Peter V’landys and the NRL can be accused of many things in recent times but taking a soft approach is not one as the code has moved mountains and shifted oceans to return to action on 28 May.
A 20-round competition with a 25 October grand final was announced by the NRL on Tuesday but that return has been thrown into significant jeopardy after four players were found to have flagrantly breached not only NRL lockdown protocols but basic social distancing required by law.
Photos emerged early in the week of South Sydney’s Latrell Mitchell, Melbourne’s Josh Addo-Carr and Newcastle’s Tyrone Roberts-Davis on a camping trip with Addo-Carr in one shot holding a firearm, while Penrith’s Nathan Cleary was pictured surrounded by a number of women at his home.
It was expected the NRL would come down with a heavy hand on the players – three of whom represented NSW last season – but the league dished out penalties that were viewed by many as inadequate given the flagrant breaches. They could also be considered completely out of line with the risk the players have put the game and many of its participants under.
Not one of the four will miss a game when the season resumes. Mitchell and Addo-Carr were handed $50,000 fines while Cleary and Roberts-Davis were given $10,000 fines with 60% of all fines suspended. All were given a one-match suspended ban.
The penalties stand in stark contrast to those proposed by media identity Phil Gould, who called for the rogue campers and Cleary to be suspended for the remainder of the season – however long that may be – as “they have caused a huge issue for the code”.
“What I do know is that the more instances made public, the less likely it will be that [the Government] will permit a restart of competition,” Gould tweeted. “The players were warned. They were given strict guidelines.”
That risk is very real and NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian indicated on Wednesday the government has taken a dim view of the “life and death” breaches and that the proposed restart date has been placed under significant doubt.
“We always base any decision on health advice and on the ability of an organisation to stick to that health advice,” Berejiklian said. “I think it does jeopardise [the restart], because the season hasn’t even started. We are in a pandemic. It’s life and death. You might forego your own safety, but to compromise someone else’s safety, that’s inexcusable.
“We cannot afford to take chances or endorse any risky behaviour in a situation where lives could be lost because of a flagrant breach of a rule.”
The NRL did itself no favours with its soft approach to disciplining those who breached social distancing laws, putting both the community and the NRL restart at risk. This comes in stark contrast to racing – an initial six-month suspension was dealt out by the Queensland Integrity Racing Commission to jockey Zoe White for failing to comply with a stewards’ direction to self-quarantine. White denied any wrongdoing and the ban was reduced to three months on appeal.
Optics are as important now as reality and the flagrant disregard for both rugby league and the law of the land has marginalised public opinion about a May 28 return. The NRL may be able to survive a PR crisis relatively unfettered now but any breach by any player once teams return to training – scheduled to start on Monday – will have a catastrophic impact for the code with the game certain to be shutdown. Given some players are clearly unable to comprehend the impact their actions have on the wider game, those at League HQ must be petrified at the prospect of trying to get all players to adhere.
While the NRL made significant progress in getting the season restarted by reaching an agreement with broadcasters Fox Sports and The Nine Network, the NRL still requires government approval. That means getting the support of Berejiklian in the face of major concern about the NRL’s ability to enforce its strict biosecurity measures, and the national cabinet, which is meeting on Friday to discuss the return of elite sport to Australia.
Even John Barilaro, arguably the biggest supporter in government of a quick NRL return, said that “this is a warning shot”.
“People are working tirelessly to get rugby league going again and these players jeopardise that,” Barilaro said.
Federal sports minister Richard Colbeck, however, has provided hope for the NRL, stating the NRL needed to “take very decisive action”.
“I think it’s important they send a strong message that they’re serious about compliance with protocols and I think the penalties clearly do that.”
The NRL faces its D-Day on Friday. They not only have to win over policymakers. They also need to avoid any more episodes of self-harm.