The crucial cogs of AFL’s Opening Round: Which players need to be the difference makers?


For the first time in the history of the AFL there will be a round dubbed Opening Round, which will have just four games. We’re taking a look at two players from the eight teams that will need to make a difference.

Sydney v Melbourne


Chad Warner was sorely missed by Sydney in their preseason game against Brisbane. In the absence of Callum Mills, Luke Parker and Taylor Adams through injury, Warner will need to step up. There’s no doubt Sydney need him to be at his best in Opening Round up against a star-studded Melbourne midfield and it will be a bonus if he’s to hit the scoreboard, as he did when Sydney took on GWS in preseason.

Sydney’s Tom Papley. (Photo by Matt King/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

Tom Papley is such an asset to Sydney as he is a player with plenty of X-factor. Along with him being the leading goalkicker for Sydney in 2023 with 37 goals in 23 games, he’s a bit of a barometer. In Round 24 last season, Sydney only managed to score 56 points when they faced Melbourne without him and they did the same in their preseason game against Brisbane this season, with Papley missing that game as well.


Jack Billings could well be an asset for Melbourne. The 28-year-old needs to stay injury, as Billings featured in just three of the 24 games that that St Kilda played in season 2023. In the preseason game between Melbourne and Carlton, he looked hungry and set for a good start to the season, kicking a goal, having six score involvements and four tackles.

Max Gawn will be up for this game against his former teammate Brodie Grundy. The Melbourne captain looked in ominous form in the preseason game against Carlton where he dominated the game, hit the scoreboard with 2 goals and didn’t miss a beat. As captain of the team, Gawn will want to prove that the offseason criticism of the club won’t hamper their performance.

Max Gawn and the Demons trudge off after going out of the 2023 AFL Finals in straight sets. (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

Brisbane v Carlton


Hugh McCluggage could be critical to the success of Brisbane. During the preseason game against Sydney he displayed his class; the midfielder didn’t miss a beat, as he finished with a game high nine score involvements to go with 11 contested possessions. With Will Ashcroft injured, McCluggage will play as an inside midfielder at times. The 26-year-old showed what he can do on the big stage in the 2023 Grand Final with two goals, seven score involvements, 12 contested possession and five tackles.

Lincoln McCarthy doesn’t have to get many possessions to impact a game, as he can hit the scoreboard. In Brisbane’s two preseason games he kicked multiple goals against Gold Coast and Sydney. The 30-year-old will be looking to build on that when Brisbane takes on Carlton in Opening Round and looms as a tough matchup. Last time he played Carlton in the Preliminary final in season 2023 he kicked two goals and had seven tackles.

Lincoln McCarthy of the Lions celebrates after kicking a goal. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/AFL Photos via Getty Images )


Mitch McGovern needs to be at his best in the absence of Jacob Weitering. There’s no doubt, McGovern needs to be an important part of the Carlton system in order for his team to perform better than their preseason.

Zac Williams should be a key component of Carlton’s back six, as he will take the pressure off Adam Saad by providing run off out of their defence. Carlton coach Michael Voss gave an interesting insight into what Williams’ selection will mean: “He can give us a lot more drive off the half back. You talk about little things in your game: sometimes you can try and improve your system, and sometimes the talent improve your system. He’s certainly one of those guys.”

Ben King of the Suns celebrates a goal. (Photo by Dylan Burns/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Gold Coast v Richmond

Gold Coast

Ben King still needs to prove that he will be a solid AFL key forward, even though he managed to kick 40 goals in season 2023, the most of any Gold Coast player. The 23-year-old tends to go missing and will need to bring the ball to ground and improve his general play if the Gold Coast crumbers Nick Holman and Ben Ainsworth are to go to work.

Bailey Humphrey is a 19-year-old who needs to deliver on that promise in Opening Round as he is 1.85 metres tall, which will make him a tough match up. New Gold Coast coach Damien Hardwick thinks highly of him: “I liken him to a match winner. The De Goeys, the Toby Greenes, the Dustin Martin type of player. He’s that sort of guy.”


Sam Naismith should be playing with plenty of fire in his belly and prove that Richmond were right to take a chance on him as a back-up ruck, in what may well be a career defining game for him, as Richmond will be without their captain Toby Nankervis, who has a foot injury.

Shai Bolton is a player with plenty of ability who will be an important part of the Richmond team in Opening Round against Gold Coast. If the preseason clash between Gold Coast and GWS is anything to go by, Gold Coast showed that they are susceptible to being exploited by small forwards as they failed to curtail the influence of Toby Greene and Brent Daniels, who combined for five goals and 19 score involvements.

Toby Greene. (Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images)

GWS v Collingwood


Toby Greene will want to have a positive start to the season following his disappointment when he was in tears after GWS’s loss to Collingwood in the Preliminary Final. In 2024 the GWS skipper started well in the preseason game against Gold Coast with two goals in the first quarter. At the very least Greene will be a tough match up, as it could free up Brent Daniels and Toby Bedford.

Tom Green was a revelation in season 2023 and should be looking to build on the consistency he had when season 2024 starts. There was no time for complacency for Green in the preseason game against Gold Coast, as the midfielder finished with nine clearances and nine score involvements. It’s important that he maintains that form against a star-studded Collingwood midfield and may well be tagged.


Will Hoskin-Elliot was a revelation playing on the half-back line against Richmond in preseason. His versatility means that he is an asset to Collingwood. Their assistant coach Hayden Skipworth said: “As for Will Hoskin-Elliott, he’s one of the guys that we sort of speak about playing a role. He plays forward, wing and back for us and enables us to move guys like Nick Daicos around.”

Lachie Schultz will be looking to take off from where he left off against Richmond in preseason, as he had ten score involvements in an impressive display in the preseason hitout. What recruiting Schultz will mean is that the Norm Smith Medallist, Bobby Hill could be even more dangerous, as teams will have to put work into the former Fremantle forward. Former Collingwood captain Scott Pendlebury was full of praise for Schultz: “He’s fit in really well, he’s a fantastic athlete for us. His footy IQ is super high. It’s great to have him on board.”

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