While a rising tide lifts all boats in good times, it seems the darkest days of Australian sport may be nearing an end – thanks to the distressed NRL throwing out a life raft for all competitions.
Clinging on to anything to stay afloat, the ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys appeared a desperate and drowning man when he unilaterally announced May 28 for the resumption of the NRL season.
Perhaps surprisingly – given rugby league’s previous PR missteps at the start of the COVID-19 crisis – it is a move that has paid dividends.
Rugby league’s agitation resulted in a 48-page document outlining health and safety protocols to play sport safely – forcing state and federal governments to consider a national plan for the resumption of all competitions.
That plan looks set to be signed off by federal cabinet this Friday, giving sport from elite to community level a framework for getting back on the field.
“These will be matters taken up by the national cabinet because we know it doesn’t affect just one code,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said on Monday.
It affects a number of codes, it affects community sport … the Prime Minister and all the state leaders felt it was appropriate to have a national response to these matters.’’
The NRL has been battered more than most through the coronavirus-enforced sport bans since mid-March.
While there are still delicate negotiations over the structure of the competition with the broadcast partners this week, it now seems the NRL is on track to getting the New Zealand-based Warriors back in the country to restart the season.
The AFL – along with soccer’s A-League – has had the benefit of sitting back and watching the NRL make the case for a resumption without risking a public backlash or being seen to be pushing against medical opinion.
In Melbourne, AFL chief executive Gillon McLachlan and club administrators are now a long way down the track to finalising their plans for a restart of the season, with final details expected to be announced on May 11.
All states are believed to be in the mix as part of the AFL resumption, with possibly three regional ‘hubs’ allowing the league to be up and running by mid to late June.
The hubs plan would likely see six teams playing in each quarantined area, reducing the need for travel, but getting the season fully under way.
The A-League, which was stopped with only weeks to play before its final series, is also looking at a resumption – although its plans are less clear and limited to mid-May with a possible mid-June restart.
Governing body FFA last week said it needs all state and federal border restrictions lifted before considering resuming the season, a statement that prompted a backlash from players and fans who see the other competition with firmer plans and start dates.
FFA chief executive James Johnson has committed to finishing the season, saying: “Our goal is to deliver live, professional football and complete the Hyundai A-League 2019-20 season, and we have set a number of criteria that will define when this is going to be possible”.
“Football takes its responsibilities as a good corporate citizen very seriously … Ultimately, the coronavirus will have the final say on when we can get the season started again, and completed.”
Talks are also continuing at Rugby Australia, with Super Rugby likely to become a domestic competition sometime in July followed by finals against New Zealand teams.
Plans for what the NRL season will look like are still being finalised, although ARL Commissioner Wayne Pearce confirmed that teams had been told to prepare to begin training again from next Monday.
“What was also confirmed that the competition points that had been earned in the first two rounds will carry over to the extended competition,” Pearce said on NRL.com.au.
“Everyone is supportive of what we’re doing. Everyone is unified into getting back on the field.
“We feel like we owe it to not just the players and coaches, but the thousands of staff members at various clubs and associated industries that are out on the unemployment lines too.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Monday that the guidelines expected from federal cabinet on Friday would be used to provide a safe workplace for players and the community.
“Everyone wants to see sport come back in some shape or form,” Ms Palaszczuk told the ABC.
“It needs to be safe for the players and the teams, and it needs to be safe for the community.”
The AFL hub plan has seen a rush from clubs to spruik the benefits of their facilities being used, thus ensuring a possible home advantage.
Brisbane Lions chief executive Greg Swann told AAP Queensland’s south-east is an obvious choice because of the warmer climate.
“It makes sense for us to be in the mix,” Swann said.
“Obviously there’s a lot of other states trying to lobby for that but … we think we’ve got accommodation, we’ve got the best facilities, we’ve got the best weather, we’ve got two great grounds that you can play footy on every night.”
Swann also backed the AFL’s cautious approach with planning a resumption.
“Once we start we don’t want to stop. We want to keep the season going,” he said.
“We don’t want to play four games and have to stop because of an issue or whatever.
“That’s one of the reasons that we’re looking to take our time a little bit about when we come back because I think that is a major consideration.
“We want to make sure that all our ducks are in a row and that we get to play a season without hopefully further interruptions.”
However, there has been some concern about whether all AFL players would be involved, with St Kilda coach Brett Ratten saying he’d respect the decision of any player who does not want to be part of it.
“Somebody could say, ‘It’s too hard for me mentally to leave my wife and kids or not to see my kids’ and we would respect that,” Ratten told SEN on Monday.
“The health of our people and the mental health of our people is first and foremost.
“If that meant somebody said they weren’t playing, we would respect that.”