An empty MCG will host the first game of the AFL season restart. (Photo: Richard Munckton, Flickr)

Preview: Off-field action defines AFL restart

The second round of the AFL season kicks off at 7:40 tonight – almost 12 weeks after the first wrapped up.

The lack of footy brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic has made for three long months for fans. But with government restrictions easing, the league now has a plan for a shortened season with an October Grand Final. Richmond and Collingwood will open the restarted season at an empty Melbourne Cricket Ground.

After such a long virus-enforced break, the hype can’t be overstated, and fans of two of the most-followed clubs haven’t held back on their excitement for the blockbuster showdown.

However, not all the action is playing out on the field. The lead-up has proven eventful with the AFL working to confirm and ensure as much as it can. And there’s still more to come.

The new draw

To make up for some of the time that’s been lost, this year’s draw has been reduced to a 17-round season including the round played in March, with no byes and a late-October Grand Final.

Only four of the remaining sixteen rounds have been announced so far. Matches in the last 12 will be announced gradually over the season.

The restarted season will open with more high-profile matches following the Tigers-Pies showdown. Geelong will play Hawthorn at home tomorrow night and the two South Australian teams will compete in a ‘Showdown’ match at Adelaide Oval the following night.

Check out the confirmed fixtures here.

The return of crowds

Adelaide Oval will also be the first stadium to welcome a crowd to an AFL game this year, with up to 2240 people allowed into the stadium to attend the Saturday night Showdown and Port Adelaide to be allocated around two-thirds of the club members in the stands as the ‘home’ club.

Fans will be allocated tickets via a ballot system and required to comply with ongoing social distancing regulations

NSW has also given the green light to a limited number of fans, after already giving the NRL the same permission. GIANTS Stadium and the Sydney Cricket Ground will be allowed up to 350 attendees this weekend for the home games of their respective tenants, GWS and the Sydney Swans.

However, Victoria and Queensland are standing firm and will not be allowing fans for this round at least. Broadcasters Seven and Fox have several innovations on the table to add atmosphere to the games when they are shown live.

One curious idea is to broadcast the live reactions of 10-15 supporters on the LED signage at stadiums, which Seven will trial tonight at the MCG before considering the concept for other games.

Both broadcasters will also be adding “virtual crowd” noise to their coverage, designed to kick in when certain events happen during play. It’s something that is already being used in the NRL and the German Bundesliga.

The ‘G has added something extra to the stand for TV viewers. Reportedly up to 1000 cardboard Collingwood fans have taken their seats at one end of the ground, with more than a dozen Richmond banners at the other.

With more easing of government restrictions to come, larger crowds are a very real possibility, and CEO Gillon McLachlan is holding out hope that they can fill out the MCG when the October Grand Final comes around.

The Gold Coast hub

While all the eastern Australian teams get to play at their regular home grounds straightaway, the sides from Western Australia and South Australia will spend at least a few weeks at quarantine hubs on the Gold Coast to ensure they can keep playing.

The hubs have been set up at two luxury golf course facilities, which will each house two clubs and are very close to Metricon Stadium where they will play ‘home games’.

SA clubs Adelaide and Port Adelaide will fly in following their Round 2 Showdown. West Coast and Fremantle arrived earlier in the week, but could return to WA in July with the approval of a Perth hub.

The fan responses

If the excitement for the season restart wasn’t obvious enough, one Collingwood fan was up right after midnight this morning to tweet about tonight’s game.

The anticipation is, for the most part, similar to what can be seen coming up to the start of a normal season.

There’s the usual suspects: The same old cheering and slander online that comes up any day of the week, and especially in the lead-up to a moment as big as this.

And the Carlton fans are getting their hopes up with the record they have coming into June.

For most fans, however, love for the team is being overruled by the sheer joy at knowing one simple fact:

The countdown to the first bounce is well and truly on. No more sleeps to go.