As published on MOJO NEWS
The AFL Commission will reportedly make a decision within a week on the much-debated shift to a twilight Grand Final, but there is one tradition that is certain to be far less contentious in abolishing.
Since 2008, Richmond and Carlton have opened the season on a Thursday night.
Although the AFL strayed from the relatively short-lived tradition in 2014, and twice this opener was in fact preceded by games played a weekend prior, the game appears to have again become a mainstay.
Yet the modern incarnation of an old-time rivalry can only best be described as lacklustre.
Over the course of the nine years since the inaugural Blues-Tigers opener, both teams have shown little more than promise at most – Richmond has made the finals five times and Carlton four, while both share only a highest ladder finish of fifth.
Both of course failed to feature in September last year too.
The opening-round encounters themselves have further failed to deliver anything that might suggest it be deserving of recurring each year as the country’s first taste of premiership football.
Only twice has the margin been below 20 points, while it more often has been beyond seven goals, with blowouts of 83, 56 and 44 points in ’09, ’10 and ’12.
Last year delivered a far better contest with only nine points separating the pair, but with Carlton widely expected to again be cellar-dwellers and Richmond only modest improvers, the game has fallen flat on its face in terms of its ability to sparking the fascination and anticipation of the football public.
Both the fans and the game itself deserve far more than to have their season launched with the mediocrity that the pair have mustered over the journey.
That it has in fact remained in place can speak only to the fixture’s ability to draw a crowd – and that it undeniably does. Seven of their eight first round clashes since 2008 have drawn more than 70,000 fans to the MCG to boast the round’s largest attendance on all bar one occasion.
However each of the other all-Victorian matches this weekend could arguably draw similar numbers, if not larger ones.
These games too would provide a sufficiently mouth-watering prospect and generate far more intrigue and discussion amongst footy fans gathered around a water cooler in all of the country’s corners.
Collingwood and the Western Bulldogs sees the reigning premiers take on a talented team who this year simply must make the finals; Essendon and Hawthorn headlines the return of a dozen players after a contentious 12 month suspension, against a superpower who surprised all in losing a pair of premiership heroes. The St Kilda and Melbourne clash is also set to showcase two highly rated up-and-coming sides bursting with talent and sharing an equally strong ambition to feature heavily in September.
Placing the grand final replay in this opening slot has been mooted in the past too.
But instead this week’s build-up to the first impression fans get of season 2017 will have consisted merely of indifferent murmurs about the debuts of a trio of Tiger trade-ins and perhaps an array of yet more talented ex-Giants shipped in by the Blues. Nothing that is particularly sending impartial fans into a frenzy.
Although, it will Richmond and Carlton fans regardless, and they’ll turn out in droves.
Whether or not the opening fixture of a season actually delivers in way of a spectacle is relatively beside the point. The true measure of its value lies in the amount of anticipation it generates for both the opening round and the season itself, and in this the Blues-Tigers ritual splutters.
It’s a tough ask juggling the season’s fixture to ensure substantial crowds and TV audiences across a full round for 23 weeks, but the AFL must surely act. Put the many fans before the few and deliver a season opener for all to look forward to.