Western Bulldogs players look dejected after the R1 loss to Melbourne at the MCG on March 17, 2024. Picture: Getty Images/AFL Photos

THE BLOWTORCH is already turned onto both of last year's Grand Finalists as the AFL season heads into round two.

Collingwood (0-2) will open the round against St Kilda (0-1) as the reigning premier looks to get its stuttering campaign back on track on Thursday, while runner-up Brisbane can lick its wounds with a bye.

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Sydney (2-0) upstaged the Magpies after they unveiled their 2023 flag last week, and will be out to make it three on the trot when it returns to the SCG to face Essendon (1-0) on Saturday night. 

Gold Coast (2-0) is also looking to start the season with three victories – for just the third time in club history – when it takes on the Western Bulldogs (0-1) on Sunday.

Here is who and what to look out for across round two, as well as a tip for each of the eight matches.


St Kilda v Collingwood, MCG
Thursday, March 21, 7.30pm AEDT

Last time: Collingwood 10.10 (70) d St Kilda 9.10 (64), R5 2023

What it means
St Kilda impressed with its speed of foot and ball movement but still missed out on grabbing the four points in its season-opener against Geelong. The Saints were within a kick until the Cats found a sealer in the final minute, but will want to tidy up their kicking for goal to match it with the under-pressure Pies.

The premiership celebrations have well and truly ended after Collingwood started the season with a pair of crushing defeats. The Magpies will be eager to kickstart their title defence against the Saints ahead of a Grand Final rematch with an equally under-fire Brisbane next week.

Craig McRae during Collingwood's match against Sydney at the MCG in round one, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Speedy recruit Liam Henry made a fast start to life at St Kilda as his new teammates regularly looked to put the ball in his hands and gave the club debutant plenty of space to run. The former Fremantle prodigy finished with 19 disposals, six inside 50s and six score involvements, but is likely to face closer attention as it becomes more apparent how the Saints want to play.

Few, if any, players have impressed as much as Nick Daicos on the way to their 50-match milestone. The Collingwood jet has proven he can dominate a game from multiple positions, but has rarely run out with his side's back to the wall as it will be against St Kilda. The time is now for Daicos to lead the way and quickly turn around the Magpies' winless start.

Early tip: Collingwood by 11 points


Adelaide v Geelong, Adelaide Oval
Friday, March 22, 7.10pm ACDT

Last time: Geelong 14.14 (98) d Adelaide 11.6 (72), R8 2023

What it means
Another near miss for Adelaide in a six-point defeat to Gold Coast will have the top-eight hopefuls again wondering what could have been. But the Crows are now 1-5 in matches decided by a kick since the start of last season, and need to find ways to win the close ones to boost their chances of a first finals appearance since 2017.

Geelong showed signs of its former prowess as it celebrated the opening of the Joel Selwood Stand at GMHBA Stadium with a tense victory over St Kilda. The Cats will be buoyed by the performances of young guns Tanner Bruhn and Max Holmes, as well as forward Ollie Dempsey, as they look to return to the top eight after missing the finals last year. 

Oliver Dempsey celebrates during the round one match between Geelong and St Kilda at GMHBA Stadium, March 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Matt Crouch's career was at the crossroads less than a year ago as the 2017 All-Australian found it impossible to break into Adelaide's midfield. But Crouch made the most of his opportunity late in the season and backed it up in round one against Gold Coast with 33 disposals and seven clearances to help keep the Crows in the game.   

Patrick Dangerfield might be past his absolute best at the age of 33, but the explosive midfielder showed against St Kilda that he can still play a starring role. It was little surprise that Dangerfield grasped the moment when the match was on the line in the dying stages, but he had also been dominant throughout in a performance that suggested the Geelong captain is primed to lead the charge back up the ladder.

Early tip: Geelong by seven points


North Melbourne v Fremantle, Marvel Stadium
Saturday, March 23, 1.45pm AEDT

Last time: North Melbourne 11.7 (73) d Fremantle 10.12 (72), R2 2023

What it means
The new-look North Melbourne made 12 changes from its round one side last year but was always likely to find the going tough against early pacesetter Greater Western Sydney. The clash with Fremantle looms as a more accurate benchmark for the Kangaroos, especially with last year's preliminary finalist Carlton and runner-up Brisbane next to come.

