The 2021 AFL season is underway, and our experts tackle some of the burning questions ahead of Round 2.
Should the bump be outlawed once and for all?
Rohan Connolly: I think if we are sold on the bumper having to wear the consequences, given there is always incidental contact, they'd be better off outlawing it altogether. We'd at least have clarity. And it's been a long time since the bump was a common feature of the game, anyway.
Jake Michaels: Patrick Dangerfield's late hit certainly wasn't a good look, and the AFL is right to stamp it out of the game, but it was clear Dangerfield didn't intend for the head clash. As Rohan alluded to, the bump really is a dying part of footy, as it's something you don't get rewarded for (unless you're Dan Butler) while all you do is risk suspension. It won't be long before coaches tell their players to ditch it altogether.
Matt Walsh: If you choose to bump, you're liable for the consequences. Shoulder to shoulder, no problem. But if shoulder hits head, or head hits head and causes damage, then be prepared to cop your whack. Dangerfield could have chosen to tackle - it would have been late, but the worst case in that scenario would have been a downfield free kick.
Jarryd Barca: No, he didn't choose to headbutt, but he did choose to bump and as soon as you do that, you're rightly liable. That's now two concussions the star has inflicted on opponents in his last two matches. The bump will never be outlawed and it never should be but prepare to suffer the consequences which, now, should be severe. If you're late to tackle, just attempt a smother!
What is the biggest takeaway from the new rules?
RC: The game WILL be more open in 2021, with more corridor play, more turnovers and probably higher scores. I think there was far more evidence of that last weekend than just an early-season mirage we've sometimes been seduced by. It's a big positive. Even a game blighted by poor skills like the Melbourne-Fremantle clash was made more watchable because of the greater unpredictability of ball movement.
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JM: No doubt the game is more open (at least for now, I still think coaches will adjust) but I can't stop thinking about the medical sub and how clubs will continue to manipulate it throughout the season. As far as I'm concerned, if you're subbed off you should not be playing the following week, NO exceptions. If we don't want this, then just have a traditional sub that can be used at any time. There's far too much of grey area at the moment.
MW: The fact that if a medical sub doesn't see any action, it still counts as a game played! How ridiculous is that!? Poor old Connor Downie sat on the pine the entire game for the Hawks. He probably had a bunch of family and friends along and didn't even get on the ground! Not to mention it messes with your stats - his averages go way down because of a 'performance' like that.
JB: So Connor, how was your AFL debut? Matt nailed it! I said last week that I'm completely against this medical substitute and my opinion has not changed. The fact that Downie has to count that game as his first at the top level is ludicrous. If that was a Grand Final, I'd feel very uncomfortable accepting a premiership medallion, that's for sure.
Which Round 1 loser has us most worried?
RC: It's maybe a bit harsh seeing as they only lost by a kick to a finalist from last year, but I'm no less worried about GWS than I was going into the new season. They look very dependent upon Toby Greene for inspiration and I still struggle to see any definitive playing style. They don't have anything like the star quality they did only a few seasons ago and to me, they look a classic middle-of-the-road team.
JM: It has to be the Cats. They were massively favoured to beat last year's worst team in Adelaide, but were shown up and now appear to have lost their star player for a few weeks. I'm certainly not saying they can't bounce back, of course they can, but a loss this weekend to Brisbane -- another side looking to respond after a disappointing Round 1 outing -- will have them at 0-2 and could be the difference between making top four or missing out come season's end.
MW: I'm a tad concerned by the Lions' first up loss to the Swans. They had a perfect opportunity to win a 'home' Grand Final last year, and didn't. It's now year three of them being a very good team, and very good teams are hunted. Lachie Neale not registering a tackle is a red flag, but I have no doubt he'll recover. The challenge for the Lions is staying ahead of the pack.
JB: Brisbane. They've had a lot go right for them in the past couple of seasons -- particularly last year -- and blew a massive opportunity to start their 2021 campaign with a big win on home soil, as Matt mentioned. Chris Fagan raised concerns after the shock loss that his players are letting complacency creep into their game - I'm fearing the same.
Are the Swans the dark horse team of 2021?
Rohan Connolly makes his ESPN Footy Podcast debut for 2021, making his case that Sydney could be a surprise finalist this season.
With Matt Rowell missing half the season, who wins the Rising Star?
RC: We might not see him debut this week, but I think Jamarra Ugle-Hagan is the man now that Rowell is effectively out of the equation. Five goals in senior company (even in a VFL practice match) is a pretty handy start to AFL life, and I reckon the Dogs' forward set-up will look a lot more potent for his presence. A first-year player getting among the goals to that degree is going to be pretty hard for judges to overlook.
JM: Um, why not Rowell? If Rowell can play half the season at the same level he showcased in 2020, why shouldn't he win the Rising Star? If it were up to me, I would have given him the award last year, even after just five games! It's pretty clear he's the best player in the draft class, it's a shame he's sustained another serious injury.
MW: I agree with Rohan about forwards kicking goals, so why couldn't Logan McDonald pinch it? The Swans forward kicked three on debut and looks very comfortable at AFL level already. I don't see any reason not to play him every game if fit. Oh, and if Buddy comes back into that Sydney lineup, McDonald suddenly finds himself on the second or third best defender.
JB: I'm on the Hayden Young train. He possesses the most elite kick from the 2019 draft class and can be damaging with kick-in duties, rebounding the defensive 50 or firing bullets into the forward line. He should play all season and be a consistent contributor for a Dockers team well on the rise.