Sport Rugby League AFL folds, but NRL and A-League still hold losing hands in coronavirus gamble

AFL folds, but NRL and A-League still hold losing hands in coronavirus gamble

AFL teams like the Brisbane Lions will spend more time on the field next year. Photo: AAP
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When Melbourne’s Australian Formula One Grand Prix collapsed in chaos just 10 days ago, the sport was pilloried for failing to outpace the speed of the coronavirus pandemic – so what’s the excuse for our football codes?

Well, cash of course.

Financial ruin was clearly a concern for the AFL, NRL and A-League as the competitions sought to isolate players and keep the show on the road for the television revenue, if nothing else.

It was a roll of the dice to play, a coin toss to stop.

But, just like the embrace of betting company advertising, should our sporting officials have been playing the odds at all?

On Sunday the AFL was the first to fold on the big bet, with federal and state government travel bans making the national competition unviable and forcing chief executive Gillon McLachlan’s hand.

In a media conference at half-time of the Hawthorn-Brisbane Lions match at an empty MCG, a shellshocked and honest McLachlan was upfront about the pain ahead as he stopped the competition until May 31.

He said there would need to be hard conversations with staff in coming days, but did not resile from at least trying to get on with the show.

“It was the right decision to start the season and today it is clearly now the right decision to stop,” McLachlan said.

“That is why we have acted immediately to take this step to play our role in the community and protect the long-term future of our game … we are prepared to run as late as possible in 2020 to complete the season.”

The speed of the coronavirus spread has continued to catch officials at all levels of government, business and sport napping.

Formula one learned its lesson after Melbourne and ultimately stopped everything until June.

Just last week the Prime Minister had indicated he’d be attending his Cronulla NRL team’s final match before crowd lockouts. His was a bad example then, and the move by NRL to play on is a bad example now.

Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys also continues to amaze observers with his tone deaf and, at times,  belligerent approach to the crisis.

On Sunday he put the onus back on players, saying any individual who put the game at risk would be punished.

“It’s a major decision for them to act recklessly,” V’landys told Triple M.

“We won’t penalise someone who has just made an innocent error.

“But someone in a nightclub at 3am who has put all his teammates, his family and the game at risk, that could range for a lot of things … It won’t be soft.”

Perhaps that’s why the PM has closed nightclubs, pubs and casinos – it’s the only way to keep an NRL player out.

The A-League, which is nearing the end of its season, is also still going ahead – at least until a meeting on Monday when a decision will be made on how to manage new travel restrictions that will hit Adelaide United and Perth Glory.

NRL CEO Todd Greenberg and ARLC chairman Peter V’landys. Photo: AAP

With five weeks to go, and soccer’s history of the highest finishing team taking the title, there’s a case to be made that the season could, and should, end early without a finals series.

But the financial losses the domestic football codes face will certainly run into the hundreds of millions, not to mention the loss of jobs beyond clubland.

The AFL’s McLachlan said he would be negotiating this week with “funding partners to secure a line of credit to fund cash shortfalls across the industry”.

The NRL’s V’landys has previously pinned his hopes on some sort of government assistance – although with job losses accelerating throughout the nation, his call was met with disbelief and derision.

In Melbourne, it was the occasionally hot-headed, but always passionate, Hawthorn coach Alastair Clarkson who articulated best what role sport has to play in easing society into new ways of thinking.

“The most significant thing is, now we’ve been told that our industry’s shut down, we’ve got to get ourselves isolated as well,” he said.

“Probably the thing we need to do as a country, every citizen, is take it really seriously.

“I’m not sure to this point in time (we’ve done that), it’s probably a little bit of the Aussie way to say ‘I’m bulletproof’ and ‘she’ll be right’.

“As disappointed as we are in terms of what’s happened with our industry, we’ve got a much bigger issue here and we need to respect the advice.”

Earlier on the Channel Seven football broadcast the commentators had returned to the game after McLachlan’s big call – talking about self-isolating, washing hands and listening to the advice of the experts.

All it took for that message to get through was for the footy to actually close down.

Finally, it was serious.