To Be Advised: NRL tackled on blanks in restart plan

2019 - Then-Rooster Latrell Mitchell fending off Broncos at the SCG (Photo: Nikolas Gannon, Flickr)

The NRL is at odds with government health departments and Channel Nine in its rushed attempt to revive the 2020 season amidst the coronavirus pandemic.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) announced on Thursday plans to restart this year’s NRL Premiership on May 28, with the season currently on hiatus due to the outbreak.

But the details on how the competition will go ahead remain scarce, with several issues to deal with over the next seven weeks.

The decision is one of three recommendations from Project Apollo, which was put together by the NRL’s innovations committee to examine potential solutions to complete the season despite the pandemic. It was also recommended that a full three-game State of Origin series be played and that the Grand Final remain a one-game fixture.

The announcement comes as the rate of new coronavirus cases continues to slow in Australia. ARLC Chairman Peter V’Landys, who had warned of the devastating financial impacts of not running the season when it was suspended in March, said on Thursday that the decision was “in the best interests of our clubs, our players, our stakeholders and importantly our fans.”

ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce has already announced some protocols to reduce the risk COVID-19 poses to players, including swab testing and plans around ‘safe’ and ‘dirty’ zones.

However, the exact format of the restarted season is still yet to be finalised, as the NRL continues to work with state and federal governments to determine the circumstances in which the competition can go ahead.

Despite confidence that the season will restart on May 28, Pearce has said the season structure has not been determined because “the landscape is changing around government boundaries.”

A two-conference structure, as well as a 15-round competition where each team plays each other once, remain options to consider. But the league would continue to play behind closed doors indefinitely, and the points from the first two rounds of the competition will carry over, with the idea of resetting the ladder already scrapped.

The draw will be finalised after the NRL has met with its broadcast partners.

The NRL has to attend to other significant matters in co-operation with the 16 clubs and governments to lock in May 28. These are the issues that floated up within hours of the announcement:

Communicating with governments

The Federal, New South Wales and Queensland governments spoke out on Friday about the NRL’s decision, with NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard revealing that he hadn’t been talked with the league in over a month.

This is an interesting revelation, as the NRL needs permission for the revised competition to go ahead at all.

However, the NSW government has already backed the NRL, with Deputy Premier John Barilaro having said on Wednesday that the league is “important to the psyche of Australians” and “can help us get through [the pandemic].”

Hazzard has stated that he is “happy to have a chat [with the NRL] and make sure that the medical advice is appropriate.”

Broadcaster arguments

Channel Nine has muddied the waters after a spokesperson for the network claimed the pandemic ‘has highlighted the mismanagement’ of the NRL.

The free-to-air broadcaster revealed it had not been consulted about the season relaunch, stating that tens of millions of dollars worth of loans to the league has been “squandered by a bloated head office completely ignoring the needs of the clubs, players and supporters.”

“In the past the NRL have had problems and we’ve bailed them out many times. Including $50m loan to support clubs when the last contract was signed.”

Peter V’Landys has admitted to “miscommunication” with Nine and that “the cost structure … at the moment is unsustainable.”

This latest row is cause for concern regarding NRL’s broadcast deal with Nine, which expires in 2022. The NRL will need the network onboard for a restarted competition.

How clubs will travel between matches

A lot will hinge on how Australian and New Zealand travel restrictions change over the next seven weeks. Currently, Queensland’s border regulations prevent non-residents from entering, with some exceptions. New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT have not placed restrictions on their borders.

Interstate teams may have to base themselves in New South Wales until state governments relax regulations.

The New Zealand Warriors’ situation will be another sore point, with the NRL still in negotiations with governments to allow the side to fly back across the ditch and set up base in Australia. The players will then need to undergo two weeks of self-isolation before they can prepare for the season.

If the Warriors arrive by April 20, they will be able to fit in three weeks of training between the end of their quarantine period and the season restart.

Moving all matches to a single ground, one of several ideas considered before the NRL suspended the season, remains an option.

Player health and wellbeing

Given the circumstances, the health of players and staff will be a top priority as the NRL plans to see through a full season this year.

Yet details of further measures, as well as welfare matters and potential relocation scenarios, need to be finalised for players to know what they can expect while playing out the season.

Pearce also said in a radio interview with Wide World of Sports that the competition would not necessarily be called off if a player was to test positive for COVID-19.

What does social media think?

Several players posted to social media within hours of the announcement, and they’re keen to get underway.

Titans hooker Nathan Peats was quick to share his excitement, while Sharks prop Aaron Woods just “can’t bloody wait.”

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Missing it #letstrot

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Fans, however, weren’t so positive in their thoughts, calling the move “preemptive” and “wishful thinking”.

Regardless, the NRL is determined to get rugby league up and running again, and May 28 is all but locked in for kick-off.

But seven weeks is a long time, especially in a pandemic where events are developing by the hour. We can only wait and see whether the NRL can live up to its promise.

Feature image by Nikolas Gannon/Flickr