Peter FitzSimons has led criticism of the NRL’s decision to keep playing amid the coronavirus crisis, taking exception to assertions the league is trying to minimise the risk to players.
ARL Commission boss Peter V’landys announced on Sunday that the NRL will forge ahead with the season despite the coronavirus pandemic, but conceded the possibility of suspending the competition is still on the table.
In an extraordinary press conference on Sunday morning, V'landys and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg outlined the 'catastrophic' impact suspending the season would have on rugby league.
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With two games to be played in front of crowds on Sunday, the NRL will proceed as planned although league bosses admitted this could change by the end of the day.
While round two is scheduled to go ahead without crowds, all options are on the table including isolating players and staff and suspending the season entirely.
“I can't stress enough our game has never faced a challenge like this,” V'landys said.
“The longer it takes, the more pressure on our financial viability.
“It could have catastrophic effects on us going forward. Our money will only last so long and once its extinguished we are in big trouble
“An Australia without rugby league is not Australia. The government has to assist us in this crisis because it is not of our own doing.
"Rugby league... is people's escape, it is people's relaxation. And we have to do everything we can to continue the tradition of rugby league."
"Any decision we make today could change tomorrow.
"We are going to review all options, including isolating players and suspending the season.
"This situation is fluid and is changing by the hour. We will continue to take experts' advice ... And we will continue to act on that advice.”
However FitzSimons hit back at V’landys’ assertion that the league was doing everything possible to minimise the risk to players, saying the best way to minimise risk would be to eliminate all contact by suspending the season.
“That’s simply not true,” FitzSimons said on Sport Sunday after V’landys press conference.
“Minimising the risk is stopping the game - that is just the simple reality.”
The former Wallabies player said it’s inevitable the NRL won’t be able to continue.
“It is a certainty...that’s where we’re heading.”
Legendary St George coach Roy Masters also criticised the decision to keep playing on Sunday.
“It’s the wrong decision - they have an obligation to suspend the competition,” Masters said on ABC Offsiders.
“My limited medical knowledge tells me you’ve got to get this disease to plateau and the best way to do that is to minimise contact.”
Kelli asks Roy Masters if he's ever seen anything like this in sport in the midst of #COVIDー19.— Offsiders ABC (@OffsidersABC) March 14, 2020
Roy: Never, nothing like this.
What do you think should happen to upcoming #NRL and #AFL games? Should they be suspended?#Offsiders pic.twitter.com/j5dHC5gWNj
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V’landys painted a bleak future for the game, with clubs already expected to suffer a huge financial hit while playing without crowds in the interim.
Without insurance or assets to produce income outside of the games themselves, V'landys said the NRL would not take long to collapse if the season was suspended.
"If it's a total closure, we haven't got long at all,"he said.
"If it's one where we can continue to play the game with no spectators, that gives us a much greater flexibility to survive."
"It really depends on what we're faced with.
"If one player or ball boy catches the disease and we have to suspend the season, that's another scenario.
"I spent hours yesterday looking at all our accounts and all I could see was the word 'catastrophe' if this continues."
While refusing to reveal specific contract details of its $2 billion deal with broadcasters, V'landys said Fox Sports and Channel Nine have not put pressure on the NRL to continue playing.
However, he admitted the broadcasters will not need to pay if games are cancelled.
The NRL has commissioned biosecurity and pandemic experts to advise the governing body and said it would play on until they were told to do otherwise.
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North Queensland captain Michael Morgan has already expressed his preference to suspend the season, and Greenberg confirmed no player would be forced to play if they would prefer to isolate.
"We're picking up the phone to as many players as we can, we're having conversations with those players, we're explaining to them, like we're explaining to you today, some of those challenges," Greenberg said.
"No player will be forced to do anything that they don't want to do, and that's the conversation I had with the Warriors players last night.
"We're trying to communicate with our players as best as possible, listen to their views as well, and explain to them why we're doing what we're doing."
There were plenty on social media who also criticised the NRL’s stance in their press conference.
Listening to the Health Minister and Chief Medical Officer this morning, I thought, ‘no one could deliver more shambolic messaging than this.’— Titus O'Reily (@TitusOReily) March 14, 2020
Then I watched the NRL’s media conference.
The @NRL appears to arguing that because it sees itself as a vehicle to help social cohesion it deserves a payout in these times. They talk of "offering an escape" & "lifting the spirits of the people This will divide opinion. #coronavirus— Chris Mitchell (@chrismbbcsport) March 14, 2020
Listening to the NRL press conference. If you're a connoisseur of trainwrecks, this one is a doozy.— Paul Wallbank (@paulwallbank) March 14, 2020
"Australians have been watching Rugby League for hundreds of years.."
The NRL chief saying “Australia is not Australia without the NRL” .. yes, yes it is mate.. it’s only sport.. everyone is making sacrifices.. #COVID19Aus— Natalie Forrest (@nat_forrest) March 15, 2020
In a further security measure, NSW Cup and Queensland Cup games will not be held before NRL games from round two onwards.
Just two NRL players have been tested for coronavirus, Angus Crichton and Bronson Xerri, and both tested negative.