The AFL’s pre-season competition kicks off on Wednesday night in Geelong as the Cats host Collingwood in a clash of two of the league’s most popular clubs.

With over 67,000 members before the AFL’s pre-season competition even kicks off, Collingwood can sure draw a crowd.

So it’s fitting that the league’s 18-day, 18-game NAB Challenge series begins on Wednesday night with Geelong hosting Collingwood at Simonds Stadium in a 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.

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.

Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley says the new rule designed to give marking players better protection, with only “unduly” pushes, bumps, blocks or holds in a marking contest to be penalised, is a bonus for the Magpies.

All-Australian forward Travis Cloke led the league in contested marks with 58 in 2013. The 108kg powerhouse could be set for even greater dominance for Collingwood if he’s allowed to make better use of his body strength.

“Hayden Kennedy (AFL umpires’ coach) came out late last week and said to us they were going to find another 15 or 20 per cent leniency in those contests and they were prepared (for players) to do the one-on-one battles, especially the use of the body,” Buckley told Radio 3AW on Tuesday night.

“Trav has been a strong contested-mark player. He’s strong one-on-one.

“We believe that’s a strength of ours against our opposition. We want to take advantage of that.”

Much interest in the pre-season 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.

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.