WHILE a young Gold Coast star made an instant impression on the competition in 2020, a former Sun and Geelong champion farewelled the game.
Richmond's off-field struggles also feature in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's countdown of the year's biggest stories from 20-11, and COVID-19 continues to force tough decisions to be made on the AFL and AFLW seasons.
2020'S BIGGEST STORIES COUNTDOWN Check out Nathan Schmook's 50-41 here
2020'S BIGGEST STORIES COUNTDOWN Check out Nathan Schmook's 40-31 here
2020'S BIGGEST STORIES COUNTDOWN Check out Nathan Schmook's 30-21 here
20. Rolling fixtures and footy frenzies
It would have been unthinkable under normal circumstances. Rolling fixtures, four-day breaks, double-headers on weeknights, and extended road trips into and out of hubs. The fixture went wild out of necessity in 2020 and included a 'footy frenzy' that saw 33 matches played in 20 days between rounds nine and 12. The fixture crams that took place throughout the 2020 season were popular with broadcasters and fans, particularly when Victoria was in lockdown due to coronavirus. It also showed what was possible when stakeholders welcomed necessary innovation. Teams were also forced to innovate, rotating greater numbers of players through their game-day 22 during the crammed schedule, and some fared better than others. Whether the footy frenzy returns in 2021 or not, the 2020 fixture opened the door for flexibility in the future.
19. Crows break drought under new coach Nicks
Matthew Nicks was always going to face a difficult task in his first season, but he could hardly have expected to open with a 13-game losing streak that had plenty of pundits questioning whether the Crows would win a game. They met 17th-placed North Melbourne in round nine hoping to break their duck but lost by 69 points, with Nicks apologising to supporters post-match. Then in round 15 it clicked and the Crows broke through against Hawthorn, winning by 35 points. They backed up with the best of their three wins for the season against Greater Western Sydney the following round, and made it three straight in round 17, beating Carlton. It was reward for effort and a much-needed shot of belief and confidence going into 2021.
18. Essendon v Melbourne match postponed after positive COVID-19 test
Nine days after the AFL season had resumed in June, it hit a major setback when Essendon defender Conor McKenna returned a positive COVID-19 test. McKenna was asymptomatic and showed no signs of having the virus but he was forced into quarantine while the AFL made the decision to postpone Essendon's upcoming match against Melbourne a day before the game. McKenna later returned several negative tests and was released from quarantine after nine days, while the clash between the Dees and Bombers was then squeezed into a round 18 slot. A homesick McKenna retired in September and returned to Ireland, having played 79 games for the Bombers in six seasons. The only AFL player to return a positive COVID-19 test, he criticised the reporting of his result by sections of the AFL media.
17. Pre-game ceremony kicks off Dreamtime with a difference
The annual Dreamtime match couldn't take place at the MCG in 2020, but it enjoyed one of its finest moments as a result after being relocated to the Northern Territory. The pre-match musical performance by Yirringa Yunupingu was followed by a powerful Welcome to Country, delivered by Richard Fejo, a Larrakia traditional owner representative. The centrepiece match of Sir Doug Nicholls Round was a great success at TIO Stadium, where it would no doubt be welcomed in the future. In another nice touch, Richmond's Indigenous midfielder Shai Bolton, who designed the Tigers' jumper for the game, won the Yiooken Award as best on ground.
16. Hawkins and Danger lead driven Geelong
Tom Hawkins was the best forward of 2020 to the extent that he had claims to be the most valuable player in the game. In all matches, including finals, he ranked No.1 for goals (49), No.1 for score involvements (149) and equal No.1 for goal assists (23) with teammate Patrick Dangerfield. Highlighting the extent to which he was on top of his game, the 198cm key forward even ranked equal No.1 with Christian Petracca for forward 50 groundball gets (38). Partnering Hawkins in the Cats' pursuit of a flag was Dangerfield, who was named All-Australian for a record-equalling eighth time, continuing an unbroken run of six selections and being named captain of the team for the first time. The duo drove the Cats into the 2020 Grand Final, but ultimately fell short to a mighty Richmond team.
