Carlton will host Richmond in a blockbuster season opener at the MCG on Thursday – a match that can’t come soon enough for the AFL and its battered image.
The ball will be bounced in front of a huge crowd at the home of football 187 days after triumphant Hawthorn skipper Luke Hodge raised the 2014 premiership cup over his head.
In that time the game has taken several hits, with new drug and betting controversies joining the tail end of the Essendon supplements saga to make a long pre-season drag on.
Football fans will finally resume their on-field fix when the traditional season-opener between the Blues and Tigers returns after a one-year break.
“I think it feels more like a round one this year as compared to last,” Richmond coach Damien Hardwick said.
Mick Malthouse and Hardwick enter this campaign needing to satisfy different criteria, but the pressure is equally intense.
After steering Richmond to successive finals campaigns where they bowed out immediately – winning a final appears the logical pass mark for Hardwick this season.
Avoiding the disastrous 3-10 start that came so close to derailing the Tigers’ 2014 campaign is a must.
“We’re further advanced than we have been previously,” Hardwick said.
“We had a lot of off-season surgeries last year – I think we had 15 ops compared to about five this year, which is always going to be an improvement.
“We’re really excited, but the proof will be in the pudding.”
Malthouse will break Jock McHale’s record to become the longest-serving coach in the competition’s history when Carlton plays Collingwood in round five.
But he appears to have a fight on his hands to make sure his 31st season as a senior coach is not the last.
Malthouse’s three-year deal expires at the end of this season and club president Mark LoGuidice has made it clear that he will wait until the back half of the season before even entertaining the idea of a contract extension.
It’s unclear just what criteria the veteran coach must meet to extend his tenure.
He famously told the crowd at Carlton’s season launch that he couldn’t see where his team would lose a match this season.
But the Blues are widely considered to have a playing list building for the future rather than one capable of playing finals in the short-term.
Still, Malthouse has spruiked the youth of his list as a positive heading into the season.
He’s worked wonders with unheralded groups before and has put as much work into his charges as he possibly could over a long summer.
“It’s been the longest pre-season in history and it felt like it,” Malthouse said.
“But it’s a bit like this, six months ago you can’t believe how long away April is looking … and now you’re feel like you need another week.”