The AFL will on Tuesday decide whether to roll the dice and begin its shortened season behind closed doors before the worst of the coronavirus pandemic hits Australia.
It, along with the NRL, is under pressure to join the restriction of sport worldwide until the threat passes – a move that is also throwing doubt over the scheduling of the Tokyo Olympics in July.
The AFL on Monday cut its home-and-away season from 23 rounds to 17, but officials were taking further advice of the wisdom of starting Round 1 as scheduled at the MCG on Thursday night.
Reigning premiers Richmond was due to play Carlton in that match and unfurl their flag in front of a home crowd of more than 80,000.
Tigers coach Damien Hardwick is keen for the match to go ahead.
“From my perspective, my team’s perspective, I’d love for it go ahead,” Hardwick told Fox Footy’s AFL 360 program.
I know the situation we’re in, and the broader role we have to play in that, but I think it’d be great for a game to get off and going.
“Our players have done a hell of a lot of work and we understand the risks associated with that.
“If they (the AFL) want us to play, we’ll play.”
Part of the AFL’s consideration is whether it can safely proceed with games now that might allow a longer mid-season break timed to coincide with winter and the likely peak period for virus infections.
Football purists may indeed enjoy the new fixture, which will see 18 teams play each other once, with the first four rounds of games to run as scheduled before a new draw is created for the rest of the competition.
The finals series could be pushed back into October to complete the season.
One roadblock in that scenario for the AFL is that the men’s Twenty20 World Cup cricket tournament is due to start at major grounds across Australia on October 18.
“We’ve got 40 weeks to get a 17-week season away until the end of 2020 … and we’ll use every one of those weekends,” AFL chief Gillon McLachlan said.
“We have flexibility now with a 17-round season, that buys more time.”
McLachlan said if one player tested positive for COVID-19 then the AFL will shut down completely for at least 14 days, possibly longer.
It comes as Collingwood confirmed its captain Scott Pendlebury is being tested for coronavirus after presenting with cold-like symptoms last week.
Results for the star midfielder’s test are expected on Tuesday.
McLachlan said the AFL needed to respond to the coronavirus crisis properly and protect the integrity of the competition.
“This unprecedented community challenge requires an unprecedented response,” McLachlan said.
“Football has had many challenges and despite the size of this one, football will find a way through.”
The AFL Players Association was talking to players on Monday night as the stars of the show weighed up whether to take a pay cut during the crisis, which will severely affect revenue for all clubs.
In the NRL, it is looking increasingly likely that the Auckland-based Warriors are considering returning to New Zealand next week.
NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg revealed on Monday that the radical step of shifting to a 15-team competition was among a handful of scenarios being considered.
It comes as ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys revealed the league has organised chartered flights for teams travelling interstate this weekend.
Due to travel restrictions, the Warriors squad is currently at Kingscliff in northern NSW preparing for their Round 2 match against Canberra, but many players have young families who cannot come to Australia easily.
“It’s very possible to continue the competition if the Warriors want to go home,” Greenberg said on Monday.
He said the Warriors will be forced into making some key decisions following their “home” game against the Raiders on Saturday.
The match, originally at Eden Park, will now be played at Cbus Super Stadium in Robina.
Another idea being considered by the league is flying all 16 teams to the northern part of Australia in a bid to continue the season.
“(The) further up north you go, the lower variety of coronavirus. They’re very small numbers up through Queensland and above,” Greenberg said.
So clearly in warmer climates there’s some opportunities for us to think about.
“We’re modelling it. It’s not as far-fetched as some people might think. I’m not suggesting we’re doing it, but it’s certainly not off the table either.”
Late on Monday, Sydney Roosters announced their match on Saturday against Manly will be played at Leichhardt Oval instead of on the Central Coast.
The International Olympic Committee is also holding talks on Tuesday with the heads of international sports organisations, according to AAP.
The Tokyo Olympics is due to start on July 24, but many qualification events have been cancelled or postponed and concern has been rising about whether the entire Games should be scrapped or postponed.
But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Tokyo 2020 organisers have reiterated that preparations are ongoing.
The IOC, asked about a report by Japanese public broadcaster NHK that talks on the impact of the coronavirus were scheduled for Tuesday, said they were a regular part of dialogue with stakeholders.
“Since this situation started to develop some weeks ago, the IOC is constantly updating its stakeholders on the latest developments,” the IOC said in a statement to Reuters.
“The calls are part of this regular information-sharing process.”
IOC sports director Kit McConnell discussed changes to qualification processes with various international sporting federations last week.