If Australia is one of a handful of nations that can claim to have dodged the worst of the global pandemic, the once-teetering NRL can fairly to be said to be the coronavirus winner of the sporting world.
While much financial pain lies ahead, the elite competition that looked in the worst shape going into the forced shutdowns of early March has seemingly snatched a back-in-black victory from sport’s biggest bucket of red ink.
Thursday’s night 34-6 Suncorp Stadium thumping by the Parramatta Eels of the Brisbane Broncos duly ticked off Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys’ stated deadline of May 28 for a return to live sport in Australia – a stunning result born mostly from desperation.
The NRL Twitter feed made clear just how many high-fives – or, at least, elbow bumps – were being traded when it posted on Thursday morning: “May 28. That’s it. That’s the tweet.”
Channel Nine’s introduction to Thursday night’s match didn’t mess around in the gravitas stake either, with the match being shown live around the country and exported to a sport-starved world
“The recovery has begun – tonight is a monumentally step along that journey. The footy is back,” the Nine announcer boomed.
They said it couldn’t be done, but through hard work and sacrifice our game has led the way. After nine weeks in isolation – here we go again.”
To be fair the ‘they’ who said it couldn’t be done were Australian medical professionals and some governments who initially baulked when V’landys proposed his May 28 resumption date.
The AFL and other competitions have been far more cautious, with Australian Rules not due to begin until June 11 and soccer’s A-League still to finalise its arrangements to finish off the season with a month-long “hub” competition.
V’landys acted through necessity, with several NRL clubs facing financial ruin.
On April 9, the controversial chairman set his May 28 restart date and it was far from certain that it could be achieved.
“There is more chance of you getting hit by a car walking across the road than there is of you getting the coronavirus if you are in an area that has one per cent (infection rate),” V’landys said at the time.
Within two weeks he had won the ‘in principal’ support of the New South Wales state government and police to resume, parted ways with NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and started a renegotiation with the game’s broadcast rights partners after Channel Nine accused the governing body of financial mismanagement.
That new deal was signed and sealed before Thursday night’s game. Nine is in the frame until the end of 2022 and Foxtel until 2027.
Foxtel’s five-year extension helps shore up the competition’s finances now, but no doubt at a bottom-line cost later.
Still, V’landys appears to have righted the sinking ship.
“Our negotiations were tough but always in a spirit of goodwill and shared ambitions for the betterment of rugby league,” he said in a statement.
Foxtel will broadcast all eight games a week this season, with Nine taking three matches per round plus exclusive coverage of the grand final on October 25 and the State of Origin series in November.
Given NRL will be broadcast into the US and Europe during the next few weeks, the broadcasters have spent much time working on how to present the game in the absence of a crowd.
The result was so called ‘Virtual Audio’ which mixed natural crowd responses from a library of game-day sounds and few, if any, cutaway shots that took in the cavernous Suncorp Stadium.
The result was a vast improvement on the telecasts at the start of the season, with viewers hearing a low crowd buzz and a subtle roar when the Eels Marata Niukore got across for the first try of the restarted season just over three minutes into the contest.
It didn’t get much better for the Broncos from there, although referee Gerard Sutton was also feeling the heat – playing a lone hand as the sole official for the first time since 2008.
Players may have taken a pay cut, but the referees look to have had a fair case in arguing the workload means one official may not be sustainable for the modern game.
The combative V’landys won that battle as well, but he may have overreached in pushing a reluctant NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian for crowds to return to the game by July 1.
“A lot of people are looking forward [to NRL being back]. I’m glad it gives some normality back to NSW,” the Premier said. “[But] I can’t see [crowds returning] by that date.”
The Australian Medical Association president Tony Bartone said such a move would be “absurd and dangerous”.
V’landys told Sydney radio station 2GB that the crowds should have been back this week, but “emotional scare-mongering cliches” had prevented it.
“That’s what they do. They bring up these cliches that put fear into people. They’ve got no data to show. The infection rate is less than half a per cent how low do we need to get it?
“When we stopped playing the game it was 25.5 per cent. There’s a level of risk in anything you do in life.”
With players back, but the threat of an outbreak at a club or a second-wave of community infection ever present, perhaps the real risk for the triumphant and loud V’landys could be not quitting while he is ahead.
NRL round three
Friday: Cowboys v Titans, North Queensland Stadium, 6:00pm;
Roosters v Rabbitohs, Western Sydney Stadium, 7:55pm.
Saturday: Warriors v Dragons, Central Coast Stadium, 3:00pm;
Sharks v Tigers, Western Sydney Stadium, 5:30pm;
Storm v Raiders, AAMI Park, 7:35pm.
Sunday: Panthers v Knights, Campbelltown Stadium, 4:05pm;
Sea Eagles v Bulldogs, Central Coast Stadium, 6:30pm.