As the end of the regular season approaches the talk naturally gravitates toward the finals. This year, however, the discourse moves beyond possible on-field permutations and who will be runners-up to Melbourne.
Current social and health issues are forcing a debate as to where the main event will be played in the first place. There have been recent rumours of Brisbane, Melbourne and Auckland all hosting the big one, but in this topsy-turvy world there can be no guarantees.
Sports organisations thus far have been able to negotiate exemptions to shutdowns, most recently for the Bledisloe Cup. But governments have also not hesitated to introduce restrictions at the merest whiff of a case, even if it is pizza-scented in the case of Adelaide.
As the NRL discovered, such onerous laws can cause havoc with fixture scheduling. More pertinently, governments can instantaneously impose lockdown laws on liberties, including the right to gather in public.
For an organisation in the morally correct search for maximum capacity crowds, such fluidity is not an inconsequential burden. At the stroke of a pen, games can be played in front of masked and numerically reduced spectators, moved behind closed doors and even postponed. The demonstrates the need to plan with flexibility and have contingency plans.
Recent events have demonstrated the impossibility of long-term planning. With a zero-COVID strategy it takes just one cock-up to have political leaders expunge societal freedoms from their localities.
There are no guarantees that between now and the grand final any or multiple of the potential host cities will be subject to quarantine and stay-at-home orders. It’s ironic that while the ARLC and NZRL forced the World Cup’s postponement, the only guaranteed, unlimited capacity final will be played at Old Trafford in Manchester.
Planning with any degree of certainty remains impossible. Thankfully the finals reduce the number of sides and people, easing the logistical hurdles that may surface. The NRL have already demonstrated that they can move lock, stock and barrel at short notice. The task now turns to deciding which city should be the frontrunner.
Sydney appears to be ruled out. It is hard to see what changes will be made between now and October or even between now and a higher vaccine threshold being reached.
Brisbane, as a rugby league heartland with all teams located nearby, would be the obvious choice. There are rumours of backroom shenanigans over clearance to play during the latest south-east Queensland lockdown. It may represent a quid pro quo agreement to play the lucrative grand final at Lang Park, but we may only speculate.
Melbourne has been touted as recompense for the lost State of Origin fixture and to further solidify the game in the state. Even with a limited capacity the MCG could still hold more than Suncorp Stadium at full capacity.
However, many proponents have touted the persuasive pull of a ‘homecoming’ for a triumphant Melbourne. Of course it would take a punt of fickle cluelessness more familiar to Flemington than Olympic Park to bet against the Storm. But basing any argument on one home side for the pinnacle of the domestic club game in Australia seems churlish.
One could similarly make arguments about taking games to Perth and Adelaide. They have had even less opportunity to witness top-flight rugby league than Victoria.
There’s been talk of taking the game to Auckland, but Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently sought to quash such speculation. But she has not entirely ruled it out either, adding “[i]f the NRL put a suggestion to us, I’m sure we would give it due consideration”. It’s not as if pernicious border closures haven’t been overcome. State premiers are just as guarded, seemingly seeking to turn back the clock to 1901 and dismembering the foundations of Federation.
An Auckland final equally rewards rugby league fans that have not been to a game since 2019. Aotearoa-New Zealand’s even greater geographic and demographic isolation (compared to Australia) offers a greater degree of epidemiological certainty.
Nonetheless, the COVID sword of Damocles hangs over the latter stages of the tournament, as demonstrated by the Kiwi insouciance to the NRL. The higher-ups would be wise to pick a first choice but also come to agreements with other cities as backup contingencies.
A half-capacity final might have been sufficient for 2020, but such restrictions grate while so much of the world opens up in 2021. Every eventuality must be accounted for to facilitate a full house for the grand final. Hope for the best, plan for the worst.