Riewoldt: AFL preseason needs a rethink

The AFL needs to consider a change to the pre-season competition.

Before you scoff, hear me out.

I came to that conclusion as I sat a bit banged up and sore in the Etihad Stadium change rooms after dusting off a few cobwebs in our opening JLT Community Series match against Port Adelaide.

As I looked around the boys, most of them covered with ice packs after we hung on to beat the Power by one point, I sat there thinking to myself: 'I wish this would have won us four points, rather than nothing.'

After such a close contest, my overwhelming emotion was frustration. Both teams were clearly trying to win the match and I was feeling tense sitting on the bench as the game reached its conclusion. We ultimately got over the line but all I could think once the siren sounded was 'that was a bit of a waste.' It just didn't count for anything. And at that stage we were still a month away from Round 1.

Preseason competitions have been around in some shape or form for almost 30 years, but it's time to reassess whether they are really needed and the game's key stakeholders really want them.

I understand the need for coaches and players to trial things they've been working on in the preseason. I also understand fans are desperate for any action after a long summer of footy abstinence. And of course, I understand the AFL wants to maximise exposure of our game almost year-round.

Without doubt, preseason matches are great opportunities for young draftees or fringe players to push for spots in the regular season. In my opinion, that can be achieved without an official preseason match. There are ample opportunities to impress within training and in intra-club games.

Preseason matches are strange. Depending on the player, their age and experience and their current level of fitness, everyone is setting out to achieve different results within the game.

Personally, when you've been playing for a long time, and are scheduled to only play three quarters of a game (as I did against Port) it's hard to completely manufacture the feeling of preparing mentally for battle. When there's nothing riding on the result this is exacerbated.

Add all that together and it means the matches themselves are a vastly inferior product compared to the season proper. Players aren't as match-hardened, the intensity isn't quite 100 percent and coaches are tinkering with things and also keeping some structural moves and set-plays up their sleeves.

The only exception to this would be the final preseason games, which are generally used as a full dress rehearsal. We are taking a full squad to Lavington on Sunday and will be playing to win. Although, if no game was scheduled for any teams, we would still be on a level playing field entering Round 1.

No disrespect to the way the competition is run - the JLT series is run as well as it possibly can be. And taking the game to fans all over Australia at suburban and regional grounds is fantastic - that is something the players genuinely appreciate - but I think it's time to reassess whether the preseason competition is needed.

Why? Let me explain.

Barring MLB and NBA [both non contact], an AFL season is one of longest season in world sport. Considering the combative nature of footy, our season is just brutal. It is so long. To schedule another month on top of that at the start of the year is tough -- it's overkill.

I would start the preseason later, allow clubs to keep preparing internally and play intra-club games or organise scrimmages similarly to what NFL clubs do.

I can't help but look at players like Sam Day - who will likely miss the entire year with a horrific hip injury - and Jordan Roughead, who is also out for a long period - and I find myself asking: 'for what'? People can argue injuries can happen in Round 1 and of course that's true. But at least during the premiership season, something is on the line. It softens the blow, somewhat.

I also think playing preseason matches devalues the significance of the opening round of the premiership season. Imagine fans' excitement of having to wait to see Jake Carlisle in St Kilda colours, Dion Prestia in a Richmond jersey, or Sam Mitchell for West Coast, until the real stuff started. That would drive an enormous amount of excitement ahead of the first round. The build-up to Round 1 would be huge.

Removing the preseason competition would also give the AFLW league a bit of air as well.

The JLT series has definitely taken some attention away from the women's matches, which is not ideal for a league that is trying to establish itself in such a crowded market. The women have proven that they have a really exciting competition, and the support has so far been fantastic. So the AFLW could stand alone to fill the breach for hungry footy fans ahead of Round 1.

There will be many stakeholders in the game (most likely the coaches) who will disagree with my opinion - although I think a lot of older players may agree with me - so I'm not holding my breath for a change to be made.

A move to 17 regular season games in which every club plays each other once, would potentially make the preseason competition more viable if they felt the need to retain it, particularly if the AFL made it count for something.

Back in my younger days, the preseason competition felt a lot more important - the AFL awarded a night premiership and some teams took it a lot more seriously with something on the line. Back in 2007, the AFL offered a $1m bonus if a team won the preseason comp and doubled up to win the real premiership ... and teams did come out and try to win. Younger teams especially, played hard because they wanted to establish a winning culture.

I actually played in two night premierships, in 2004 and 2007. For a club that hasn't enjoyed a whole heap of success, it was quite thrilling to get our hands on some silverware - although the famous picture of Grant Thomas and Lenny Hayes looking grumpy on the dais might suggest otherwise.

Over the past few years the landscape has changed. The physical demands on players continue to grow, interchange has been reduced, there is no silverware attached to the preseason and a product now exists to fill the void.

Surely that's a sign that we should at least ponder a change.