The announcement felt rushed, but NRL fans around the world can rejoice because footy will be back in just seven weeks despite the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world.
While other nations continue to grapple with getting the bug under wraps, Australia seem to have done just that, and now one of the last sporting organisations to call it quits will be one of the first to get going again.
In saying all of that, seven weeks is a long time – and an absolute eternity in a pandemic – so who knows what the restrictions will look like by then and whether this plan will actually come to fruition.
It’s hardly a surprise the announcement of a season restart was pushed through at a rapid pace, though, given the game’s dire financial position and the enormous shot Channel Nine took at the NRL on Thursday morning.
The free-to-air broadcaster accused the NRL of financial mismanagement and wanted a complete renegotiation of their deal to broadcast the sport, which would more than likely have to happen anyway should the season be shortened.
In short, the NRL have no intention of ending the season without more footy being played, but for that to happen there are many issues that need to be sorted.
Of course the biggest of them is borders being closed between not only Australia and the outside world but also New South Wales and Queensland.
The fact Wayne Pearce, head of the committee trying to get the competition restarted, couldn’t say with any certainty that the governments of Australia, New Zealand, New South Wales and Queensland had given support for teams that have to travel is a major cause for concern.
As it stands right now, New Zealand is in full lockdown, so even leaving the country will be a challenge, with the Warriors then having to spend two weeks in quarantine once they arrive in Australia. Seven weeks, once you start playing with those issues, isn’t going to be a lot of time.
The Queensland-based teams will also need to agree to the fact that, once they leave Queensland, that’s it. They won’t be getting back in as the current regulations read, so whether the Brisbane Broncos, North Queensland Cowboys and Gold Coast Titans are going to be happy with that scenario is another issue.
While the Victoria-New South Wales border isn’t closed, you might as well throw the Melbourne Storm into that mix as well given the government’s policies regarding travel.
Again, if infection numbers come down, that may change, but at this stage it would appear the only feasible option is to play the entire competition in the Sydney basin, putting in as many double and triple-headers as possible to save on costs of ground hire without crowds.
The draw being completely re-worked for the revamped competition will allow the NRL to do as they please on Sydney grounds, and it’s something they must take full advantage of. This becomes even more of an issue when you consider the NRL and their club’s financial positions.
Pearce acknowledged that teams may be away from their homes and families for extended periods of times, and it was the closest we got to having any sort of structure confirmed as he ruled out the idea of conferences.
If borders remain shut and teams can’t travel back home, then it has to be expected the season will be shortened back to a total of 15 weeks – another 13 rounds from the recommencement – with Origin and finals included and everything wrapping up in early October.
However, should borders reopen anytime soon, then there is a chance the NRL could push on with a full season and finish in November or December, which highlights a new problem: playing rugby league in 30-degree heat.
That could only add to more problems among the broadcasters given more night-time games would be required to escape the heat of the day, which would then clash with Nine’s broadcast of cricket’s T20 World Cup if that event isn’t cancelled.
It’s no secret that without broadcast revenue the NRL can essentially forget about life as it currently knows it. This pandemic has threatened to blow the doors off the competition, but if they can somehow get both Nine and Fox on board with the format that is eventually decided on, it will be a major coup for Peter V’landys and Todd Greenberg.
While a full-length season would still be the ideal outcome, the fact the NRL are still pushing for that with flu season on the way seems to be a head-in-the-sand moment.
Without wanting to go full code wars, the AFL were smart about how they did things, cutting five rounds from the season before they started. Simply put, they knew a shutdown was inevitable.
On the other hand, the NRL have still talked about full-length seasons and going into November or even December to get things finished. Given the game’s reliance on broadcast dollars, it’s not crazy talk, but at the same time it’s not very smart either.
What all those factors do is create the ultimate juggling act for the NRL now as they attempt to pick a structure that won’t put players and the 2021 season at risk but will keep the broadcasters happy at the same time.
It’s almost the impossible task, but the bottom line is that even as the committee work on restarting the game, there is absolutely no guarantee things will restart on 28 May.
And this announcement will have its doubters and its knockers. From extra testing to the flouting of regulations that apply to the rest of society, it’s not going to make everyone jump for joy.
But for now we can live in hope that ‘Project Apollo’ has delivered an outcome that will set the NRL up to be playing again in late May.
And with mental health beginning to come to the fore of this pandemic in the way the wider population are coping with it, Wayne Pearce may have summed it up at the back end of his press conference.
“I think there’s a lot of positives with the competition up and running again. The players, staff at clubs, services to clubs that will benefit. There’s a lot of people that will be happy with the decision to get the competition running again,” he said.
And it’s hard to disagree.
Long live the NRL.