Over the last few weeks, after not having any footy for the previous few months due to precautions taken around the COVID-19 pandemic, just being able to watch AFL games again has given fans a sense of normalcy.
However, the way that the COVID-19 cases have spiked in Victoria – from where ten of the AFL’s 18 teams hail – places that perceived return to normalcy into danger.
The ABC’s nightly 7pm Melbourne news bulletin reported several days of double-digit cases in the state of Victoria. Most of the time, those numbers have risen from one day to the next, and this is after weeks and months of single-digit cases occurring.
Evidence in this current climate, in the context of the AFL’s rebooted season, can lead to only one recommended conclusion: if CEO Gillon McLachlan wanted the courage to call the season off, few would blame him for doing so, either out of circumstance or sheer frustration.
With the way things are going in Victoria, McLachlan would have to possess the luck of a riverboat gambler to come out on the other side of a season which is competitively tenable.
And that’s just in Victoria. Outside of the state’s borders, it seems like a different level of a national emergency altogether.
On Tuesday, the Queensland government announced that it would shut down their borders to Victorians, and as if Victorians haven’t been made to feel like pariahs enough, its own state government announced – after the announcement of 64 new cases in the previous 24 hours – that Stage 3 lockdown measures would be enacted. These measures include putting 36 Melbourne suburbs, mainly in the city’s north and west, under specific lockdown procedures.
So what does this mean in the context of the current AFL season under jeopardy?
Aside from the aforementioned, Collingwood duo Steele Sidebottom and Lynden Dunn are subject to receive one-match bans for committing multiple offences against the AFL’s strict COVID-19 protocols, the league announced on Tuesday evening.
Sidebottom and Dunn, if found guilty, would become the sixth and seventh players to have run afoul of the AFL’s pandemic protocol measures since play resumed in June.
Furthermore, aside from the ten Victorian clubs that have played against each other in the last two rounds, two matches have also featured interstate teams on travelling duties playing against Victorian foes – the Western Bulldogs beating Greater Western Sydney and Sydney beating North Melbourne, both in Round 3, and both at Marvel Stadium.
Fortunately, no players on any of those four teams have tested positive for the coronavirus, but given the contact nature of Australian rules football, it seems only a matter of time before more players end up in quarantine.
And the Queensland government decision looms with dire implications. All eyes should be on the blockbuster in Geelong on Saturday afternoon – and not just for the sake of the surprising Suns being in second place taking on the Cats, currently sitting sixth on the ladder. Gold Coast and Brisbane have been fortunate to have played all their games so far at their home grounds since play has returned, however, beyond whether or not the Suns can beat the Cats, the real victory would come under the guise of zero positive cases once they return to Queensland.
Amid the societal and medical implications around sport in 2020, the AFL cannot have one more thing go wrong, as it would compromise a season already on a knife’s edge.
The league has already rearranged some of its Round 5 fixtures but they can only do so much dancing around the fixture, because any further cancellations would render an unbalanced schedule where not all teams would even play each other once.
But does the CEO have the courage – and the common sense – to call the season off if the league incurs any more setbacks?