia to face the Crows or the Power.

Melbourne has received a decent schedule. They have no home games at Etihad Stadium, no six-day breaks for consecutive weeks, no back-to-back interstate trips and will play this year’s bottom two teams twice.  The Demons will play four away games in a row from Round 6 to Round 9 but only one of them is outside Victoria. The Demons will play two home games in Northern Territory, against the Crows in Round 10 in Alice Springs and then Fremantle in Darwin in round 16. Three of the club’s final four games will be at the MCG. The Demons’ only Friday night game of the year is away to Port Adelaide in Round 14.

North Melbourne only plays this year’s bottom two teams twice and don’t play the 2017 finalist in Round 6. The Kangaroos will host Carlton, GWS and West Coast in Hobart next year. They play four games in a row at Etihad Stadium in Round 14-17, three of which against teams which missed this year’s finals. The bad news is that the club starts the regular season with an away game and ends it with two away games.

Unlike their cross-town rivals, Port Adelaide will open and closes the regular season at home. Port faces a tough start to the season though, playing five fellow 2017 finalists in the first nine weeks. They will play three consecutive home games from Round 12-14, and enjoy four games under nights, including a Saturday night clash against Geelong in Round 5. They will travel across the country, playing in Sydney, Melbourne, Ballarat, Perth and Launceston.

The defending premiers should get off to a good start with six of their first seven games at the MCG, and close with four of their last five on their home ground. Richmond also have only two double-up games against top-six teams from 2017 in Adelaide and Geelong. The Tigers will also host a rare Thursday night game in Melbourne against Sydney at Etihad Stadium — the club’s only home game at Docklands for the year. On the downside, the Tigers have seven six-day breaks, including five day rest after the Anzac Day eve game against Melbourne, and they face a tough mid-season run with six games in a row against fellow 2017 finalists from Round 11 to 17 (Round 14 is a bye).

St Kilda will again play four Friday night games next year, even though they missed the 2017 finals. The Saints will play 13 games at Etihad Stadium, including three in a row at the start of the season and six of the last seven. However, the Saints will have six six-day breaks including consecutive six-day breaks from Round 15 to 17, plus two games in Perth in three weeks.

Sydney gets the honor of playing the first game at Perth Stadium against West Coast, one of five 2017 finalists the Swans to play in the first six rounds of the season. Like GWS, Sydney has been drawn to play three other top six teams from 2017 twice, however the Swans’ scheduling difficulty has been somewhat offset by the fact they will have five Friday night games compared to GWS’ one. The Swans also have eight six-day breaks, which is more than any other club, due to their primetime exposure. In Melbourne, the club will play five games at Etihad Stadium but only two games at the MCG.

West Coast will get time to familiarize themselves with the new Perth Stadium, playing seven of the first 11 at home, including consecutive home games for the first time in the club’s history, against Geelong in Round 3 and Gold Coast in Round 4. The Eagles face GWS, Sydney, Port Adelaide and the Western Bulldogs as well as arch rivals Fremantle twice, including two trips to Sydney to face the Swans and the Giants. The Eagles will only play four games in Melbourne, including two at the MCG. They face five six-day breaks for the season after six in 2017, and will finish the season with a tough road trip to Brisbane.

The Bulldogs will open 2018 with six of their first game at home, including games against Carlton, Gold Coast and Brisbane from Round 6 to 8. They won’t have to play twice against this year’s top four which is a bonus. After a good crowd attended the Bulldogs’ first ever home game in Ballarat’s Mars Stadium, the venue will host two games next year, against the Suns in Round 7 and then Port Adelaide in Round 19. However, the club will play their first four games against this year’s finalists before a tough Round 5 trip to face Fremantle at Perth Stadium, and play only two games at the MCG. They have two lots of three consecutive home games at Etihad Stadium, and finish the season with four away games in a row, however the first three are at Etihad Stadium with the Round 23 game at the MCG.

AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan said the schedule was constructed with the primary aim to maximize attendances at all games, ensure that all clubs received as balanced a schedule as possible via the weighted match-up rule and to continue to build the AFL game as the number one code in this country. He said the League’s primary goal “is that all clubs can compete equally for top-eight spots and then those clubs playing in September can have the best possible lead-in and preparation for the most important matches of our season (with the bye after Round 23).”  McLachlan said the Grand Final was staying in Melbourne but the start time remained unclear, with the AFL Commission set to meet in November to discuss the issue.

Sources: Patrick Keane, AFL media release,,,, Adelaide Advertiser, The West Australian

Article last changed on Friday, November 10, 2017 - 5:18 PM EST

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