Josh Dunkley: How the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the AFL forever

IT'S CRAZY TO think we all once lived in a world where COVID-19 simply wasn't a thing. We never needed to worry about wearing face masks, isolating at home or searching half the chemists in our city for rapid tests. But what's even crazier is when you realise that time was only two years ago.

The pandemic has felt as if it's already lasted a lifetime and the world has been forced to adjust in many ways. We live our lives differently, work differently, communicate differently and travel differently. And while we will continue adapting and managing this virus as best we can, you sense many new practices are here to stay for the long run.

For the AFL, when season 2022 begins on March 16, and we run out and face the Demons at the MCG, it will be a return to what we all know and love. It will be a throwback to what we all once cherished before the word 'coronavirus' became part of the everyday vernacular.

I cannot wait to play in front of full stadiums again. Honestly, it's what I, and many other players, missed most over the past two years. Being able to feed off the energy of the crowd and share the moment with fans all over the country. It's what makes our game so great.

Aside from the added level of hygiene, the game itself is mostly unchanged. Hey, there's certainly nothing wrong with having your own water bottle and towel! But away from the field, COVID-19 has forced a number of considerable changes in football, which now seem as if they're the norm. And truthfully, most have been for the better.

For me, the most noticable shift over the past 24 months has been how much more efficient we all are within the club. It might sound strange given the pandemic separated us for many months, but in doing so it forced us to communicate and interact in different ways. I had never once been on a video call before COVID-19. Now, I reckon I'm on them every single day. We have our team meetings on there, reviews and exit interviews. Everything.

No longer do you need to wait to discuss issues or ideas, get in contact with teammates or coaches. It's all at your fingertips and you can connect whenever you need. The other benefit is that if someone's sick or injured, they can still be involved in the discussions, and that's something which for the most part wasn't the case before this all began.

I also love what the pandemic has done to fixturing. Gone are the days of the AFL releasing all 23 rounds at the beginning of the season. Revealing blocks of games in smaller batches ensures the best teams are always playing in the marquee slots and we never get dull primetime games. How often did a Round 12 game at the start of a season look like a cracker, only to turn out to be a fizzer when both sides were languishing in the bottom half of the ladder?

As a player, so long as you know what's happening in the next two to three weeks, that's all you really need. None of us are worrying about Round 19 at the start of the year! This shift is better for us and ensures fans get what they want and deserve. And at least we know who we're playing, even if we don't technically know when.

This really ties in to being flexible; something we've all had to embrace over the last two years. I've always been a really structured person but you just can't operate that way during a pandemic and being able to overcome chaos and roll with the punches is something I've really had to work hard on.

Just look at our finals series last year. We didn't really know where we were playing from week to week, how we'd get there or where we were staying. In the end we played in a different state every game en route to the Grand Final. A couple of years ago I, and many other players, would have been extremely anxious at that prospect, but now we're so much better at adjusting on the fly. I don't think any of us will ever complain about a five-day break again!

Something else I think we're really going to start seeing more of in the wake of COVID-19 is players leading more 'reserved' lives during the season. I know I have turned down social events over the last year and will continue to do so, as I look to lower my risk of exposure to the virus, and thus having to miss games. If something was to happen, you couldn't help but feel as though you've let your teammates down if you happen to catch it while out and about on a Thursday night before a big game.

The majority of players I have spoken to are willing to scale back the social activities during the season for that reason and I think this mindset change is here to stay.

Who knows what other COVID-19 workarounds might become the norm down the track. Perhaps the Grand Final will continue being rotated around the country; I hope not as I love having it at the MCG. But other marquee games could be on the move. Who knows?

One thing is certain, and it's that football has changed forever.