AFL footy's back, but what will it look like?

The Tigers' Dion Prestia is tackled by Steele Sidebottom of the Magpies during the AFL round 19 match last year. The two sides clash on Thursday night, signalling the resumption of footy for 2020. Photo: Michael Willson/Getty Images
The Tigers' Dion Prestia is tackled by Steele Sidebottom of the Magpies during the AFL round 19 match last year. The two sides clash on Thursday night, signalling the resumption of footy for 2020. Photo: Michael Willson/Getty Images

So let's try that again. Yes, we're talking about this week's resumption of this AFL season, and like a lot of things in our lives, the picture looks a lot different to what we were gazing upon in mid-March.

When Richmond and Collingwood kick things off (again) at the MCG on Thursday night, it will be 81 days since we last saw an AFL game for premiership points. That's less than half the length of the usual layoff between seasons, but in some ways it feels a lot longer. And forget the "vibe", in practical terms for clubs, it might as well have been longer, too.

AFL football is hardly tucked away from view over summer. Preseason campaigns are already under way before the newly-crowned premiership team has even left the dais, and reported publicly and spied upon privately by rivals in forensic detail.

The scratch matches are going from January and on the TV from mid-February. Indeed, by the time the real stuff starts, it almost feels like we've had a mini-season of sorts, the expectation as much whether the cavalcade of hype about this team or that player prove on the money.

For obvious reasons, that hasn't been the case the past few months. It was only just over three weeks ago that AFL clubs were permitted to even train together in anything more than pairs. And only a fortnight since full-contact training resumed.

Remember, too, that all clubs have been operating with dramatically reduced staffing levels, football departments included, further compromising the attempts to get a handle on just who is doing what.

Then there's the two West and South Australian teams being forced to make the Gold Coast their "home" for the next month, with no certainty as to what happens after that with COVID-19 restrictions an ever-changing landscape and the remainder of the fixtures being released only in four-round blocks.

Who benefits most?

Given that backdrop, it's not stretching things to suggest 18 teams may well head into this week's "resumption round" armed with less certainty about not just their rivals but even themselves than they have for a long, long time, certainly since the era of the national competition.

So who benefits most? Which teams will pay the greatest price both for that lack of "intel" and simply the extended, unscheduled break between rounds one and two?

In terms purely of personnel, the layoff has had mixed blessings. Essendon, for example, played their round one game against Fremantle back in March missing Joe Daniher, skipper Dyson Heppell and key defenders Cale Hooker and Patrick Ambrose.

Daniher's return is still a way off, but for Sunday's game against Sydney, the Bombers look likely to have the other three on deck.

Collingwood was "cherry ripe" back in March ahead of a much-anticipated round two "blockbuster" against Richmond, having made a mess of the much-touted Western Bulldogs in the opening round.

Now the Pies finally get to play in that game, but obviously without the momentum that opening victory offered, and having copped a little run of soft tissue injuries leaving them with not quite the firepower or selection options they had initially.

Bulldogs' clean bill of health

The Bulldogs, meanwhile, go into their game against St Kilda (their original round two game was against Carlton) in a much better state than you would have thought after they'd trudged off Marvel Stadium on March 20.

The nature of that defeat would have had the Dogs, who'd looked impressive during the preseason, wondering what on earth was going on. But there's been more than enough time for coach Luke Beveridge to sift through that wreckage for answers, obviously far more than he'd normally be allowed once the grind of weekly games starts.

The Bulldogs also have a pretty clean bill of health at the moment, and the controversy regarding Lachie Hunter's much-publicised off-field indiscretion in mid-April has long since died down. The layoff would also have given coaches enough time to ponder just how to attack the shorter game times we'll be seeing this season.

The decision to go to 16-and-a-half minutes plus time-on was announced literally only the day before round one kicked off, no trials possible, no data gathered on the impact. But we know now at least that while average game length in 2019 was 122.5 minutes, the games in round one averaged just 101 minutes, about five-and-a-half minutes less per quarter.

That will give coaches far more of an idea about things like when to rotate their players, even whether to go with one or two recognised ruckmen. It may also have an impact on game style. If fatigue towards the ends of quarters is less of a factor, teams may be encouraged to pursue an attacking bent for longer.

But what about the absence of crowds?

Which brings up the issue of goalkicking and conversion. The comparative or total lack of crowds for much of this season should theoretically assist forwards do their job better without the pressure of baying crowds and their accompanying noise, colour and movement.

There were some pretty accurate scorelines back in round one, too, Hawthorn's 14.6 in its 28-point victory over Brisbane at the MCG the most impressive. That, though, like just about anything else which was going on pre-lockdown, does seem eons ago.

Whether what happened back then provides any sort of guide as to what's ahead will be a very interesting question as we effectively kick off season 2020 a second time. It's one no-one may be able to answer for some time yet, either. But at least now we have something going on worth asking those questions about.

This story Footy's back, but what will it really look like? first appeared on The Canberra Times.