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Previews with punch – Round 1

Head to head: Melbourne will miss injured forward Tom McDonald, while Geelong skipper Joel Selwood is a formidable midfield force. Photo: AFL MEDIA

Previews with punch – Round 1

Rohan Connolly    

RICHMOND v CARLTON (MCG, Thursday 7.25pm local time)
Many of these now-traditional season-openers have come with Richmond fans anxiously hoping for tangible signs of improvement. This time, they get to watch a premiership flag being unfurled first. That’s some contrast. Again, though, there’s still that little bit of trepidation given Carlton’s tendency to upset the Richmond applecart, and the Blues’ pretty impressive JLT form. Richmond has four changes to its premiership 22 (Houli, Prestia and Rioli injured and Broad suspended). The replacements (Conca, Bolton, Short and Corey Ellis) are more than handy, though. Carlton’s newcomers aren’t bad, either, draftee Dow impressing in pre-season, Kennedy, Garlett and Mullett all with senior footy already under their belts. I expect the Blues to give this a decent shake, but the defending premier to get there in the end.
TIP: Richmond by 17 points.

ESSENDON v ADELAIDE (Etihad Stadium, Friday 7.50pm local time)
It’s been a long six months or so for both these clubs, Essendon’s recruitment of three seasoned recruits in Stringer, Saad and Smith given much fanfare and the cause of much expectation for the Bombers, the Crows smarting all summer from that limp grand final performance. There’s notable absentees from this game, Fantasia, Myers, Gleeson and Ambrose for the Dons, Walker and Brad Crouch for Adelaide, which has also lost Lever (permanently) and Smith (for most of the season) from defence. Gibbs, however, is a terrific midfield addition and Adelaide has a great goalkicking spread, eight players booting 20-plus goals last season. Essendon must at least break even midfield to win, having conceded 60-plus inside 50 entries to the Crows in both meetings last season. And Adelaide has beaten up on the Bombers of late, four wins on end by an average 76 points. This should be a lot closer, but the Crows on paper still look to have just enough.
TIP: Adelaide by 16 points.

ST KILDA v BRISBANE (Etihad Stadium, Saturday 3.35pm local time)
This time last year, expectations were high for both Melbourne and St Kilda. Twelve months on, the football world remains bullish about the Demons, not so much about the Saints, despite the fact they finished just one game behind both Melbourne and their own win tally of the previous season. There’s a perception the Saints lack enough polish, and that’s backed up by conversion stats, St Kilda ranked third last year for scores from inside 50s, but only 14th for goals from those entries. Highly-rated draft pair Clark (who makes his debut) and Coffield will be doing their new team an enormous favour if they can add consistently to that midfield mix. Brisbane, meanwhile, started to show some really good signs towards the back end of 2017, and has close to a full list from which to choose, one L. Hodge obviously the biggest and most valuable inclusion. The Saints play this venue particularly well, though, nine wins from 14 games in what was only a so-so 2017. This won’t be easy, but it’s a game which should be won also.
TIP: St Kilda by 28 points

PORT ADELAIDE v FREMANTLE (Adelaide Oval, Saturday 4.05pm local time)
There’s plenty of eyes on how the Power’s “load-up” on experienced senior talent will take them in 2018, and to that end, a win here is essential against a side of whom little is expected and which has won just once in six attempts at Adelaide Oval, and lost three out of the past four times by 69 points or more. Port has close to its best line-up available, the suspended Robbie Gray the most important absentee. Fremantle will potentially be without both Hill brothers Stephen and Brad, which would be a huge blow on a ground where running ability matters, while the Dockers are still playing the waiting game on Bennell. That said, Freo was pretty impressive in its two JLT hit-outs. Ross Lyon’s side needs more adventure and to hit the scoreboard harder this season. Against a Port outfit which seems to have both those qualities in abundance, the Dockers won’t stand much of a chance if they can’t find them in this game.
TIP: Port Adelaide by 36 points

