This week we will find out just how desperate the NRL is to get the competition back up and running, when the league’s brains trust reconvene on Thursday to consider an idea so seemingly outrageous it might just work.
The NRL’s so-called Apollo mission is gaining momentum and has been buoyed by the announcement on Monday night that the NSW government, at least, would not get in the way of the game’s resumption. This is a critical mission: success will set the tone for world sport, while a failed or aborted mission could lead to the game descending into the financial freefall the league is so desperately trying to avoid.
Dissatisfied with its competition being sidelined by the strict health and physical distancing measures unfurled by the federal and state governments in response to the Covid-19 outbreak, the NRL’s innovation committee has been charged with finding a solution to a very complex issue.
There is one key success factor to this mission: get the game up and running. And fast. It appears nothing is off the table for the desired return date of 1 June – shortened rounds, shortened games, relaxed selection rules and an experimental conferenced format are among the thoughts being thrashed out by the committee led by the former Australia, NSW and Balmain great Wayne Pearce.
The concept of creating an NRL bubble has sparked the imagination of many a league diehard. And where better to do that than at a luxury island resort off the Queensland coast?
It requires placing players, officials, coaching staff and medical support staff at a minimum in an isolated hub. There would be stringent criteria to gain access, and once inside, there will be daily medical testing to ensure that no one from within the bubble has the potential to do harm to the protected group.
To accomplish this mission, those in the bubble would need to guarantee the sanctity of the self-imposed quarantine. How long before “league island” turns into “temptation island” for some, and what penalty would endangering the health and safety of others attract?
The prospect of long-term isolation will be also be tested by a number of anomalies that require careful consideration, such as the safe return of those who need to exit on compassionate grounds or to seek specialist medical treatment.
What is unknown is the psychological side-effects of demanding peak athletic output from players who are simultaneously removed from society. The former player and league commentator Paul Gallen has expressed this concern, saying players won’t leave the experimental competition as “normal human beings”.
Another key decision to be made is the size of each club’s squad. The more players taken in under the isolated regime, the more distance created from loved ones, placing additional pressure to hundreds of households – many with small children. Fewer players will produce an accelerated risk of clubs running short on talent in the case of multiple injuries.
In the last 48 hours, a number of location solutions have been touted: Sydney Olympic Park, Brisbane, Townsville, Canberra and regional towns. These in themselves boast their own issues from the availability of quality playing surfaces to negating international and interstate travel restrictions, albeit largely along Australia’s eastern seaboard.
If the NRL seeks a secluded home base, Sydney Olympic Park with its two major playing surfaces, multiple (and currently uninhabited) hotels and a network of training facilities in proximity to the existing nine Sydney clubs, could be the answer. Both Townsville and the headline-friendly Moreton Island have also keenly raised their hands as options for the island prototype, the latter able to accommodate up to 1500 guests at the popular Tangalooma Resort.
With any competition revival, the greatest to be affected will be the New Zealand Warriors who have been waiting out the disruption in their homeland since a forlorn journey home on 24 March after the NRL’s attempt to keep the season alive proved futile. For the Warriors it is a matter of gaining clearance from the world’s most robust travel prohibitions and then fulfilling quarantine restrictions in Australia before entering the prospective league hub.
If the task ahead and the associated cost to participate in the reformatted 2020 season do not prove economically viable for the Warriors, the NRL will be reduced to a 15-team, seven-match-a-week schedule. A touted competition return on 1 June will amount to 10 lost rounds aside from a possible lost game each round with the absence of the Warriors. At present, the impact of these lost games in terms of broadcast rights is yet to be announced.
To get through the crisis, rugby league needs stability. The snowballing talks of who will replace Todd Greenberg as NRL chief executive appears to be a heightened symptom of unprecedented circumstances in the world of sport. There will be time to make that change, but at a time when it is for the betterment of the game. In the meantime Greenberg is working alongside Peter V’landys, a seasoned administrator of sport who was at the helm of the NSW racing industry when it recovered following the devastating equine influenza of 2007. Significantly, V’landys is known for championing innovation – including Racing NSW’s bold move in 2017 to outplay Melbourne via the creation of Australia’s richest race, The Everest, carrying a $15m purse.
The other thing about a crisis is that it solicits character. Ingenuity can be sensationally prized but it can be equally dangerous. The Apollo mission is just that. Its challenge is to gain government approval and deliver a fair competition that appeals to fans who are enamoured with the game as they know it. Its greatest threat is an untested ability in mitigating widespread risk to the health and wellbeing of its participants and the wider community.
A successful mission will represent a huge step forward for world sport. With so many of the globe’s leading sport administrators grappling with ruined fixtures and revenue streams, the winter football codes in Australia are feverishly finding a way forward. Put simply, Australia has not been affected by the coronavirus to the levels seen in Europe and the United States to date and that is an important factor in what lies ahead. But Australia is a nation forged on toiling hard and thinking outside the square and, for that reason, perhaps the NRL will prove the right pilot for this incredibly ambitious mission.