DO we really care?
You should care. At least a bit. Maybe not in your usual crazy-scarf-waving and yell-instructions-at-your-telly kind of way.
But you should care.
Hard-core fans and interested onlookers can find plenty of intrigue and importance in pre-season competition if they open their eyes and just enjoy the contest.
Stop dismissing it because you adhere to a seemingly popular belief that no one really cares.
Footy is back.
Ballarat will host North Melbourne and Carlton at Eureka Stadium this evening in day four of an 18 game-a-day NAB Challenge stretch.
There is no premiership trophy, no massive winner’s bonus. The challenge is just a string of official pre-season matches against AFL rivals to be ready for round one.
Every club in every sport approaches pre-season differently, depending on objectives.
North Melbourne will bring a near-full strength senior line-up, complemented with promising young players thanks to an enlarged interchange bench.
The Kangaroos will approach this game in usual game-week routine to give their top players valuable match play.
Carlton, in contrast, is resting a band of senior players including Kade Simpson, Matthew Kreuzer, Andrew Carrazzo, Heath Scotland, Jeff Garlett and Ballarat’s own Michael Jamison.
Should fans feel ripped off?
No – there is still a wealth of experience in the Blues’ squad, led by skipper Marc Murphy, and fans can watch next-generation Blues and see how new recruits like Nick Dal Santo are settling in with their new teams.
The pre-season matches are the perfect chance to give youngsters a taste of AFL football and gauge how they handle it.
Matches are also important for teams and the AFL to iron-out new tactics and potential rules, like this summer’s interchange cap, without any really season-damaging effects.
This is the same in country footy ranks with clubs having the luxury to face outfits from other leagues, effectively without their rivals knowing much of what is going on.
Hitting round one without such assessment puts clubs behind.
You can train as much as you want, intra-club matches included, but nothing is as good as a real hit-out and putting everything into play.
Match fitness is vital for athletes of all sporting codes.
There is always going to be an injury risk before contesting main competition – injury can happen in training, too – but good, solid match practice is a pivotal part of preparation.
Olympians build lead-in events to training programs – sometimes for conditioning and some contest more than others.
As fans, it makes for fascinating speculation and can build hype to the main event.
Aerial skier Lydia Lassila became the first woman in history to land a quad twisting triple somersault while training in Sochi this week – she knows how far she can push herself on run where she will defend her Olympic gold.
The AFL’s decision to scrap a pre-season flag is fantastic.
There were some clubs that really went for the trophy.
Many bowed out quickly, to move into practice-match mode out against other AFL drop-outs out of the spotlight, usually in country towns, without the risk of wearing out before the season proper begins.
This 18-game format offers clubs a set of two games each to get their games right.
How clubs use these two games is up to them, but the basic premise is the same.
It is all about getting ready.
Go to Eureka Stadium today, enjoy the atmosphere of a big crowd – thanks to the booming Navy Army – and maybe unearth a new favourite player or fantasy football find.
Challenge matches may not have the billing or fanfare of a home-and-away fixture but still draw plenty of intrigue, if only for watch-this-space scenarios for the season ahead.