The 2024 AFL season is finally here and Opening Round is shaping up to be a huge weekend of footy, with many enormous clashes locked in.

Starting with the first game of the season between Sydney and Melbourne on Thursday night, the round moves into a preliminary rematch between Brisbane and Carlton at the Gabba.

The corresponding final between GWS Giants and Collingwood will also earn a rematch, while Richmond players face their old coach in Damien Hardwick, who will be coaching against his former side in his Suns debut.

This opening round is going to be an exciting start to the 2024 season, with new stories and chapters waiting to be written.

It's going to be a big weekend of footy and below we have focused on a player who is going in under the radar, a player who needs to step up, a player that's sure to gain plenty of attention, a big matchup, a player potentially looking at a new role and a player who is on a comeback.

Under the radar: James Rowbottom

James Rowbottom has had 93 appearances for the Swans, he is a player who doesn't get the credit or the media attention he may deserve but he's a player you can always trust as having your back, and they're the players football clubs want.

He has built a reputation for his exceptional tackle pressure and his courageous efforts in winning the ball.

James Rowbottom in action. (Photo: Joshua Davis)

He had a standout 2023 season and in Round 15 recorded a career-best performance with 27 disposals and 13 tackles against the West Coast Eagles. Yet he did not get a Brownlow vote for his performance nor poll any votes all year.

However this doesn't seem to bother him as each week he will keep backing up, doing his role to the best of his ability while he continues to go unnoticed, becoming a danger for opposing teams. He is ultimately a player every club wants.

He's arguably a player that is flying under the radar as he is one of the most consistent players for the Swans and in the whole AFL competition in the past few years. He just gets on with his game and is a huge threat for any team who goes up against him as he knows how to win the ball for his team and win a turnover with his outstanding tackling.

Going up against Melbourne on Thursday night, Rowbottom will again fly under the radar but if the Dees aren't careful he will do some serious damage with his elite pressure to make them pay. He will make the likes of Christian Petracca and Jack Viney have to work incredibly hard to get past his hard-working efforts.

Needs to step up: Ben King

Ben King now has a full season under his belt after missing the entire 2022 campaign due to an ACL tear, and it could be time for him to step up and perform to the level the Suns need as they eye a September spot.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - MAY 15: Ben King of the Suns competes for the ball during the round 9 AFL match between the Gold Coast Suns and the Brisbane Lions at Metricon Stadium on May 15, 2021 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Matt Roberts/AFL Photos/via Getty Images)

King can be one of the best forwards in the competition, at 202cm tall and the ability to kick goals, he needs to have a strong year and be their number one target inside 50.

Last year, he began to fulfil his potential by kicking 40 goals from 20 games, though he could be right up there this year with the Coleman Medal race in 2024, challenging the likes of Charlie Curnow and Nick Larkey. There is a need for him to step up, he is no longer a first or second-year player, he is one of the mature players at the Suns now, so Hardwick needs to get the best out of him.

The Opening Round will be his time to shine and show the competition what he is capable of. Playing on home soil, King needs to have a big game and kick a handful of goals.

All eyes are on... Clayton Oliver

All eyes will be on Clayton Oliver for the Demons' Opening Round clash against the Swans.

Last week Oliver was put in the VFL in the Dees' official pre-season game against Carlton, with the star midfielder getting through unscathed to get himself in line for a showing against Sydney.

Clayton Oliver during Melbourne's open training session at Gosch's Paddock, Melbourne in 2022 (Photo by Cameron Grimes/Zero Digital Sports)

After an eventful off-season, with Oliver taking personal leave from the club, ending up in hospital after a seizure and being caught driving with a suspended license, all eyes will be on him and what he will be capable of in his side's opening game.

Since returning to the club, captain Max Gawn has said that Oliver has really turned a corner and is making a real impact being back at the club. It will be interesting to see how Oliver goes up against a strong, young midfield like the Swans and if a disrupted pre-season will go against him.

The big matchup: Max Gawn/Brodie Grundy

This is no doubt this is biggest matchup of the Opening Round as the two ruckmen and former teammates go up against each other, battling it out to get the bragging rights this time around.

It's not the first time these two have been on opposing teams and they have had a lot of huge battles before.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 10: Brodie Grundy of the Magpies and Max Gawn of the Demons compete for the ball during the 2019 AFL round 12 match between the Collingwood Magpies and the Melbourne Demons at the Melbourne Cricket Ground on June 10, 2019 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Willson/AFL Photos via Getty Images)

Whoever wins this ruck battle will likely put their team with a good chance to get the win. Grundy will likely have some revenge in his sights, showing that he can outshine Gawn and is the better ruckman. Under the lights at the SCG on Thursday this battle will be fierce and entertaining, it's critical for both teams that their number one rucks are at their best form to help get their clubs their first win of the season.

A new role? Issac Heeney 

Isaac Heeney has big shoes to fill this season. With the likes of champion forward Buddy Franklin retiring last season, Heeney will need to step up to help lead the Swans forward line.

However, Heeney's position and role this Opening Round may look a little different with veteran midfielder Luke Parker out with a broken arm and captain Callum Mills sidelined with a shoulder injury, Heeney could be required to play a few roles for the Swans.

Isaac Heeney

This may see him at several centre bounces for their Opening Round against the Demons on Thursday night but then also it's likely he'll will shifted to the forward line, helping lead the young attack the Swans have.

Due to the dominant midfielders the Demons have with the likes of Petracca, Oliver, Viney and Langdon, having Heeney in the Swans' centre bounces at the start of the game and during critical parts of the match could be vital for the Swans, as they will need some mature voice in their midfield.

Last year, Heeney had a major role forward, but it's likely due to two leaders out for the Swans, he could spend a lot of time in the midfield during this clash.

On the comeback: Josh Gibcus

Josh Gibcus is expected to make his AFL return in the Opening Round when the Tigers take on the Gold Coast Suns. Gibcus has not played since the 2022 elimination final after having a complex hamstring tendon injury that required surgery last January.

Gibcus played 18 games in 2022 and made a real mark to show what he is capable of as a key defender for the Tigers.

Josh Gibcus during the round 22 AFL match between Richmond and Hawthorn on August 14, 2022 (Photo by Cameron Grimes / Richmond Media)

His injury even forced him to go on an international trip to Qatar, where he travelled with Tigers physiotherapist Anthony Schache to an intensive rehabilitation at Aspetar Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Hospital. On his return, he has been gradually building and is now back to full training.

He has now featured for the Tigers in match stimulation, against the Demons and in his side's official pre-season match against Collingwood last week.

The young defender will now be looking to play his first official AFL game since overcoming his injury when the Tigers take on the Gold Coast Suns in the opening round on Saturday, March 9 at Heritage Bank Stadium.