15. Hinkley finds the magic with Port
The sight of Ken Hinkley in the middle of the Port Adelaide team song pumping his fist in round six was an early sign of the connection the coach had developed with his players, who wanted to celebrate the coach's achievement of AFL life membership. Port had fun in 2020 and it was a recipe that worked. There was the stomping rendition of the team song early in the season, the drum a little later, and the laughter and applause during Hinkley's post-game address when they finished the home-and-away season atop the ladder. Port sat in top place all season after a pre-season declaration from Hinkley that they were aiming for the premiership in Port Adelaide's 150th year. They fell short against Richmond in a brutal preliminary final, but it was some season from the Power, who will challenge again in 2021.
14. New Sun makes instant impact
Could Matt Rowell win the Brownlow Medal in his debut season? It was a question worth pondering after the brilliant young midfielder's first four rounds. The No.1 pick in the 2019 NAB AFL Draft made a blistering start to his AFL career and was best on ground in three of his first four matches, racking up disposals (21.3 a game) and clearances (4.8) and kicking two goals in each of those three standout games, collecting three perfect 10s from the coaches. Then a serious shoulder injury ended his season and he moved into a role as opposition analyst and bench coach. Rowell's rare talent for a teenager turned the Suns into must-watch viewing early in the season and his return in 2021 will be highly anticipated. As for the Brownlow Medal? Well, he led the count with eventual winner Lachie Neale after four rounds before injury struck.
13. Richmond's brand takes a hit
Before the glory of Grand Final day in 2020 came a low point in the past four seasons for Richmond. So admired for the culture they have built since their 2017 rebirth, the Tigers came back to the pack in the Queensland hub. There was a breach of the AFL's COVID-19 protocols involving Trent Cotchin and his wife, and then juvenile behaviour from players in the team song. Coach Damien Hardwick made regrettable comments about former Melbourne star David Schwarz in a press conference, questioning his courage. And finally, Sydney Stack and Callum Coleman-Jones were booted out of Queensland and suspended for 10 matches each after they were involved in an incident near a Surfers Paradise strip club. The Tigers rebounded in a big way, but chief executive Brendon Gale admitted the club had lost respect through that period.
12. AFLW season cut short
The AFL made the decision in March to bring the AFLW home-and-away season to an early close and move straight into a three-week finals series in response to the COVID-19 crisis. It proved an ambitious plan, with the season called off all together just days later and no premiership awarded after circumstances changed. It was a devastating blow to Fremantle, Carlton, North Melbourne and Melbourne, who had progressed to preliminary finals. Player delegates had agreed that moving forward with a top-eight finals structure was the best option, but that decision ultimately cost the competition a premier. The undefeated Fremantle, who finished atop conference B, and conference A winner North Melbourne could have moved straight into a Grand Final once the decision was made to bring an end to the home-and-away season. But like most big calls in 2020, they had to be made quickly, and in this case, circumstances changed even quicker.
11. The Little Master retires after difficult year
In a raw social media post in July, Geelong champion Gary Ablett revealed the battles he had faced in 2020 with wife Jordan after their son, Levi, who was diagnosed with a rare and degenerative disease. Ablett left the Perth hub to be with his family and support Jordan, whose mother died in August because of lung cancer. A return to the Geelong camp via the AFL transition hub allowed Ablett to play in round 18 and then the entire finals series in pursuit of one last premiership. The brilliant 36-year-old suffered a cracked shoulder in the opening five minutes of the Grand Final but played on courageously in the last of his 357 games, leaving through a guard of honour as the Richmond players removed their premiership medals in a mark of respect. A premiership player in 2007 and 2009, dual Brownlow medallist, eight-time All-Australian, six-time club champion, five-time Leigh Matthews Trophy winner and five-time AFL Coaches Association champion player of the year, Ablett leaves as one of the greats of Australian football and a future member of the Hall of Fame.