With COVID cases in the eastern states now hovering at around 100,000 per day, and just under two months until the 2022 competition gets underway, it’s time for Peter V’landys and his team to urgently consider their options in dealing with the threat that the virus poses to the NRL.
The NRL’s COVID plans in both 2020 and 2021 saw the competition proceed against the odds, and the NRL’s success in doing so set the benchmark for other sports.
They deferred the competition in 2020 until they could come up with an effective plan to complete the season, and 2021 saw them not only use the bubble to great effect, but also relocate both individual teams and then the entire competition to Queensland when that was the best option.
They were thinking on their feet, and taking action.
Remarkably, and despite the best efforts of some serial nitwits including Paul Vaughan, Josh Dugan and Dylan Napa to derail the competition, not one player contracted COVID, the NRL was able to comply with government protocols, and every single NRL game and representative fixture went ahead.
It was a fabulous outcome, not only for us devoted footy fans, but also for the players and all those dependent upon the game in one way or another.
Now, in the light of the freshly minted ‘living with COVID’ government mantra, the bubble has been downgraded, if not entirely burst, and NRL players and society in general have much more freedom to live a more normal life than they did just a few months ago.
Now, under the NRL’s significantly watered down restrictions, fully vaccinated players will be banned from entering any kind of indoor venue (pubs, clubs, restaurants, cinemas, etc.), but will be free to visit cafes, restaurants and pubs provided they are seated outside and use table service. What could possibly go wrong here?
Stricter protocols are in place for unvaccinated players, including no visitors, no trips to other homes and no indoor training with another. They will also be required to train, eat and bathe away from teammates.
All players are also required to provide a daily negative rapid antigen test result.
But what’s normal under the threat of COVID? How far can increasing case numbers be ignored, and how many infected players, referees, trainers or officials will it take to cause games to be forfeited, or the competition to grind to a halt altogether? At what point will governments start imposing more onerous travel restrictions?
Recent weeks have seen the genie well and truly out of the bottle with a number of sports affected, most notably cricket, which is front of mind at the moment.
Australian captain Pat Cummins missed the second Test match, English coach Chris Silverwood missed the Sydney Test, and the BBL has also been impacted.
NRL clubs are now also feeling the heat, with a number of clubs reporting positive cases among their squads.
Most notably, almost half of the Broncos’ squad tested positive this week, one third of both the Titans’ and Cowboys’ squads tested positive, and a significant number of Panthers players are also now self-isolating.
Clearly, if the number of infections within the NRL remain at these levels for the next couple of months, it’s highly unlikely that the competition will proceed.
Now is the time for action, and perhaps the only realistic solution is to return all NRL players and those closely involved in the game to the bubble so that the competition can proceed.
While this will be unpopular on some fronts, most notably with the entitled rugby league intelligentsia of Latrell Mitchell, Jack Wighton and Josh Addo-Carr, it’s better than the alternative, as no games means no broadcast revenue and no money for the players.
It’s time to reach for the bubble wrap, Mr V’landys.