GOLD COAST v NORTH MELBOURNE (Cazaly’s Stadium, Saturday 6.25pm local time)
Based on last year’s performance and ladder expectations this season, the Suns and Roos are hard to split. Their pre-season hit-outs have been at opposite ends of the spectrum, however, Gold Coast impressive under new coach Stuart Dew with its greater physicality and pressure game, while North was lacklustre at best against Melbourne and lamentable against Richmond. The venue is also a big factor here, steamy Cairns doing the Roos no favours with a sticky top of 29 and rain and potential storms predicted. Hall, Hanley and Lemmens are costly injury losses for the Suns, but there’s a decent contingent of emerging talent coming through the ranks, Fiorini, Brodie and Bowes just three examples. The Roos aren’t short of it, either, first pick in the draft Davies-Uniacke to make the first of many appearances in the North colours, Hartung’s pace a welcome addition. This game is more likely to be won by slog than speed, however, and Gold Coast’s acclimatisation could well prove important.
TIP: Gold Coast by 8 points

HAWTHORN v COLLINGWOOD (MCG, Saturday 7.25pm local time)
Some things have changed at Collingwood over the summer, but more have stayed the same. Sadly for the Pies, that includes injuries, which seem to have dogged the club for years now and have again bitten into the start of a new season. Goldsack’s loss for the year robs the Pies of flexibility, and Elliott, De Goey, Fasolo, Wells and Greenwood are all either still injured or not ready for senior action. All six would be in a starting 22. Hawthorn hasn’t been immune either, with Birchall to miss half the season and Langford now out for a month. That’s it, though, with Rioli surely to play despite his lack of match fitness. The other thing that hasn’t changed for Collingwood in this particular clash is its dismal winning record, the Pies on the receiving end in 10 of the last 11 clashes with the Hawks. It’s difficult to see this one ending much differently to usual.
TIP: Hawthorn by 30 points

GWS v WESTERN BULLDOGS (Manuka, Sunday 1.10pm local time)
Of all the teams hit by injuries ahead of round, it’s the Bulldogs who appear to have been affected as significantly as anyone. In a defence which had already been hit hard by the retirements of Murphy and Boyd, the long-term losses of Morris and now Adams are a savage blow. They leave a backline lacking physical strength (as impressive as draftee Naughton looks) against a team which can boast strong marking targets in Patton, Cameron and Lobb. The Dogs have struggled for goals at the other end, too, and won’t be able to rely on them from the suspended Redpath. Then there’s the indefinite absence of team heartbeat Picken after another concussion. The Giants’ injuries are less of a concern, with the hole off half-back left by the departed Wilson and Williams’ knee problem already seemingly capably filled by Whitfield. Canberra has been a great second home for GWS, too, the Giants having won eight of their last nine games there. They’re pretty decent odds to make it nine from 10 on Sunday.
TIP: GWS by 24 points

MELBOURNE v GEELONG (MCG, Sunday 3.20pm local time)
This looms as one of the tighter games of the opening round, with bullish predictions about either club in 2018, yet injuries for both a factor this week, too. In the Cats’ case, Dangerfield, as expected, hasn’t made it to the start line for round one after tweaking a hamstring in the last JLT game. Ablett is there, but will obviously be short of a gallop. Henderson’s absence, meanwhile, could have no less profound an impact on the Geelong backline post-Mackie and Lonergan, too. But Melbourne also has concerns, skipper Viney and recast key forward Tom McDonald each out for up to two months. That said, the Demons looked impressive indeed in the JLT, ruckman Gawn back on song, ditto key forward Hogan, and Melksham a likely looking goalkicker in a team which already has a decent spread of them. The Cats make a habit of beating the Dees, 11 of the past 12 times now. Which makes this something of a statement game for Melbourne, even in round one. I have a hunch this time they might be up to it.
TIP: Melbourne by 2 points

WEST COAST v SYDNEY (Optus Stadium, Sunday 4.20pm local time)
It’s a new era for West Coast the club, playing its first home game at the all-new Optus Stadium. And if it’s not a new era for the Eagles as a team, there’s certainly a transition going on, midfield stalwart Priddis and from last season a Brownlow medallist in Mitchell departing the scene, and up forward proven goalkicker Kennedy out of action for potentially a month. The obvious plus is the return of Naitanui, critical to the whole West Coast equation, but however quickly the super-athletic big man recaptures his best, there’s not a long line of Eagle midfielders to capitalise on his work. Naismith’s loss for the Swans will make it that much harder to counteract “NicNat”, but Sydney’s versatile band of mids remain remarkably consistent. These two teams, interestingly, have met only once a year since 2009, with the Swans winning seven of those nine games. It’s a sparse form guide, but enough to recommend the visitors.
TIP: Sydney by 16 points

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