The AFL held its 2024 season launch in Sydney with Dan McStay, Dane Rampe, Toby Greene and Max Gawn. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS
  • Australian rules football

McRae gets AFL’s Opening Round push in league heartland

Oliver Caffrey March 7, 2024

Collingwood premiership coach Craig McRae is all behind the AFL’s early-season push into NSW and Queensland.

Less than a week after the NRL launched its season in Las Vegas, the AFL will kickstart 2024 with four sold-out games in rugby league heartland.

The AFL’s so-called ‘Opening Round’ comes after years of pleas from the Sydney Swans, GWS, the Brisbane Lions and Gold Coast about feeling neglected up north.

The Swans will get the season underway at the SCG against Melbourne on Thursday night, relegating the usual Carlton-Richmond blockbuster at the MCG to week two.

It will mark the earliest start to a season in AFL history, pipping the March 8 date back in 2000 when the grand final was moved forward by four weeks to accommodate the Sydney Olympics.

 Flag-winning Pies coach Craig McRae understands why the AFL is beginning its season up north. Image by Joel Carrett/AAP PHOTOS 

“I think it’s a great thing for our game,” McRae said on Thursday.

“We don’t live in those (northern) states. 

“I was fortunate enough to live in Brisbane for 15 years and it’s a hard sell. 

“AFL doesn’t get on the front page, or back page, of the paper much, so any opportunity we can grow the game around the country I think is a good thing.”

Collingwood will begin their premiership defence on Saturday night when they face GWS at Giants Stadium in a rematch of last year’s thrilling preliminary final.

The Magpies will unveil their 16th VFL/AFL flag at the MCG six days later when they host the Swans.

“We’ll get our time. Next week will be pretty full at the MCG, I reckon,” McRae added.

The AFL initially promoted the all-northern weekend as capitalising on the NRL being away in the US.

The NRL did split its first round over two weeks, but Newcastle will be hosting a match against Canberra at the same time as the Swans  battle the Demons down the Pacific motorway.

Damien Hardwick’s first game as Gold Coast coach on Saturday, up against the club he led to three premierships – Richmond – will get underway only a few hours before the Titans’ NRL team begins a new era under the experienced Des Hasler.

The AFL is only testing the waters in NSW and Queensland, failing to commit to beginning the season outside Melbourne beyond this year.

At the season launch in Sydney on Wednesday, a banner read: “Opening Round has a new postcode.”

“We’ll assess that as we look to do the schedule for next year, there’s lots of complexities in that,” said AFL boss Andrew Dillon, who has officially taken over from Gillon McLachlan.

“But all signs are pointing towards us continuing to bring big blockbuster games up into NSW and Queensland. 

“Our investments in GWS and the Gold Coast are generational investments and we’re going to continue to invest.”

The Lions will host Carlton on Friday night in a rematch of last year’s preliminary final that attracted 36,012 fans to the Gabba.

“To have four games sold out in NSW and Queensland, I think if you thought back 10 years ago (it wouldn’t have happened),” Dillon said.

“We see massive growth for us in NSW and Queensland and that’s going to be a priority for us.”