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Bolton's Blues to face Hawks in NAB Challenge opener

Fixture countdown, NAB Challenge revealed AFL fixture boss Simon Lethlean fronts the cameras
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 25: Brendon Bolton poses for a photograph during a Carlton Blues press conference announcing him as the new senior coach at Ikon Park, Melbourne on August 25, 2015. (Photo: Michael Willson/AFL Media)
Brendon Bolton will face former club Hawthorn in his first match in charge

NEW CARLTON coach Brendon Bolton faces a baptism of fire when he takes on his former club and his long-time mentor in the opening game of the 2016 NAB Challenge.

Bolton's Blues head to Aurora Stadium on February 18 to clash with Alastair Clarkson's Hawthorn to open the pre-season competition in what will be the first of 27 matches to be played over four weekends.

Bolton, who comes from Tasmania, spent five years as an assistant coach with the Hawks, including five weeks a interim senior coach in 2014 when Clarkson was ill, before his departure on the eve of this year's finals to join the Blues.

Adding to the 'master-pupil' theme on the opening weekend, Don Pyke's first NAB Challenge game as coach of Adelaide will be against his former club, West Coast. Pyke is a former Eagles premiership player who spent the last two seasons on Adam Simpson's coaching staff at the club.

Click here for the full NAB Challenge fixture

As was the case last year, all teams will play three matches – two over the first three weeks and one on the final weekend.

Nearly every game over the first three weeks will be played at suburban and regional venues around the country and among those to be hosting AFL pre-season matches for the first time include Mackay in north Queensland, Beaconsfield on the fringes of Melbourne's southeast, Mount Barker in Western Australia (the original home of Jim and Phil Krakouer), Unley Oval in the east of Adelaide and Playford Alive Oval in Adelaide's north.

Some of the venues to enjoy another taste of the NAB Challenge include Joondalup (WA), Mandurah (WA), Shepparton (Vic), Blacktown (NSW), Wagga Wagga (NSW) and Burpengary (Qld).

The marquee attraction will be on Sunday February 28 when Carlton hosts Essendon at Ikon Park. The clash between two great Victorian rivals, which should attract a huge crowd to the Blues' traditional home, will mark John Worsfold's first official game as coach of the Bombers.

The final weekend sees games revert back to AFL venues as the last dress rehearsal ahead of the start of the season. There will be five games at Etihad Stadium including a Saturday double-header featuring Collingwood-Western Bulldogs and Hawthorn-North Melbourne.

The final match of the NAB Challenge will feature West Coast hosting Essendon at Domain Stadium, with Worsfold again in the spotlight against the club he captained and coached to premierships.

One change from previous years is that there will be no meetings between Adelaide and Port Adelaide or Fremantle and West Coast. But the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast will clash at Burpengary on the opening weekend, while the Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney will meet at Drummoyne Oval on March 4.

The AFL also confirmed that every NAB Challenge will be televised live on Fox Footy as well as on the AFL Live app. Club members will be admitted free of charge to their club's games.