The excitement engulfing Melbourne is palpable. The 2009 Australian Rules Football season is just days away, and the anticipation surrounding the first round of matches is seemingly unparalleled.
That is a massive statement, given this is the 113th season of Australia's largest spectator sport, but rarely do sporting organizations create such tantalizing fixtures as the AFL have for the competition's two opening nights.
General admission tickets are officially sold-out for Thursday night's season opener at the Melbourne Cricket Ground. Few could remember a home and away game so eagerly awaited.
It will be a clash between traditional rivals Richmond and Carlton. The two teams most widely tipped to be significant improvers in 2009 would be enough to entice most fans of the game to the MCG for the first meaningful game of the year.
However, on this occasion, the respective sides' prospects for the upcoming season serve merely to enhance the main storyline surrounding the match.
That main storyline is the return to league football of 2005 Brownlow Medalist and reforming drug addict Ben Cousins. Cousins' competitive debut drew nearly 40 000 to Docklands for a preseason quarterfinal, and thus his impact cannot be understated.
However when one considers that in the season opener he will come up against former West Coast teammate and 2004 Brownlow winner Chris Judd, the event is catapulted an extra few notches.
It will be a night to remember, and in excess of 90,000 will be there, not to mention the mammoth live television audience that will tune in.
Somewhat remarkably, the Tigers-Blues clash has sent the following night's grand final re-match on to the backburner. Not withstanding the obvious attention on Thursday night's game, Friday night's match between reigning premiers Hawthorn and runners-up Geelong demands blockbuster status.
The Hawks' young list is anticipating a golden era, however even their players readily admit that Geelong, winners of 42 of their last 45 games, are the team to beat. The Cats were awesome in winning the preseason NAB Cup.
With the Hawks having many players under injury clouds, Geelong are tipped by most pundits to turn the tables on their grand final conqueror at the very first attempt.
Such an appetizing first two games leaves the rest of the opening round looking decidedly flat. However any round one game must demand interest, if only due to the mystery factor surrounding each side's prospects for the season ahead.
The pick of Saturday's games is that at the MCG between Collingwood and Adelaide.
The Magpies' youngsters are expected to mount a top four challenge in 2009; whilst on the other side of the ledger, the Crows' preseason has been one of little hype and fanfare.
The match has extra venom after Collingwood eliminated Adelaide form last year's finals series, and the Crows will be fired up looking to atone, and to belie their underdog status.
At first look, Sunday afternoon's Subiaco Oval encounter between Fremantle and the Western Bulldogs should be a lay-down misère. After all the Bulldogs swept nearly all before them in climbing to third in 2008, whilst the inexperienced Dockers plummeted to a lowly 14th place finish last season.
However with Brownlow Medalist Adam Cooney expected to miss the match, and the Bulldogs' less than impressive finish to 2008, it would appear the gap is considerably narrower.
Baring in mind the Dockers lost a bevy of close games last season, most would agree that they are better than their record made them out to be, and at home, they will be a difficult first-up test for Rodney Eade's side.
In other games, St.Kilda and Sydney clash at Docklands in Saturday night in a match where low scores can be reasonably expected.
Elsewhere, the Brisbane Lions host the West Coast Eagles on Saturday night, Essendon travels to Adelaide for a difficult Sunday assignment against Port Adelaide, and wooden-spooners Melbourne take on North Melbourne at the MCG, also on Sunday.
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