Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) has battled player scandals, top-level resignations and dire financial revelations during the COVID-19 shutdown, but against the odds, it returns this week to bring relief to team owners and sports-starved fans.
The fledgling season had seen two rounds of matches when it was suspended on March 24 and is to have a different feel when it resumes with the Brisbane Broncos hosting the Parramatta Eels behind closed doors tomorrow.
An “NRL island” off the Queensland coast, where all 16 teams would be kept in isolation, had been considered, but Australia’s success in containing the coronavirus has instead allowed the league to play in two states — New South Wales and Queensland — under strict health measures, with a Grand Final planned for Oct. 25.
The New Zealand Warriors are to be encamped in rural Tamworth, about 420km north of Sydney, while the Melbourne Storm have moved to Albury on the Victoria-NSW border.
Teams might struggle to match the off-field drama that has unfolded since the enforced shutdown.
“I can’t stress enough that our game has never faced such challenges,” Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said in March.
V’landys has remained bullish in the face of criticism, pushing for a start tomorrow, even though many have said that it is potentially dangerous in a global health emergency.
A successful resumption would give the NRL a head start in Australia’s intensely competitive sporting market.
Australian Rules football this week revealed fixtures for a June 12 restart, but no dates have yet been set for Super Rugby or soccer’s A-League.
Thrashing out the strict health protocols and obtaining the special permissions needed for the Auckland-based Warriors to enter the country was a protracted process, with the NRL jumping the gun several times.
“That authority has not been provided and no amount of reporting it will change those restrictions,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after the NRL prematurely said that Canberra had cleared the Warriors to participate.
There were also warnings from state and federal ministers that the competition would be scrapped if a string of lockdown breaches by high-profile players continued.
A major factor in the NRL’s eagerness to resume was the game’s finances, with V’landys saying that there was little left in the bank from the league’s rich broadcast deals and that clubs could go under.
Free-to-air broadcaster Nine accused a “bloated head office” of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars, with NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg paying the price and quitting in April.
There has also been a protracted pay dispute, a stand-off with players over compulsory flu vaccinations and threats by referees to strike over a decision to use only one on-field official.
After achieving the against-the-odds restart, V’landys could be forgiven for simply relaxing.
Instead, he continues to push boundaries, saying that he regrets authorizing the shutdown in the first place and insisting that crowds fill the stands by July 1.
“We’re on the moon — we’re looking for Mars now,” he told Fairfax Media.
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