The NRL’s apparent plans to push on with the 2020 season - despite the rest of society facing unprecedented measures to stop the spread of coronavirus - has sparked condemnation.
The NRL on Sunday insisted games would continue until it was told otherwise by the government, amid financial pitfall concerns over any lost rounds and the AFL’s stunning call to suspend their season.
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The league's push came just hours before new national cabinet rules, which closed non-essential services but did not list any shutdown of outdoor sports.
Armed with the advice of pandemic and biosecurity experts, they were also confident new recommendations against non-essential travel wouldn't affect them due to their use of chartered planes.
Crucially, the NRL also believes it is in a different position to chief rivals the AFL, in that most of its teams are based in NSW and Queensland, rather than in other states which have imposed border restrictions.
“At this stage, our intent is to play on and we remain committed to the continuation of the 2020 season as far as government advice allows it,” NRL boss Todd Greenberg said before the cabinet announcement.
“We have, and always will, stringently follow all government health advice and medical protocols to protect the health and safety of the community and our players.
“Our No.1 priority is to protect our players, staff and fans and we will continue to do this by adopting the strictest possible medical protocols.
“However, we understand the pace of the crisis is escalating rapidly and we need to remain flexible and conscious of community expectations.”
After news of the NRL’s defiant plans trickled onto social media, a number of prominent figures couldn’t believe what they were reading.
Leading Aussie cricket writer Peter Lalor was particularly critical.
“Insane if true. Bordering on disgraceful,” he wrote of the NRL’s plans to play on.
“No words. No f***ing words. Delinquent behaviour.”
Insane if true. Bordering on disgraceful. https://t.co/yokFzWNdou
— Peter Lalor (@plalor) March 22, 2020
Chip le Grand of The Age said it was “like giving a Hopoate to the entire, public health response.”
While comedian Dave Hughes and Aussie Olympic basketballer Mark Worthington were also shocked.
Worthington described the NRL’s stance as ‘short-sighted, selfish and arrogant’.
Why is the NRL different to the rest of the world.
“Players health is paramount” I call BS. https://t.co/OFTcfBCQD9
— Mark Worthington (@Wortho33) March 22, 2020
Leading commentator Gerard Whateley also sent a stern message to the NRL while reacting to news of the AFL’s suspension.
“There was fine print in which the AFL could have existed, certainly the NRL and the A-League are living in those margins, as of tonight I’d say they’re living in the fringes, but to do that, to explore that with the government the AFL believed was to sit itself above the community and that was what they were not prepared to do,” he said on AFL 360 on Sunday night.
“Once those limitations were put in place and the community was being asked with such gravity to observe what was going into being, the AFL felt it knew where its place was.
“To forge on in these circumstances would have been to forfeit the moral authority that an organisation is going to need in the recovery phase.
“That’s where sport will truly play its role. The call ended up being quite simple.”
So the same @ScottMorrisonMP led team who just yelled at people for going to Bondi Beach,as they are endangering us all by not social distancing,are still happy for @NRL guys to fly around the nation wrestling each other while they possibly catch and spread Coronavirus? https://t.co/0EEn5GHd02
— Dave Hughes (@DHughesy) March 22, 2020
Can’t have one standard for citizens and another for NRL players. Everyone is suffering and so must the NRL play their part.
— Michael Kauter (@SPCounsel) March 22, 2020
What a joke. Disgraceful example to set.
— stokesy (@lil_stokesy) March 22, 2020
Terrible, irresponsible, selfish BS
— Nick Yates (@nyates_music) March 22, 2020
How the NRL plans to push on
Also speaking before the new cabinet restrictions, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he trusted the NRL to follow its own health advice.
If the NRL is eventually forced to stop, the league is insistent it has a number of back-up options to ensure the full draw plus finals series are completed.
If games are lost, there are fears of a “catastrophic” financial impact with dire outcomes within months for the league and some clubs.
Regardless, ARL Commission chairman Peter V'landys was confident the NRL would find a way to complete the 25-round season and finals, with the league willing to play until as late as December 20.
“We are prepared for the worst, and we have looked at every contingency. We're ready for whatever they throw at us,” V'landys told Triple M on Sunday.
“We've got a four-week window that we can work with during State Of Origin.
“There is a bye round and a (split) round, and we can always extend the season.
"It just really depends when we have to pull the lever to suspend the season.
“The longer we can go, the better it is.”
In turn, the NRL has had assurances from consultants that it could keep some teams on the field if a player tests positive to the virus, and have other clubs make up matches later.
The option of a string of Magic Round-style weekends is still on the table, with players locked into one region together to avoid travel.
"There is a whiteboard at NRL head office full of contingencies and how we deal with these contingencies," V'landys said.
"Even a complete lockdown, we have a strategy for that.
"We have been proactive the whole way through and will continue to do so."
V'landys also said conversations had begun around whether players would have to take pay cuts, as per the collective bargaining agreement, if significant revenue was lost.