MID-AIR fixture changes and last-minute fan lockouts feature in the next instalment of AFL.com.au's 50 things we'll remember from 2021.
A controversial new rule and some famous names re-emerging in the competition are also on the list from 40-31, while a rising young team justifies some tough list management calls.
PART ONE 50-41 Biggest stories of 2021
40. RIP Russell Ebert
More than 4,000 people packed the stands at Alberton during a state funeral to pay tribute to the late, great Russell Ebert in November after the Australian football great lost his battle with leukaemia. A legend of Port Adelaide and the South Australian Sport Hall of Fame, Ebert played a club-record 392 games with the Port Adelaide Magpies and won three SANFL premierships. His incredible career was celebrated alongside his generosity, humility and compassion, with son Brett paying tribute to a man whose life was "devoted to others". Those who knew him were unanimous that his legacy would extend beyond football and would be enduring.
39. Parish leads the young Bombers' resurgence
Essendon was one of the surprise movers in 2021, with coach Ben Rutten leading his young team back to finals after finishing 13th during a coaching handover in 2020. The improvement came on the back of a dynamic midfield group that included breakout star Darcy Parish, who won three separate best-on-ground awards, including the Anzac Medal, before earning his first Therabody AFL All-Australian selection and finishing equal fifth in the Brownlow Medal. While Parish starred, the early impact of draftees Nik Cox and Archie Perkins helped usher in a new era for the Bombers.
38. Adelaide cops massive fine for breaching mask rules
The trade-off for continuing an AFL season and travelling regularly during a pandemic was strict adherence to all COVID-19 protocols, with failure to do so bringing hefty penalties. In June, Adelaide was fined $50,000 after players and staff were not wearing masks properly on a commercial flight from Sydney to Adelaide. An investigation found five players and three staff had not met the rules put in place by health authorities, with the Crows apologising for not living up to community standards. Underlining the extent of the penalty, the entire fine needed to be included in the club's football department soft cap, which had already been tightened significantly for 2020 and 2021.
37. Famous names return as clubs welcome next crop of stars
The 2021 NAB AFL Draft saw two father-son players land at their clubs as top-four picks, with Sam Darcy and Nick Daicos joining the Western Bulldogs and Collingwood respectively. Their journeys to the AFL were tracked well in advance of 2021, given their promise as junior players and their fathers' brilliant careers. The draft was also significant given three players with African origins – Mac Andrew (Gold Coast), Neil Erasmus (Fremantle) and Leek Aleer (Greater Western Sydney) – were drafted in the first round. North Melbourne refused trade offers for its No.1 pick and chose not to bid on any father-son prospects to ensure Jason Horne-Francis was the first player selected.
36. Concussion incident leads to AFL boxing ban
Hawthorn forward Mitch Lewis suffered an accidental concussion in June when he was hit on the head by teammate Jacob Koschitzke during a boxing session. With Lewis sidelined under the AFL's concussion protocols, the incident was investigated by WorkSafe, which took no action against the club. The AFL, however, moved to ensure the incident was not repeated at any club, banning all combat boxing and sparring between players and officials. Only specific boxing training with qualified personnel would be allowed under special conditions. The incident was described by Alastair Clarkson as a "genuine accident", with the ban seen as a "severe reaction" by the four-time premiership coach.
35. Scott fined after Lions confrontation
Geelong coach Chris Scott found himself in enemy territory in round two when he approached the Brisbane huddle at quarter-time and entered a heated exchange with several players. Angry after Gary Rohan had struck him off the ball, Brownlow medallist Lachie Neale engaged with the coach before several teammates followed. Scott, who walked towards the Lions players, was ultimately ushered away by Cam Guthrie and Joel Selwood. While the premiership coach and Lions counterpart Chris Fagan cleared the air after the match, the AFL took a dim view of Scott's actions and issued a suspended $10,000 fine and a warning that similar incidents would be met with consequences.
34. Hocking takes a stand before returning to Geelong
After nearly four years as the AFL's football operations boss, Steve Hocking left in July having transformed the game significantly in that time. Given a mandate to "review anything" and lead the AFL into the new era, the former Geelong defender set about easing congestion in the game and brought conviction to the role. He left some of his most controversial changes to last, introducing a medical substitute on the eve of the 2021 season as well as the 'stand' rule, which was hailed as an early success before scoring regressed. Having played 199 games with Geelong, Hocking could not turn down the opportunity to return to the club and replace departing chief executive Brian Cook.
33. Rioli finally learns anti-doping fate
West Coast premiership forward Willie Rioli endured 18 months of uncertainty before his penalty was handed down in March for twice tampering with a urine sample. Sidelined since the 2019 finals series, the talented Eagle was eventually banned for two years, with the backdated penalty making him available late in 2021. While the drawn-out process frustrated West Coast, the club ultimately describe the penalty as a "fair compromise". Rioli's return to the club was compromised, however, when he was caught with cannabis at Darwin Airport in April, pleading guilty and avoiding conviction. It left the 26-year-old needing to win back the trust of his teammates, which he appears to have done ahead of a 2022 return.
32. Gameday decision locks out WA fans
Just hours before West Coast met Fremantle in a highly anticipated Western Derby, premier Mark McGowan announced fans would be locked out. The decision was made due to a community COVID-19 case, leading to the first Western Derby ever played without a crowd. West Coast made a last-ditch bid to move the game until a crowd could attend but was unable to, with the decision expected to cost the club "well north" of $2 million. In very similar circumstances, fans were again locked out of Optus Stadium for the Eagles' round 15 clash against the Western Bulldogs, with Western Australia's hard-line COVID-19 stance causing gameday chaos as it kept the pandemic under control in the state.
31. Fixtures on the run cause mid-air change
As far as fixture changes went, they didn't get any more bizarre than a mid-air change to Melbourne's round 20 clash against Gold Coast, which was originally scheduled for Metricon Stadium on a Saturday afternoon. After leaving on a charter flight on gameday, the match was called off while the team was in the air due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Queensland. Redirected to Brisbane where they would refuel, the Demons touched down and spent almost three hours on the tarmac before they were sent back to Melbourne to eventually play their match on the Sunday. Their eight-hour trip achieved little but highlighted the agility the League had to have to keep the season going, with the Demons then sent into a week of quarantine so they could play the Eagles in Perth.