Round two of the 2021 AFL season has opened with two dramatic encounters that leave Carlton and Brisbane winless.

The round commenced with Carlton meeting Collingwood at the MCG. A high-scoring first half saw Collingwood take a 20-point lead into the main break, before the Magpies returned with a more defensive, controlling style of play that stifled Carlton’s attempts at a comeback in the second half. Collingwood prevailed by 21 points, but the night got even worse for the Blues, who were criticised post-game for leaving the ground before the presentation of the Richard Pratt Cup, due to a miscommunication.

On Friday night, the action continued at GMHBA Stadium, with Brisbane taking on a depleted Geelong side missing star midfielders Patrick Dangerfield, Mitch Duncan and Sam Menegola, as well as key forward Jeremy Cameron. An announcement from the Victorian government’s health department delivered some unexpected pre-match drama, with fans and officials told to leave the stadium and isolate immediately if they had arrived from Brisbane since March 12. The restrictions were a response to news that one case of COVID-19 community transmission had occurred in Queensland. Brisbane players and coaches were deemed exempt, but commentators and officials had to exit the ground just minutes before the game began. Some spectators appeared to ignore the order.

With the game underway, Geelong got off to a dominant start, kicking five of the first six goals. But a string of controversial umpiring decisions brought the Lions back into the game. Brisbane received seven free kicks in its forward 50, six of which led to goals. Two fifty-metre penalties in the first half also gifted the Lions scoring opportunities, but each resulted in a behind. In contrast, just one of Geelong’s 21 scoring shots came from a free kick.

In the final quarter, however, the Lions began to generate more scoring opportunities of their own, mounting a quick comeback to take the lead midway through the term, before an Isaac Smith goal returned the lead to Geelong. The umpires put the whistle away in the final minutes, ignoring potential infractions by players from both teams. A controversial non-decision on an illegal disposal by Mark Blicavs captured most of the post-match discussion, while Brisbane’s lucky run with the umpiring prior to that was largely forgotten. By the letter of the law, Blicavs should have been penalised, but the non-decision was consistent with others throughout the game and the season so far, including potential illegal disposal free kicks that weren’t paid against Brisbane players earlier in the same match.

It was a fiery contest. In the second quarter, Geelong recruit Shaun Higgins was the victim of a Charlie Cameron punch to the body and a Lachie Neale jumper punch to the neck, after Neale was struck by Gary Rohan in the first quarter. Neale held up three fingers to Rohan, presumably suggesting he would receive the same three-game suspension that Patrick Dangerfield was handed for a bump in round one. But on the three-finger gesture, Geelong had the last laugh. Neale was held to just three possessions in the first half, before Geelong went on to record its third consecutive win against the Lions, continuing the streak from the 2020 preliminary final, in which the Cats defeated Brisbane by 40 points.

Rohan has been offered a two-week suspension, Charlie Cameron will escape with a $2000 fine, and Neale was not charged by the match review officer for his jumper punch to Shaun Higgins’ neck.

In the most controversial usage of the medical substitute so far, Brisbane exploited the rule to sub off Oscar McInerney in the final quarter, for an injury he sustained – and appeared to recover from – in the first quarter. McInerney had left the field early in the game with an apparent ankle injury, but returned before quarter time and was ultimately on the ground for 72% of the match. Brisbane switched McInerney for Keidean Coleman, whose pace and pressure aided the Lions late in the game. Geelong did not activate its medical substitute. The rule has drawn significant scrutiny since its sudden introduction, with fears that it may be abused. Unless concussed, a player taken out of the game for the medical substitute is not required to sit out the next game.

Geelong supporters are accustomed to seeing their team win at home, but COVID-19 brought a rare drought in this regard. Friday night’s result was the first time either Geelong’s men’s or women’s AFL team had won a game for premiership points in front of a crowd at GMHBA Stadium since August 2019, when the men’s side defeated Carlton by 68 points. Since then, the club’s AFLW team had played seven home games in front of a crowd, but each had been a loss.

For the Lions, the defeat marked their second in two games, following a shock loss to Sydney in round one. Brisbane joins Carlton in starting 0-2, a record that rarely leads to a finals berth, as Max Laughton explained for Fox Footy earlier in the week. But this season may be a little different, thanks to a quirk of the fixture. Eight of the nine teams that lost in round one were scheduled to play each other in round two, guaranteeing that at least four (but no more than five) teams would start the season 0-2, assuming no drawn games.

While a 0-2 start is somewhat difficult to overcome, it’s not necessarily an indication of a poor team – tough match-ups and anomalous results can be to blame. Brisbane certainly isn’t the typical 0-2 team. The Lions finished second on the ladder in 2020 and progressed to the preliminary finals, although they were aided by a highly advantageous fixture that saw Brisbane record twelve of its fourteen home-and-away wins in south-east Queensland.

If history is anything to go by, teams that start poorly after performing well in the previous season have a better chance of qualifying for finals than teams that start poorly after performing poorly the previous year. In 2020, the Bulldogs recovered from a 0-2 start to make finals, after a strong season in 2019. An oft-cited example is the Sydney side of 2017, which recovered from a 0-6 start to rise to fifth place on the ladder, after making the Grand Final a year earlier.

For Carlton, Brisbane and the other sides that finish 0-2, the dream is still alive, but they cannot afford many more losses.