Brisbane players celebrate on the final siren of the preliminary final against Carlton on September 23, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

FOR THE first time in history, the Toyota AFL Premiership season will begin with an 'Opening Round' with four blockbusters to be played in New South Wales and Queensland.

The matches start on Thursday, March 7 and will include a replay of last year's two preliminary finals and a pair of clashes between budding rivals.

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We look at how each of the eight clubs can take a winning start into the traditional round one, and predict which teams will pick up the four points.


Sydney v Melbourne, SCG
Thursday, March 7, 7.30pm AEDT

Last time: Melb 11.11 (77) d Syd 7.14 (56), R24, 2023

What it means
Sydney snuck into the top eight last year despite an injury-riddled campaign that hit its tall stocks particularly hard, with Lance Franklin one of several Swans to be sidelined. The superstar forward's misfortune gave more opportunities to emerging key forwards like Logan McDonald, who now need to take the reins if the Swans are to set themselves up for another deep run in September.

Melbourne will be counting down to the season-opener more than most following a off-season disrupted by off-field sagas and the heartbreaking retirement of Angus Brayshaw. But once the action starts the Demons have the pedigree to again challenge for the top four and chase a second flag to add to their breakthrough premiership in 2021.

Game shapers
Sydney is set to rely on new ruck Brodie Grundy more than initially hoped with fellow recruit Taylor Adams, stand-alone skipper Callum Mills and veteran onballer Luke Parker all sidelined with injury. The two-time All-Australian faces a tough first test in red and white but will be out to prove a point against the side that left him languishing in the VFL at the pointy end last year.

Melbourne midfielder Clayton Oliver has overcome an interrupted pre-season in time to earn selection in Opening Round but it remains to be seen whether he has the form and fitness to have his usual influence. The three-time All-Australian is sure to return to his familiar role in the middle, even if on reduced minutes, as the Demons start life without the recently-retired Brayshaw.

Early tip: Sydney by seven points


Brisbane v Carlton, Gabba
Friday, March 8, 6.40pm AEST

Last time: Brisbane 11.13 (79) d Carlton 9.9 (63), preliminary final 2023

What it means
Brisbane has had more than five months to stew on its soul-crushing Grand Final loss and will be keen to kickstart a fresh challenge. An Opening Round clash at the Lions' formidable fortress, where they won every match last season, gives last year's runners-up the ideal launchpad towards going one better in 2024.

Carlton will start the season full of hope after surging into a preliminary final last year with 11 wins from its last 12 matches, including two finals triumphs. The Blues' campaign ended at that stage at the hands of the Lions, but this looms as their best chance in a long while to snap a Gabba hoodoo against the hosts stretching back to 2013. 

Game shapers
Charlie Cameron
 will be out to back up a career-best year in terms of goals (59) that also earned a second All-Australian blazer. While the Lions have arguably the most potent forward group in the league, it is their speedy goalsneak that often adds the spark to light up the Gabba.

Carlton has moved past the dark days when captain Patrick Cripps had to all but carry the midfield on his heavily-strapped shoulders. But with Sam Walsh set to miss Carlton's first match of the season for the third consecutive year, Cripps might have to reprise his old role to ensure the Blues challenge the Lions around the contests.

Early tip: Brisbane by 11 points


Gold Coast v Richmond, People First Stadium
Saturday, March 9, 3.20pm AEST

Last time: GC 11.6 (72) d Rich 6.12 (48), R7 2023

What it means
After several false dawns, could this finally be the year that Gold Coast secures its first finals berth? With a three-time premiership-winning coach Damien Hardwick now at the helm, and an enviable crop of young talent on the list, a fast start against Hardwick's former club would be the ideal way to build belief.

New Richmond coach Adem Yze will take the reins for the first time following Hardwick's move north. The absence of Trent Cotchin and Jack Riewoldt gives the Tigers outfit a new look on the field, and while they might be rebuilding on the run, there are enough players remaining from the Hardwick-era that will want to give their former mentor a parting gift of a heavy defeat.

Game shapers
The pieces of the puzzle are starting to come together for Gold Coast but it will hope to get a further boost from spearhead Ben King. The 202cm forward booted 40 goals in 20 matches last season, after overcoming an ACL tear sustained the previous year, and could take the Suns higher with a greater haul as the Suns rise under Hardwick. 

Richmond midfielder Dion Prestia is due a clean run after a stretch of injury-hit seasons that have blighted his prime years. The former Sun appears to be in good nick and ready to launch into the season to support Tim Taranto, Jacob Hopper and Shai Bolton as the Tigers regenerate all over the ground.

Early tip: Gold Coast by 26 points


GWS v Collingwood, Engie Stadium
Saturday March 9, 7.30pm AEDT

Last time: Coll 8.10 (58) d Greater Western Sydney 8.9 (57), preliminary final 2023

What it means
Greater Western Sydney rediscovered the Orange Tsunami as it surged to 11 wins from 13 matches and into a preliminary final before falling to Collingwood in a one-point thriller last year. With talent spread across every line and a game plan that looks perfectly suited to their playing list, the Giants are well placed to contend again as they chase their first flag.

Collingwood only just continued its march toward an eventual premiership when overcoming the Giants by the barest of margins in front of the parochial Magpie Army. Even after clinching a flag in dramatic fashion, the Pies have refused to stand still with the useful addition of Lachie Schultz, and again loom as the team to beat.

Game shapers
Toby Greene
has been widely-regarded as one of the premier forwards in the League for several years but lifted his status even higher while leading Greater Western Sydney to a preliminary final last year. Greene often saves his best for the biggest stage, and can be trusted to turn it on against the reigning premier under the glare of Opening Round on home turf.

Jordan De Goey owned the biggest moments in the 2023 Grand Final, the most memorable being a long bomb from outside 50m that put Collingwood in front with little more than five minutes remaining. The dynamic De Goey is now as impactful in the midfield as he is near goal, and will be out to set the tone as the Magpies begin their title defence.

Early tip: Greater Western Sydney by four points