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NAB footy starts tonight

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Sure, its 43 degrees in Adelaide, cricket’s still on the tele and its snowing in Sochi – but AFL returns to footy ovals and lounge rooms from tonight.

The league’s 18-day, 18-game NAB Challenge series begins with Geelong hosting Collingwood at Simonds Stadium in tonight’s rematch of the 2011 grand final.

Geelong, premiers in 2007, 2009 and 2011, are confident they can squeeze another big year out of their senior players.

Collingwood will be led by new skipper Scott Pendlebury and the Magpies will unveil two of their gun recruits on Wednesday night as ex-Sydney key forward Jesse White and former Giants’ midfielder Taylor Adams take the field.

Brownlow Medallist Dane Swan will have a rest for the Magpies, while the Cats will be missing several big names including skipper Joel Selwood, Allen Christensen, Steven Motlop and Hamish McIntosh.

Every club will play two games in the 18-day event, followed by a series of practice matches with each club having one hit-out.

Cats’ coach Chris Scott said on Tuesday the NAB Challenge was an opportunity to try things out.

“The NAB Challenge is a brilliant opportunity for the football purist to get a bit of a preview to what might lie ahead in the regular season,” Scott told afl.com.au.

“The heat’s still on our senior guys. Fortunately they’ve shown they’re pretty resilient to that pressure.

“But we really need those young ones to step up.”

Ex-forward Billie Smedts, now aiming to cement a place in defence, is one to watch for the Cats in pre-season.

Much interest will centre on some of the star recruits of the summer, including ex-Cat Paul Chapman at Essendon.

But there’s none bigger than Hawthorn’s two-time premiership forward Lance Franklin who has joined Sydney.

The Swans begin their pre-season campaign with a match against Greater Western Sydney in Canberra on February 20. The Giants will look to their recruits including Shane Mumford, Heath Shaw and Josh Hunt to provide some experience.

Hawthorn have named 13 members of their 2013 premiership lineup in their squad for Thursday’s game against Brisbane at Etihad Stadium. The Hawks have also included ex-St Kilda ruckman Ben McEvoy.

New Brisbane coach Justin Leppitsch has announced a youthful squad for the Etihad Stadium clash including No.7 draft pick James Aish.

Game three on Friday at Etihad Stadium will feature Richmond against Melbourne under new coach Paul Roos, as the struggling Demons inject ex-Bulldog Daniel Cross and former Crow Bernie Vince into their midfield.

Carlton face North Melbourne in Ballarat on Saturday as the Blues begin what they hope is a journey to the top four, with ex-Magpies’ midfield gun Dale Thomas the star signing for the Blues.

North have pinned their hopes of father-son selection Luke McDonald and ex-Saint Nick Dal Santo.

Sunday’s Adelaide-Port Adelaide clash will also spark plenty of interest, after the Crows recruited ex-Blues’ goalsneak Eddie Betts and former Geelong big man James Podsiadly to their forward line.

Port, the big improvers of last year after leaping from 14th to fifth under rookie mentor Ken Hinkley, are banking on a big year from forward John Butcher. The 2009 No.8 draft pick was restricted to eight games in 2013 because of injuries, but booted four majors in last weekend’s trial game.

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