The AFL’s modern-day benchmarks Hawthorn square off against the worst team from 2015 in the NAB Challenge opener, ending yet another off-season dominated by the Essendon supplements scandal.
The Hawks take the first step in the long journey they hope will end in a record-equalling fourth flag at their second home in Launceston when they play Carlton on Thursday night.
Both clubs have named strong squads for the first skirmish of the four-week pre-season competition, which encompasses 27 matches in four weeks spread over seven states and territories.
The more far-flung venues include Mount Barker in WA, Wangaratta, Wagga Wagga and Mackay.
But the first instalment is at Aurora Stadium in Launceston where Hawthorn will be among a number of clubs trialling a different leadership structure.
Adem Yze will replace Alastair Clarkson in the head coach’s seat, while local boy Grant Birchall assumes captaincy duties from Luke Hodge.
Carlton have a new permanent coach – and one very familiar to Thursday night’s opponents – in former Hawthorn assistant Brendon Bolton.
Stand-in Blues skipper Kade Simpson is excited to be taking on a Hawthorn team including up to 13 members of last year’s premiership outfit.
“We’ve been playing so many intraclub and match simulation drills at training that you get sick of playing against each other,” said Simpson.
“You want to put it in against real opposition and is there any better opposition than Hawthorn?”
The Blues have named all three of their top-12 draft picks from last season – Harry McKay, Charlie Curnow and No.1 Jacob Weitering.
“I hope they’d be pretty nervous,” said Simpson.
“It’s a big deal playing your first game.”
All 18 clubs will spread the load to best suit themselves over the pre-season competition, as shown in the selections for Friday night’s clash between Fremantle and Richmond in Mandurah.
The nominal home side have named nearly all of their big guns including Brownlow medallist Nat Fyfe, Matthew Pavlich, Aaron Sandilands and David Mundy.
But the Tigers have spared the likes of skipper Trent Cotchin, Alex Rance, Dustin Martin and Jack Riewoldt from the long trip over the Nullarbor.
“Some sides are going to be at full strength, some sides are going to be playing a development side,” said Richmond coach Damien Hardwick, who will have assistant Brendon Lade deputising for him on Friday night.
“We’ll have a blend of youth and experience but it’s always good to play the good sides in the competition, even their development players are probably to a next level.”
Sydney have taken the concept of temporary leadership change to a whole new level with injured co-captain Jarrad McVeigh filling in as coach for Saturday’s game against Port Adelaide at Blacktown.
The Swans team will include star forward Lance Franklin, who sat out last year’s finals series due to a mental health issue.
Essendon are among six clubs who don’t play their first match until the second weekend of the pre-season competition.
Their biggest focus to date under new coach John Worsfold has been signing up to 10 fill-ins to replace the dozen players who were suspended for the 2016 season for their roles in the controversial supplements program.