Nearly four months since the state’s last AFL game, Western Australia will reopen its doors to football being played with two matches this weekend.
While the AFL season resumed last month, both the South Australia and Western Australia premiers prohibited any contact sport from being played in their states, forcing the Adelaide Crows, Port Adelaide, West Coast Eagles and Fremantle out of their home states and onto the Gold Coast hub.
But the easing of restrictions in both states regarding contact sport and venue capacities will allow three of the four clubs to return to their home states this weekend, with the Power forced to spend another week in Queensland where they will face Carlton at the Gabba.
A footy hub has been established in WA, where a pair of Victoria clubs will cross the Nullarbor for a three-week period and then quarantine at a hotel close to Optus Stadium for a fortnight, only being allowed outside to train and to play matches.
The first pair of Victorian teams have already arrived in Perth – the Geelong Cats and Collingwood – via a week of matches in Sydney.
The next pair to follow are Carlton and Hawthorn, which will enter the Western Australia hub following the end of Round 8, with the Blues and Hawks to face each other in quarantine before they take turns facing the Eagles and Dockers.
The Cats faced an almighty challenge from the Brisbane Lions at the SCG, which got the Geelong makeover, trailing by as much as 22 points in the second quarter before turning the match on its head with a seven-goal-to-nil third quarter.
Not only did Chris Scott’s side assume the mantle of premiership favourites from the Lions, which had won four straight matches since the season resumption, they also overtook them on the ladder, moving to second place only behind Port Adelaide with a 4-2 record.
Meantime, the Pies produced a solid defensive effort to restrict Hawthorn to only three goals, while piling on 8.11 (59) themselves, at Giants Stadium, which also received the Collingwood makeover.
After a fortnight of drama which included losing defender Jeremy Howe for the season, and also losing vice-captain Steele Sidebottom to a COVID-19 suspension, Nathan Buckley’s side hit back hard to register its third win for the year, with Brody Mihocek impressive up forward.
Back at the scene of what could’ve been a potentially disastrous loss to the GWS Giants in Round 4, the Pies logged its first win at the Homebush venue since 2016, while also keeping the Hawks winless at the venue.
The clash between the Pies and Cats will be the first meeting between the two teams since last year’s qualifying final, which the Pies won by ten points to progress directly to a preliminary final despite being held scoreless in the final quarter.
It is also a re-enactment of the 2011 grand final, which the Cats won by 38 points to deny the Pies back-to-back flags, and will also be the first time since 2005 that the teams play each other away from the MCG.
However, the match that all Western Australians will be looking forward to is the Western Derby, to which Fremantle will have the hosting rights, on Sunday.
Typically, there are always two intrastate derbies in a season, however, due to the COVID-19 pandemic which caused the AFL fixture to be rewritten into a rolling, reduced 17-round season, this will be the only Western Derby to be held this year.
This match was due to have been played in front of a full house of 60,000 at Optus Stadium, however the recent COVID-19 outbreak in Victoria has forced Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan to delay the further easing of restrictions in his state for at least a fortnight.
With a maximum of only 30,000 spectators to be permitted into Optus Stadium this Sunday, it will almost certainly result in Western Derby LI being the lowest-attended ever.
The lowest attendance for this fixture came in Round 1, 1999 when 32,680 spectators saw the West Coast Eagles maintain their unbeaten record against the Dockers, which would come to an end in the return Derby in Round 16, with a four-point win.
After four straight losses on the road to start the season, the Dockers have won their last two on the bounce, first defeating the Crows in Round 5 before coming from 36 points down to upset St Kilda by six points.
The Dockers trailed 1.2 (8) to 6.8 (44) at quarter-time, but whatever coach Justin Longmuir said to his troops at the first change of ends seemed to wake up his travel-weary side as they rallied for a memorable win in their final match on the Gold Coast hub.
Captain Nat Fyfe returned from a hamstring injury one week earlier than planned and was one of their best on the ground, as was Rory Lobb, who had to burden the ruck duties after Sean Darcy was knocked out by Ben Long in the second quarter.
On the other hand, the Eagles have also won their past two after a poor start on the Gold Coast hub, first coming from behind to beat the Sydney Swans before taking care of the Crows at the Gabba last week.
After being inadvertently called “lazy and unfit” by Crows rival Reilly O’Brien during the week, Nic Naitanui proceeded to dominate the ruck proceedings, and afterwards presented his counterpart with a new phone.
They could be without captain Luke Shuey for another week, after he suffered a hamstring injury in the second quarter of the match against the Swans on the Gold Coast. In his absence, Jeremy McGovern captained the side for the first time.
History will be on the Eagles side when they clash with the Dockers for the only time this year, with the blue-and-golds having won their past nine matches against the Purple Haze dating back to late-2015.
In that 2015 match, the Dockers had the chance to level the interstate rivalry at 21 wins apiece, but now trail 30-20 in the head-to-head, meaning they’d have to go six years without losing to the Eagles if they are to ever take the lead in the intrastate rivalry.
The most recent Western Derby, in Round 16 last year, saw the Eagles record a 91-point victory – the second-largest victory by either side in the fixture’s history, with the Dockers registering only two goals from 21 scoring shots for a score of 2.19 (31).
But while the Dockers will want to peg back some respect in their rivalry against the Eagles, it will be Adam Simpson’s side that will start favourites this Sunday.
What a way it will be to mark the official return of football to Western Australia, though the Cats and Pies will get the first crack in front of 30,000 state-based members and fans on Thursday evening.