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Free kicks, on and off-field, in the AFL fixture

It won’t be the Suns. St Kilda, who have a nice footy fixture, should improve with their seasoned recruits, but that would be a startling jump, given they’ve not stockpiled talent like the Lions. Fremantle have lost Brad Hill and Ed Langdon, remain youthful and won’t be fancied.

Carlton certainly has accumulated sufficient talent, but they’re not as advanced, in maturity terms, as the Lions of 2019. Sydney, too, have excellent youngsters and a knack for exceeding expectations, the question is whether those kids can bear the burden as the veterans exit and wither.

Melbourne, the most disappointing team of 2019, are the logical team to make the quantum leap, essentially restoring their performance to the level that was projected 12 months ago.

The Demons, like the aforementioned bottom-six teams, have been handed a nice barrier draw: return games are against Gold Coast, Fremantle, St Kilda and Adelaide. The only tough double-up, on paper, is Collingwood.

But punting on the Demons to perform is fraught, as their frustrated supporters well know. North Melbourne appears to have bet on the Dees not rising up – they’ve got Melbourne’s first pick in 2020. Based on the past decade, it’s a reasonable investment. But who knows?

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One club that will be bullish, due to a combination of late-season form, good-looking trades, the quality of their playing stocks and now their fixture, is the Western Bulldogs.

The Dogs have managed the rare double of gaining a fixture that is both commercially-advantageous (four Friday nights, plus Good Friday) and football-friendly, which is to say one that, ever-so-slightly, enhances their prospects of winning.

As a team that finished in the middle six bracket, the Dogs fared well to be drawn to play a return game against just one of 2019’s top eight, the Giants. They play Carlton, Fremantle, Port Adelaide and North twice.

Compare their lot to the team which finished one spot above them, the Eagles, who have to play Richmond, Collingwood and Geelong twice, plus two against Port and the compulsory derbies v the Dockers.

To continue the racing/betting metaphors of spring, the AFL’s fixturing for Thursday and especially Friday nights involves a series of wagers on teams’ form. For 2018, the league bet the Friday night farm on the Blues and lost.

Since that mishap, it’s been evident that teams have to earn their stripes before landing the prime slots. Thus, Richmond will feature under Friday night lights six times, Thursdays (better for TV audiences than crowds) twice; they have the leviathan Anzac Eve game falling on a Friday, plus Dreamtime v the Bombers.

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So, the AFL have backed Richmond, Collingwood, Geelong and – in a telling bet – the historically low-drawing but now attractive Bulldogs. Essendon, like Collingwood, has been punted on as Thursday night specialists (four games for the Dons, three for the Pies). Geelong will be the night Cats, with six Friday nights, five Saturday nights, four Saturday twilights and a mere four games played in pure daylight.

The AFL have kept Hawthorn safe, with three Friday nights, two Thursday evenings and fewer of the Sundays slots that president Jeff Kennett railed against when the Hawks were handed a poor box office fixture for 2019. This recognises that the Hawks are more apt to out-perform market expectations than not.

Collingwood’s fixture shapes as nasty for coach Nathan Buckley in the opening six rounds, when they cop the Dogs, Richmond, their brown-and-gold bogey, the Lions in Brisbane and Essendon (Anzac Day). Their double-ups also are imposing – Richmond, Geelong, West Coast, Essendon, plus the Demons – but, as with the Tigers, they have 14 on the MCG.

In any case, our projections of what constitutes a difficult schedule can unravel quickly. Melbourne was viewed as a tough game this time last year.

While their overload of Friday nights was the major blunder in the 2018 fixture, it is still surprising, given the surge under new coach David Teague and palpable sense of revival, that the AFL still deemed the Blues unworthy of Friday night’s stage and accordingly bet against – or was unwilling to bet on – them storming up the ladder.

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