Fremantle overcame a slow start and second-half injury carnage to clinch a rousing victory over Brisbane but now needs to back it up on the road against the less-fancied North Melbourne. The signs were encouraging for the Dockers as their midfield fired against the Lions, and the battle is set to be just as hot against the Roos' emerging onballers.

Luke Jackson in action during the R2 match between Fremantle and North Melbourne at Optus Stadium on March 25, 2023. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
North Melbourne has been waiting for Tristan Xerri to grasp the No.1 ruck mantle but has rarely had to rely on him like it does now following the departure of Todd Goldstein. Xerri took a step towards repaying that faith with a combative display against GWS that included 18 disposals, eight clearances and a goal, and perhaps pointed to bigger things to come. 

Caleb Serong set a new Fremantle record with 46 disposals against Brisbane as the standout in a midfield bolstered by the return to fitness of Nat Fyfe and the addition of Hayden Young. Serong adds polish to the Dockers' onball brigade but does just as much damage in winning the ball, and collected 21 contested disposals and 10 clearances against the Lions. 

Early tip: Fremantle by 14 points


Hawthorn v Melbourne, MCG
Saturday, March 23, 4.35pm AEDT 

Last time: Melbourne 13.9 (87) d Hawthorn 9.6 (60), R23 2023

What it means
Melbourne bounced back from an Opening Round defeat to thump the Western Bulldogs with its headline acts Max Gawn, Clayton Oliver, Christian Petracca and Jack Viney leading the way. The Demons' forward group also took steps towards silencing their critics and will have another opportunity to make a statement against the Hawks' undermanned defence.

Hawthorn went toe-to-toe with Essendon as scuffles broke out early in their round one encounter, but failed to stay with its heated rivals when the match was on the line. The Hawks still showed signs of promise, especially with young recruits Jack Ginnivan and Massimo D'Ambrosio, as well as prized draftee Nick Watson, being given opportunities, but is set to face a tougher test against the Demons. 


Game shapers
It has been a rapid rise for Jai Newcombe after being selected in the 2021 mid-season draft to now be a key to the Hawthorn midfielder. Newcombe battled hard against Essendon but will need to be at his best alongside the rest of the Hawks' onball brigade when they take on Melbourne's star-studded midfield.

It is rare for Max Gawn to lower his colours as the Melbourne captain acknowledged he did in the season-opener against Sydney, but no surprise to see the six-time All-Australian bounce back the following week. Gawn gathered 26 disposals, eight clearances and 35 hitouts against the Western Bulldogs, and will now be licking his lips coming up against the Hawks' emerging rucks. 

Early tip: Melbourne by 26 points


Sydney v Essendon, SCG
Saturday, March 23, 7.30pm AEDT 

Last time: Sydney 15.11 (101) d Essendon 15.9 (99), R20 2023 

What it means
Sydney has been forced to evolve following a midfield injury crisis and the retirement of superstar forward Lance Franklin. The Swans made light work of the reigning premier Collingwood last week after running away from Melbourne in Opening Round, but now must make the most of their fast start against the erratic Essendon.

Essendon showed signs of progress as it overcame a stern challenge from arch-rivals Hawthorn to clinch a four-goal victory. But the Bombers are likely to receive a better indication of where they are at when they face a surging Sydney in a duel that has been decided by more than 10 points only once in their past eight matches. 

James Rowbottom and Chad Warner celebrate after the R1 match between Sydney and Collingwood at the MCG on March 15, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Logan McDonald started to step out of the shadow of his mentor Lance Franklin last season and now seems comfortable under the spotlight as the focal point in Sydney's attack. The former No.4 draft pick booted four goals against Collingwood while hauling in five marks inside 50, as his agility and versatility looms as a powerful weapon for the Swans. 

Archie Perkins has shown glimpses of his prodigious talent since being drafted with pick No.9 in 2020 but it took a clear opportunity in the midfield for arguably a breakout display. Perkins matched his career-best 24 disposals, while also doubling his previous highs with eight clearances and 12 tackles, to lay down a marker for a prolonged run on the ball.

Early tip: Sydney by nine points


Western Bulldogs v Gold Coast, Mars Stadium
Sunday, March 24, 1pm AEDT 

Last time: Gold Coast 13.6 (84) d Western Bulldogs 11.11 (77), R11 2023

What it means
The pressure is already on the Western Bulldogs after it started the season with a lacklustre display. The Bulldogs need to address problems at both ends of the field, but the bigger dilemma might be at the selection table with club stalwarts Jack Macrae and Caleb Daniel pressing for a return to the starting 22 and Sam Darcy waiting in the wings.

