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Opinion

Play it safe or play on? Tough calls coming up for RA

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Expert
20th March, 2020
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It could be argued that in these crazy Coronavirus times, Rugby Australia has a lot more to lose than just a few games of Super Rugby.

It seems like an eternity ago, but it was only last Saturday night that SANZAAR suspended the competition “for the foreseeable future”.

The suspension is due to last for a minimum of two weeks after the New Zealand Government demanded that all returning travellers were required to self-isolate for 14 days. Three Kiwi teams – the Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders – need to satisfy this two-week quarantine period after returning from overseas games last weekend.

SANZAAR boss Andy Marinos has stated that if Super Rugby didn’t resume within five weeks, it will be scrapped for 2020 due to scheduling constraints in the second half of the year.

The chances of Super Rugby restarting as a five-nation competition through any rejigging of the regular-season schedule seems as likely as Joe Marler leading a no-touch social-distancing Coronavirus ad campaign.

So what’s the next best result?

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There’s already been talk from NZ Rugby, Rugby Australia and the South African Rugby Union about holding domestic competitions, with the potential for each national winner to battle in an abbreviated finals series to come up with a Super Rugby champion.

The end of June would be the cut-off for any Super Rugby final as Test matches are due to be held for many nations on July 4 (the Super Rugby final is currently scheduled for Saturday, June 20). It’s been floated that any domestic competition might run over ten to 12 weeks.

In Australia, community rugby has been put on hold until the start of May.

But while grassroots rugby is suspended, it feels like the professional game will return sooner.

Raelene Castle and Rugby Australia would’ve observed that the NRL, AFL and A-League are all powering through the Coronavirus crisis, albeit with significant compromises – the biggest being playing games in empty stadiums. That’s a considerable financial hit for each code.

Ball boy disinfects Steeden.

The NRL is even soaping its Steedens. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

The three codes are taking exceptional precautions to mitigate the risk of spreading the Coronavirus, but there’s no doubt that their call to move forward with their seasons is financially motivated. And perhaps more specifically, their decisions are driven by the TV dollar.

If they halted their seasons, the financial hit would be crippling and likely to send some clubs spearing towards bankruptcy. Broadcast revenue has become the lifeblood for each sport. Fox Sports and the free-to-air broadcasters are desperate for footy content. In close association, other commercial partners such as club sponsors rely on the broadcast exposure to justify their spend.

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So given the three other footy codes are still on, Rugby Australia will be keen to get their players back on the paddock. They’ve got their game to spruik for a new broadcast deal, right? The game in Australia would face financial ruin if they prolong this period without any elite rugby on TV.

They can’t afford to sit idle and let the other codes continue. Rugby in Australia is struggling in a big way as it is, so to sit on the sidelines for much longer would be crazy. Mind you, to emphasise that these are incredibly whacky times, it’s been reported that the Western Force have been part of discussions regarding an upcoming Australian domestic competition.

Andrew Twiggy Forrest

(AAP Image/Richard Wainwright)

Or is the keep-‘em-on-the-park philosophy crazier? Are the risks of playing on too great? Are the AFL, NRL and A-League too cavalier and underestimating the power of the virus and the risk they could help spread it?

The crisis has developed so rapidly over the past ten days, and the speculation is so rife – from school closures to complete lock-downs – that perhaps Castle and RA should take a step back and wait a few more weeks before announcing any new competition formats.

Rugby could show that they’re a game with a greater collective conscience than other sports; a sport that puts community health and well-being above financial motivations; a code that has a broader perspective than having a winner and a loser after 80 minutes.

The health of Australians is the most important factor in all this, right? Not blindly satiating our appetite for sport.

Take into account the poorly timed comments from Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys a few days ago, calling for taxpayer money to prop up the NRL amid the Coronavirus crisis. With the health system bracing for unprecedented pressures and industries forecasting tens of thousands of job losses, the call for a handout was a big mistake and painted him and the NRL as selfish and insensitive.

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It’s a reminder not to charge down the corridor, kick the door down and fire off your demands. Castle will hopefully proceed more judiciously if RA needs government assistance.

Raelene Castle

(AAP Image/Daniel Munoz)

Australia’s Super Rugby clubs and most rugby fans will be hoping that a domestic competition will be announced over the coming days, although Castle concedes there’s a risk that one positive Coronavirus test could still shut down any local competition (as yet, no Super Rugby player has tested positive).

It’s fair that Castle should want to get Australia’s professional rugby players back on the park, even if it’s almost certain games will be played inside empty stadiums. There’s money pressures for a game that’s copped plenty of financial hits recently.

But there’s also a decent case for rugby in Australia to represent itself as a game with a conscience; a game that’s willing to shut down longer for the greater good. Is it too much to expect RA to wait another month to see how safe it is to restart rugby or even wait until the internationals in July?