'We've got to be real': NRL great warns of 'health risks' in May 28 restart

Australian Associated Press
·5-min read
Pictured here, veteran Dragons forward James Graham.
James Graham is remaining cautious about plans to restart the NRL in May. Pic: Getty

While most rugby league players and fans were no doubt excited about the bold call to restart the competition on next month, not everyone was convinced.

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) announced on Thursday that it's planning to restart the NRL competition on May 28.

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Following landmark meetings with the NRL's innovation committee on Thursday, the ARLC has approved plans to get the competition up and running almost 10 weeks after it was suspended.

It would make the NRL the first major sport in the world to recommence a competition during the coronavirus pandemic.

As rugby league fans - and even greats like Cooper Cronk and Sam Burgess - rejoice over the news, St George Illawarra veteran James Graham is warning optimists not to count their chickens.

ARLC commissioner Wayne Pearce's announcement on Thursday that the league hoped to continue the competition in seven weeks was met with widespread approval and relief.

Pearce said it was vital for the NRL to kick-start again as soon as possible not only for players and fans, but for the thousands of laid-off employees involved in the code in so many different ways.

But Graham, fresh off a Thursday phone hook-up with Rugby League Players' Association boss Clint Newton, wasn't so certain the game could simply "play on" through the COVID-19 outbreak like after a halftime break.

"I'd love to play tomorrow. I really would, but I understand there's logistics involved in this. There's health risks and all this," Graham told Fox League Live.

"There's more to getting rugby league games on than just getting 17 blokes against 17 blokes. There's a lot to work through.

"Look, I was as excited as anyone (about the prospect of) getting back in, what, less than two months? But we've got to be real and keep a lid on this."

Noting there was nothing predictable about the coronavirus pandemic, Graham called for players and fans to exercise caution about expecting a return so soon despite the spread of infections in Australia continuing to decline.

"This virus, there's so much potential for it to kick-start again," he said.

"Obviously the Easter period coming up in terms of maybe more people socialising and things like that, the brakes can be put on this at any point."

Graham said while there was "a massive appetite" from players to resume again, there was also much legal red tape around payments and contracts to negotiate first.

"I think the players are willing to sacrifice a lot of things to get the product out there, to get the games back on again," he said.

"It's not about money. It's about trying to find the right balance between a multitude of factors which are going to affect whether we can make this work.

"My interpretation with the phone call we had ... there's not even an actual proposal there to sign off on."

Queensland State of Origin coach Kevin Walters, along with Cronk and Burgess, were all more upbeat about the NRL finding a way of restarting on May 28, as forecast following discussions with the NSW government.

"It's fantastic. It's on - Mission complete," Burgess said of the NRL's Project Apollo.

Pearce, though, cautioned that, unlike man first landing on the moon in 1969, the league had merely "landed on a starting date" - which could yet change.

Pictured here, James Tedesco celebrates with Roosters teammates.
NRL's Project Apollo has set the return date for the competition as 28 May. (Getty Images)

What will the restarted NRL season look like?

An innovative committee will present a number of proposals to the Commission, including temporarily relocating non-Sydney teams to the harbour city.

How long the likes of Brisbane, North Queensland, Gold Coast, Melbourne and the Warriors stay in Sydney depends on interstate travel restrictions.

It is understood some teams could be housed in the Sydney Olympic Park precinct, while the Panthers Rugby League Academy is another option.

Channel 9 blasts NRL

The code’s long-time broadcast partners are reportedly fuming that they’ve been left out of the planning on when the season would restart.

The game’s administrators are expected to announce plans to recommence a shortened 15-round season as early as May 21, however Channel Nine are considering that a breach of contract.

Nine’s chief executive Hugh Marks has reportedly told the NRL they want to renegotiate the game’s $1.8 billion broadcast deal, launching an extraordinary broadside on the code.

On Thursday Channel Nine accused the NRL of wasting hundreds of thousands of dollars they’d invested in the code through years of mismanagement.

“At Nine we had hoped to work with the NRL on a solution to the issues facing rugby league in 2020, brought on so starkly by COVID-19,” said a spokesperson for Nine on Thursday.

“But this health crisis in our community has highlighted the mismanagement of the code over many years.

“Nine has invested hundreds of millions in this game over decades and we now find they have profoundly wasted those funds with very little to fall back on to support the clubs, the players and supporters.

“In the past the NRL have had problems and we’ve bailed them out many times including a $50m loan to support clubs when the last contract was signed.

“It would now appear that much of that has been squandered by a bloated head office completely ignoring the needs of the clubs, players and supporters.”

Earlier on Thursday, Channel Nine reporter Danny Weidler said the broadcaster was ‘seething’ about being left out of revised plans.

with Yahoo Sport Staff