Gold Coast has made such a bright start under new coach Damien Hardwick that it can now eye a 3-0 record for just the third time in its history. The Suns' emerging talent is shining through while Matt Rowell is in imperious form, and they could send a warning shot across the competition with a victory on the road.

Matt Rowell in action during the R1 match between Gold Coast and Adelaide at People First Stadium on March 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Aaron Naughton averaged two goals a game in the past three seasons but failed to step up when the Western Bulldogs were on the ropes in round one. The 24-year-old finished with only six disposals, one mark and a goal, all while the Bulldogs' defence was under siege and screaming out for a high-flying interceptor like Naughton to be switched into that role.

While Matt Rowell has taken all the plaudits with a stunning start to the season, it has been business as usual for his old mate Noah Anderson. The 23-year-old looks set to improve on his 2023 campaign that earned a first club champion award and a spot in the All-Australian squad, as Anderson continues to add a touch of class to the Suns' formidable midfield.

Early tip: Western Bulldogs by five points


Richmond v Port Adelaide, MCG
Sunday, March 24, 4pm AEDT

Last time: Port Adelaide 13.16 (94) d Richmond 8.15 (63), R24 2023

What it means
Richmond has started life under Adem Yze on a rollercoaster ride without quite reaching great heights, as a disappointing defeat to Gold Coast was followed by a gallant loss to Carlton. The Tigers have been hit hard by injury, with three players going down against the Blues, but have enough talent remaining to lift themselves up in search of a breakthrough win with their new coach.

Port Adelaide did what it had to do with a resounding victory over West Coast as Connor Rozee led the way in his first match as skipper and new vice-captain Zak Butters was not far behind. The Power have bolstered their midfield with 2021 Brownlow medallist Ollie Wines up and running again, but are set to face a tougher test against the Tigers' onballers out to avoid a 0-3 start.

Josh Gibcus leaves the field on a stretcher during the match between Carlton and Richmond at the MCG on March 14, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Noah Balta made his name as a key defender but has moved forward as Richmond search for more firepower in attack. The 194cm Balta booted three goals against Carlton but could be called into a more familiar role against Port Adelaide with young gun Josh Gibcus sidelined for the rest of the season and the Tigers needing to steady the ship.

Port Adelaide turned to Connor Rozee as its new captain at the age of 23, while also locking the midfielder away on an eight-year deal, and was instantly repaid with a sublime first-up display. Rozee gathered 27 disposals and booted two goals against West Coast and looks inspired to lead the Power to improve on their straight sets exit last year.

Early tip: Port Adelaide by 27 points


West Coast v GWS Giants, Optus Stadium
Sunday, March 24, 3.50pm AWST 

Last time: West Coast 14.16 (100) d GWS Giants 11.15 (81), R2 2023 

What it means
West Coast kept pace with Port Adelaide early but was ultimately flattered by its opponents' wayward kicking for goal in a 50-point defeat. It doesn't get any easier for the Eagles this week with the high-flying Giants to come, but they will be buoyed by the return to form and fitness of veterans Elliot Yeo and Jeremy McGovern, as well as the debut from No.1 pick Harley Reid.

Greater Western Sydney backed up its storming start to the season with a comfortable win over North Melbourne. The League-leading Giants might face another less-fancied side in West Coast this week but will need little reminder that they failed to beat the same team at the same venue and in the same round last year, as they look to seal a 3-0 start ahead of their first bye.

Josh Kelly sings the club song after the R1 match between GWS and North Melbourne at Engie Stadium on March 16, 2024. Picture: AFL Photos

Game shapers
Elliot Yeo's return to full fitness after four disrupted seasons looms as a critical block in West Coast's rebuild needing a better blend of youth and experience. Yeo spent time in the midfield as well as across half-back while gathering 20 disposals against Port Adelaide, and his power and presence will be even more crucial against the red-hot GWS.

Onball bull Tom Green has been typically dominant around the stoppages as Greater Western Sydney has blown away two opponents and climbed into top spot. But Green is also finding spaces and becoming an important link in the ball movement chain, as the 23-year-old averages 20 uncontested disposals, along with 13.5 contested, in the Giants' two wins so far.

Early tip: Greater Western Sydney by 46 points