St George Illawarra have locked away another exciting local junior with potential long-term fullback Tyrell Sloan extending his contract until the end of 2024.
New year, new variant. The season may be two months away, but COVID outbreaks are keeping it in the headlines in a way not even the Daily Telegraph could dream of.
Somewhat like the country itself, the NRL has spent the past two years hell-bent on keeping the virus out. Now it’s about managing it in the population.
And a guide for how to go about it may lie in England, where preventing the gaming of the system has been front and centre. Authorities there recently announced that any games cancelled as a result of a COVID outbreak would result in a 48-0 forfeit.
No-one should be in the business of apportioning blame. Contracting COVID-19 is not a moral failure, and particularly with Australian jurisdictions moving on from a zero-COVID philosophy, there should be far less of the huffing and puffing that greeted previous indiscretions.
This is not about punishment; it’s about a set of ground rules to act as a deterrent to gaming the system.
With a variant as transmissible as omicron, it is nearly inevitable that players will be exposed to the virus. Extremely high vaccination uptake within the NRL, coupled with the youth and fitness of the athletes, should mean that any experience is mild or asymptomatic.
But public health rules dictate that positive cases must still isolate. One can argue about such diktats until the cows come home, but they aren’t likely to be changed by sports.
There is no Nostradamus on hand to see into the future; this wave may last months or it might follow the example of other nations and recede relatively quickly. But the fact remains that a sizeable number of players may be forced out of action at various points in the season. The question is how the NRL responds.
The authorities have free rein to introduce all manner of variously observed restrictions, but it would be prudent to introduce guidelines as to what happens should positive cases spread through sides.
Far be it for a disease-ridden foreigner to offer suggestions as to how Australian authorities manage internal biosecurity, but it may be necessary to follow in the footsteps of the British authorities on this particular issue.
The motivations may not be applicable to Australia. There are far fewer vaccinated players in the UK and the threat of clubs losing points because unvaccinated players have been forced into isolation – owing to public health rules if not viral exposure – may be a way of authorities exerting indirect pressure.
The last two seasons have also been hit by a spate of cancelled fixtures that necessitated a mathematically frustrating points-per-game ladder. As with recent Premier League postponements, there is a strong suspicion that certain cancellations owed more to conveniently skipping tougher fixtures than a proportionate epidemiological response. Catalans Dragons had their trip postponed to then top-of-the-table challengers Warrington owing to just four positive cases among staff, not necessarily players.
There are still fine points to be ironed out, such as the threshold of cases and what happens if both teams are hit by an outbreak. But were such a rule to be introduced to the NRL, it would act as a very strong deterrent to stop clubs from gaming the system.
It’s not hard to imagine a side languishing splinter-inducingly close to the wooden spoon and in a bad run of form coming up against premiership contenders and using COVID as a convenient excuse to call a game off. It’s bad, but it’s happened in sports throughout the world these past years.
NRL clubs also have more latitude than Super League sides to deal with such a rule. The vast riches ensure larger playing squads with greater depth. Beyond the seniors, there are also New South Wales and Queensland Cup affiliates, under-20s, Ron Massey Cup and a vast network of talent waiting to be scalped.
The sport should not be in existential dread of having to deploy fringe and young players. While the casual viewer may be entranced by generational greatness, the average fan is not attracted by individuals. It’s a cliche, but fans don’t support players, they support teams. If nothing else, it’ll provide a fantastic opportunity for some latent potential.
The 48-0 forfeit should be viewed as a deterrent, not an inevitability. With multimillion-dollar broadcast commitments to fulfil, let alone obligations to the sport and fans, cancelling games due to COVID, as has happened in other countries, should not be a palatable option.
We’ll see in coming weeks what the authorities are made of.