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Opinion

Great to have NRL back, but it always had to stop

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25th May, 2020
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Three days before Round 2 of the 2020 NRL season kicked off, the government released figures suggesting as many as 150,000 Australians could die from COVID-19.

While he refused to state the numbers outright, Paul Kelly, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer (not the gravy guy or the ex-Swannies skipper), said at a March 16 press conference that Australia was looking at an infection rate of between 20 and 60 per cent of the population.

When asked how many people would not survive, he replied, “Well, the death rate is around one per cent. So you can do the maths.”

So while 150,000 deaths was the worst-case scenario – based on 60 per cent of Aussies contracting the coronavirus – the more optimistic estimate was still a whopping 50,000 passing away.

Put another way, we expected as much as 0.6 per cent of our entire population not to survive what the World Health Organisation had declared on March 11 to be a pandemic. That’s more than the percentage of deaths we suffered in World War 2.

Obviously these numbers have turned out to be wildly inaccurate, but that was the modelling our country was working off when the Bulldogs hosted the Cowboys at an empty ANZ Stadium on March 19.

Incoming ARLC chairman Peter V’landys.

Peter V’landys (Mark Evans/Getty Images)

Incidentally, at 11:59pm on that same date, New Zealand closed its borders to international travellers, with Australia following suit at 9pm the following day.

Then on March 22, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced that pretty much the whole country was going into hibernation, as hotels, pubs, entertainment venues, cinemas, casinos, nightclubs, gyms and even places of worship were ordered to close, with no word on when they could let the general public back in.

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It’s worth keeping all that in mind as we prepare for the NRL competition to resume some nine weeks after it was suspended on March 23, which Peter V’landys called at the time “a dark day in our game’s history”.

“We had to take this unprecedented action as there was simply no other option,” the ARLC chairman said.

“We have always said we would continue but only as long it was safe to do so.

“When the advice tells us we can no longer guarantee player safety because of the rapid rate at which infection is spreading, we must act accordingly.”

The infection was spreading – dramatically, actually, as you’ll see in a table below. The borders were closed. The pubs were closed! And somewhere between 50,000 and 150,000 people were expected to die.

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So it was a bit rich that V’landys has spent the past week going on about how the NRL could have forged ahead.

“If I had my time again, quite frankly, we wouldn’t have stopped the rugby league,” V’landys told a recent roundtable hosted by News Corp.

“If there is one regret, maybe we acted too quickly.

“Maybe we should have waited another week to see the infection rates.”

He doubled down on these claims in an interview with Nine Newspapers, saying, “As soon as we shut the borders, I knew it would be safe.”

Bit of selective memory there Pete, because we shut the borders on March 20 but you didn’t suspend the comp until March 23. And for the record, according to Our World in Data there were 1709 total cases in Australia on March 23, while on March 30 that number had more than doubled to 4093.

At the end of March, we were riding a sharp spike upwards in COVID cases – waiting a week wasn’t going to help keep the game running from an infection-rate point of view.

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V’landys also threw his anonymous pandemic expert under the bus in his chat with Nine, calling her “a bit extreme”.

“She’s given us advice that hasn’t proven correct. I’m not blaming the lady for that. But I’m not going back to a person who’s already given me incorrect advice,” he said.

And fair enough, but when the country’s foremost medical experts are tossing up death rates in the hundreds of thousands, maybe her advice wasn’t so much incorrect as based on reliable sources that turned out to be incorrect.

As for the issues of how the game would have progressed given Australia and New Zealand’s borders closed and the states followed suit internally shortly after – indeed, Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk may not let people from NSW into the Sunshine State until September – V’landys at least admitted it would have been tough from an optics perspective.

“Public relations-wise, it would’ve been difficult. People would’ve asked, ‘Why is rugby league still going and we’re not?’ It would’ve been a nightmare, along with the closure of the borders,” he said.

Now, I’m reluctant to speculate on what V’landys can and can’t do – that we’ll be watching the Broncos take on the Eels in two days’ time suggests he’s handy at striking deals – but it’s fanciful he could have got the likes of Palaszczuk, Kiwi Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and even our league-tragic PM to allow for NRL teams to flout border closures so they could keep playing footy as businesses around the country closed and hundreds of thousands signed up for Centrelink.

Even if he had managed to get all the right politicians on board, you reckon the general public and therefore the broadcasters would have been keen? As the rest of the country closed down, do you honestly think people signing up for JokKeeper would be happy that footy had somehow ended up being categorised with our frontline healthcare workers as ‘essential’?

More than likely the NRL would have got tapped from above, a la Dana White taking a call from the suits at Disney when he tried to push ahead with UFC 249 as thousands were dying across America.

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“The powers that be there asked me to stand down and not do this event next Saturday,” White said, after the UFC’s broadcast partners realised that people bleeding, spitting and making extremely close contact with one another wasn’t a great look when everyone else on the planet had been told to maintain a personal bubble of four square metres.

And I’m sorry to harp on about it, but there’s also still that ‘150,000 people may die’ stat which the best-placed medicos in the land had advised just before the footy went on hold.

Hindsight is 20-20 and given what we know today, the NRL could probably have continued over the past two or so months. But it didn’t go on hold because one infectious disease expert made a bad call.

The footy season was suspended because it was the only sensible thing to do in late March.

Pressing ahead would have flown in the face of all the accepted medical advice at the time, would have been near impossible logistically as Australia and New Zealand closed down, and even if all that could have been negotiated, the backlash from the public would have been immense.

It’s awesome that the NRL will be on our screens come Thursday night and I applaud Peter V’landys for having the ambition and drive to make it happen.

But if he honestly thinks the NRL didn’t need to go on hiatus, he needs a bit of a lie down.