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No games week before finals in fixture stunner

EXCLUSIVE: Week off before the 2016 finals series Simon Lethlean reveals to afl.com.au a radical new element to the 2016 Fixture

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THE AFL has dealt firmly with growing concerns over the integrity of the last round of the home and away season by introducing a weekend off before the finals.

The final round of the 2016 Toyota AFL premiership season will take place on the weekend of August 26-28, a fortnight before the opening weekend of the finals.

It is the most sweeping change to the structure of the season since national expansion sparked the introduction of Friday night and Sunday games in the 1980s and should ensure that finals-bound clubs no longer select half-strength teams to close out the home and away season.

"The AFL has introduced a bye week before the finals so that those clubs playing in September can have the best possible lead-in and preparation for the most important matches of our season," AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan said on Thursday.

The 2016 finals series will start on the weekend of September 10-12 and the Grand Final will be held on October 1.

McLachlan admitted there were "risks in disrupting the momentum of the season", but said there were also enormous opportunities, such as waiting until the Monday night of the final round to play a match that might determine the make-up of the finals.

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He indicated the AFL would leave the final make-up of round 23 until as late as possible to take advantage of any scheduling opportunities.

McLachlan also flagged playing the opening week of the finals over a four-day period, with perhaps a Thursday night opening match.

Discussions are already underway with broadcasters and other stakeholders as to how to fill the void over the football-free weekend, but there is the possibility of staging several of the major wards, such as the NAB AFL Rising Star, the All Australian and AFLPA MVP Awards over those few days.

The Brownlow Medal will not be moved, however, with McLachlan indicating his strong preference is for it to remain on the Monday before the Grand Final.

The free weekend also paves the way for state leagues and suburban and regional leagues to beef up their excitement around their finals series and perhaps even bring forward their Grand Finals to a weekend when there will be no competition from the AFL.

Finals-bound teams have been grappling with their selections for the last round of the home and away season for as long as there have been finals. But the matter has come to a head in recent years.

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In 2010, Fremantle rested eight players for a round 22 trip to Tasmania and subsequently lost to Hawthorn by 116 points. Three years later, the Dockers left 11 players behind for a final-round clash with St Kilda at Etihad Stadium when it became clear that it would be travelling to Victoria once again the following week to play its opening final.

This year's round 23 was particularly controversial. Fremantle kept half its team home for an away clash with Port Adelaide that had nothing riding on the result, while North Melbourne rested nine players before its match against Richmond ahead of an elimination finals rematch against the Tigers the next week.

The move all but handed victory to Richmond and severely dented Adelaide's hopes of climbing into the top six and earning a home elimination final.

While the Kangaroos said their team selections for that match were governed by "the fatigue and injury status" of their players and were implemented with the consent of the AFL, the Crows questioned them.

"The AFL quite rightly continues to hold a firm stance on teams playing to their merits when positioned near the bottom of the ladder given the possible impact on draft selections. But the definition of integrity appears blurred when applied to teams in the upper echelon where results can potentially change team rankings and possible allocation of home finals," the club said in a statement.

The 23-round season will begin on March 24 with the traditional Richmond-Carlton match at the MCG. Every club will have one bye during the home and away season, with the bye period taking place from rounds 13 to 15, during which there will be six matches each weekend instead of the usual nine.