Six weeks out from the start of the finals series, we’ll get a sneak peek of September when the Melbourne Storm and Penrith Panthers square off in a pre-finals blockbuster at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night.
The announcement that NSW’s and Queensland’s second-tier rugby league competitions were to be cancelled this year due to coronavirus came earlier than expected.
Way back in late March, the NRL Head of Football – Participation, Pathways and Game Development Luke Ellis said the step had to be taken because “the health and safety of those involved with rugby league must always come first.”
The Canterbury Cup and Intrust Super Cup are the NRL’s semi-official talent pools, organised into a 12-team competition in NSW and a 14-team comp in Queensland respectively. All clubs in both competitions are affiliated with a NRL club and players can slide between the two competitions, depending on form and injuries.
The system isn’t perfect but it does provide important behind-the-scenes player backup to the gruelling NRL competition as well as giving a pathway for up-and-coming players. For now though, those second-tier teams are training but not playing, kept in a season-long holding pattern with nowhere to go.
As I see it, this causes two major problems. At a time when top-level NRL players are being asked to push their bodies in less than ideal circumstances, the reserve pool of players – while technically available – are totally lacking in match practice and some of them are training less.
There is also the financial aspect for the clubs involved in these secondary competitions. With no matches taking place, sponsors are getting cold feet and income from gate takings is missing. The teams that aren’t aligned with a powerful leagues club are really feeling the financial pinch.
The historic club Newtown Jets has tried a few fundraisers in the last few months to keep the money coming in. One of their more charming initiatives is called “Laps with Trady” where fans can make donations to push one of the club’s super fans to keep cycling around their home ground, Henson Park.
John Trad normally cycles his specially-equipped penny farthing around Henson after the Jets score a try each weekend, often leading a trail of kids. For the moment though, he’s completing lonely laps around the Sydney club’s home ground on Saturday afternoons – with only the occasional dog-walker watching on.
Meanwhile, the former top-flight club North Sydney Bears, who have played in the Canterbury Cup since 2003, have decided they want to keep playing, no matter where. The team has registered in a mixed regional and city competition for this season, being dubbed the President’s Cup, featuring teams such as the Maitland Pickers and the Cessnock Goannas.
Never heard of them? No, neither have I.
Trying to find details of this last-minute competition is difficult and although teams will be pleased to be back on the park, I’m sure things won’t be as well organised as they normally are in the Canterbury Cup.
With some community and junior rugby league competitions set to return in NSW and Queensland on July 18 under the code’s “Return to Play” guidelines, and as the NRL charges on unperturbed by Victoria’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases, it’s clear that the sport’s administrators think it is safe to return to the field if the right protocols are being followed.
So, you have to wonder: did the NRL’s two feeder competitions really need to get the flick so early?