A team starting their campaign to win back-to-back premierships in the AFL, starting today, could well do without the distractions Geelong face this year. The loss of Tom Harley, their inspiring captain and rugged defender, after the Cats took last year's flag was probably expected by teammates, and was a lot less troublesome than other issues.
For starters, the reigning Brownlow Medallist and accepted league champion Gary Ablett Jr has a fair bit on his mind. The midfielder Ablett, 25, has an unsigned dance card after this season, and his brother Nathan and an annual cheque for an estimated A$1.5 million (Dh5m) are waiting at the new Gold Coast club due to launch next year. The champion's focus on the team game and the responses of his teammates are sure to be under intense scrutiny this year, adding pressure to an already large enough task.
Then there is the sad tale of the forward Mathew Stokes in an off-season that was more like a gossip column. Stokes pulled out of the Cats' preliminary final meeting with the Western Bulldogs last year due to a groin injury. He could not force his way back in for the Grand Final. Early last month, Stokes was given bail after appearing on charges of possessing and trafficking cocaine. He has been stood down from the club until further notice and is due in court again next month.
The Cats begin their campaign for a fourth consecutive Grand Final appearance tomorrow against Essendon. The season begins today when Carlton - who have had their own share of disappointing news in the off season, including a riverboat ride that ended up with an impromptu underwear show in the lobby of a swank Melbourne Hotel - meet Richmond, who finished last year second from the bottom and have named Ben Cousins on the bench.
The Blues, without Chris Judd, their captain who is serving a three-week suspension carried over from last season, will hope for big things from Brock McLean, the former Melbourne midfielder, who is making his debut in the navy blue. St Kilda players have been lining up throughout the season to tell what they have learned from their disappointment at losing last year's Grand Final. The highly-favoured Sainters, last year's minor premier, begin their campaign for a second flag - the last being in 1966 - on Saturday against Sydney.
The Swans have snapped up veteran Brisbane spearhead Daniel Bradshaw and welcome back Tadhg Kennelly, the Irish def-ender who has fulfilled his dream of following his father in winning an All-Ireland Gaelic football title with Kerry. Also today Brisbane, who have picked up the troubled Blue forward Brendan Fevola to share the attack with their captain Jonathan Brown, take on West Coast at the Gabba.