A new rugby league era was born on Thursday evening at Homebush when the Bulldogs and Cowboys squared off in front of their coaches, some officials, media and 80,000 empty seats.
It was, in a word, eerie. Very eerie.
And while the game itself was a bit of a damp squib, with the men from Townsville picking up their first win of the year, who would have guessed that, even if it’s a low crowd, the TV product actually needs those people in the stadium to make it work.
Whereas normally, a long run would be met with cheers and noise, last night it was met with some awkward clapping from the men sitting on the bench and club officials stationed directly behind it.
While players shouting and calling could be heard loud as day over the microphones, the lack of noise didn’t seem to help the Bulldogs, who were still clunky as all hell in attack.
To the end of the game, they had just 44 per cent possession, and while some teams could blame a dodgy penalty count or run of momentum, the blue and white could only blame themselves as they dropped the ball for a ridiculous total of 16 errors, completing at just 62 per cent.
Sixteen errors. Just let that sink in. On a dry night, a professional rugby league team made 16 errors in 80 minutes.
Given the clunkiness of their attack to start the season, it’s a struggle to see where the Dogs’ first victory is going to come from in this scary, weird, new rugby league world.
Valentine Holmes continues to struggle in his return to rugby league though, but two competition points should take some of the pressure off both him and coach Paul Green, who surely has his head on the chopping block if the Cowboys don’t find a way to fire.
And of course, some of the blame could be given to the fact the Cowboys only jetted into Sydney this afternoon, leaving them with no game-day preparation other than sitting on an aeroplane for three hours on the flight south.
That didn’t stop Jason Taumalolo though, who set the record for most metres run in a game, rolling over the Bulldogs for a staggering 345. The only question it leaves – is there anything this man can’t do?
For what it’s worth, the Cowboys were the better side, but not by much, and they have a mountain of improvement to make if they want to be challenging to play finals footy, and to win a premiership when September (or October, maybe November) rolls around.
In the end, those errors were the difference between the two sides at the empty Homebush, in a game with little else worth talking about.
But, back to the topic at hand, and the reaction on social media was mixed to the lack of crowd in the stadium. That, you’d expect, is something people will get used to as they tune into the footy to try and forget about what’s actually going on in the world for a couple of hours each day.
Although, in saying that, it just didn’t feel right. The thousands upon thousands of empty seats left you with a feeling that something wasn’t right, even if that is often the picture that greets games at Homebush.
The NRL keep saying just how much money they stand to lose if the competition gets suspended, and frankly, there is no right or wrong answer with the measures in place as to whether the competition should be continuing.
But if top-flight rugby league is going to not only survive this period but thrive into the future, then there need to be some fast decisions made.
Self-isolation of players seems extreme, but it’s been announced, will happen, and given the way this virus spreads, is important to stick to for all members who have access to the teams, including the players themselves.
Essentially, if one player gets the virus, no matter how much the NRL tells you it won’t, the competition will be suspended or at the least impacted on a large scale with many entering quarantines, including teammates and opposition who have been on the other side of the park.
The leadership on display from the AFL during this period has been outstanding, cutting the season by five weeks. It’s essentially saying: “Yes, there will be a shutdown. We don’t know when, but let’s make a season achievable in that case.”
The NRL must also immediately move to allow player loans so that clubs who become impacted – particularly the Warriors, who will have two weeks of quarantine for any player who flies across the ditch – will be able to continue at some level of competitiveness.
On top of the self-isolation and player loan matters though, the NRL has to move to protect clubs financially, and one of the big movements would be playing as many double-headers, or triple-headers, as possible.
For example, this weekend, the Cronulla-Melbourne game could be pushed to Friday night, the two Gold Coast games played on Sunday, and the two Leichhardt games Saturday.
This saves on ground hire, with two clubs able to split the cost, while broadcasters will also be happier, only having to set up one camera crew and location.
From next weekend, it could be a case of moving games within their various cities. For example, Manly could play the Warriors at Homebush before the Rabbitohs-Roosters game, and the Sharks-Knights game could be pushed to Campbelltown on Sunday alongside the Tigers and Bulldogs.
Yes, this would require some flexibility from broadcasters in terms of which games are on when, and yes, it would mean some teams’ turnaround times are changed, but crazy times call for drastic measures.
The idea that this pandemic is going away anytime soon is madness, but rugby league, and the AFL for that matter, bring their fans a sense of normality.
Normality has gone out the window in just about every element of life, and sport has the power to keep things ticking along somewhat at this time, even if only for a few hours at a time.
While the NRL may not be able to go on for long, it should while it can. And to do that, the authorities must pull out all the stops to keep it sustainable.
This is going to be a weird season for the foreseeable future. There are no two ways around that.
And last night was just the beginning. Tonight will be another challenge, when the Broncos take to Suncorp Stadium for the first time behind closed doors.
Just how it’ll go is anyone’s guess.