Australia’s National Rugby League has battled player scandals, top-level resignations and dire financial revelations during the coronavirus shutdown, but against the odds it returns this week to bring relief to team owners and a sports-starved nation.
The fledgling season had seen two rounds of matches when it was suspended on March 24 and will have a different feel when it resumes with Brisbane Broncos hosting Parramatta Eels behind closed doors on Thursday.
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 virus has allowed the league instead to play in two states — New South Wales and Queensland — under strict health measures with a Grand Final planned for October 25.
The New Zealand Warriors will be encamped in rural Tamworth, about 420 kilometres (260 miles) north of Sydney, while Melbourne Storm have moved to Albury on the Victoria-NSW border.
AFP / PETER PARKS Masked New Zealand Warriors players wait to collect their luggage after flying into rural Tamworth on May 3 ahead of this week’s NRL resumption
Teams may 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 warned in March.
V’landys has remained bullish in the face of criticism, pushing for a May 28 kickoff even though many warned it was potentially dangerous in a global health emergency.
A successful resumption will 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 and football’s A-League.
– Lockdown scandals –
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 to the ire of officials.
“That authority has not been provided and no amount of reporting it will change those restrictions,” an exasperated Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after the NRL prematurely said Canberra had cleared the Warriors to participate.
AFP / PETER PARKS South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league players returned to training for the first time in weeks in Sydney on May 6 ahead of the season restarting on May 28 this week
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 group of players organised a camping trip away while Penrith’s Nathan Cleary was hit with a two-match ban for partying with a group of women at his house.
A major factor in NRL’s eagerness to resume was the game’s shaky finances, with V’landys warning there was little left in the bank from the code’s rich broadcast deals and clubs could go under.
Free-to-air broadcaster Nine accused a “bloated head office” of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg paid the price and quit 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 he regretted authorising the shutdown in the first place and insisting crowds would be back in the stands by July 1.
“We’re on the moon, we’re looking for Mars now,” he told Fairfax Media.