NRL makes against-the-odds return for sports-starved Australians

NRL logo (Twitter)
NRL logo (Twitter)

Australia's National Rugby League (NRL) has battled player scandals, top-level resignations and dire financial revelations during the coronavirus shutdown, but against the odds it returns this week to bring relief to team owners and a sports-starved nation.

The fledgling season had seen two rounds of matches when it was suspended on 24 March and will have a different feel when it resumes with Brisbane Broncos hosting Parramatta Eels behind closed doors on Thursday.

An "NRL island" off the Queensland coast, where all 16 teams would be kept in isolation, had been considered. 

But Australia's success in containing the virus has allowed the league instead to play in two states - New South Wales and Queensland - under strict health measures with a Grand Final planned for 25 October. 

The New Zealand Warriors will be encamped in rural Tamworth, about 420 kilometres north of Sydney, while Melbourne Storm have moved to Albury on the Victoria-NSW border.

Teams may struggle to match the off-field drama that has unfolded since the enforced shutdown.

"I can't stress enough that our game has never faced such challenges," Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys warned in March.

V'landys has remained bullish in the face of criticism, pushing for a May 28 kickoff even though many warned it was potentially dangerous in a global health emergency.

A successful resumption will give the NRL a head start in Australia's intensely competitive sporting market.

Australian Rules football this week revealed fixtures for a June 12 restart, but no dates have yet been set for Super Rugby and football's A-League.

Lockdown scandals

Thrashing out the strict health protocols and obtaining the special permissions needed for the Auckland-based Warriors to enter the country was a protracted process, with the NRL jumping the gun several times to the ire of officials.

"That authority has not been provided and no amount of reporting it will change those restrictions," an exasperated Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after the NRL prematurely said Canberra had cleared the Warriors to participate.

There were also warnings from state and federal ministers that the competition would be scrapped if a string of lockdown breaches by high-profile players continued.

A group of players organised a camping trip away while Penrith's Nathan Cleary was hit with a two-match ban for partying with a group of women at his house.

A major factor in NRL's eagerness to resume was the game's shaky finances, with V'landys warning there was little left in the bank from the code's rich broadcast deals and clubs could go under.

Free-to-air broadcaster Nine accused a "bloated head office" of squandering hundreds of millions of dollars and NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg paid the price and quit in April.

There has also been a protracted pay dispute, a stand-off with players over compulsory flu vaccinations and threats by referees to strike over a decision to use only one on-field official.

After achieving the against-the-odds restart, V'landys could be forgiven for simply relaxing.

Instead, he continues to push boundaries, saying he regretted authorising the shutdown in the first place and insisting crowds would be back in the stands by 1 July.

"We're on the moon, we're looking for Mars now," he told Fairfax Media.

loading... Live
Orlando Pirates 0
Bidvest Wits 0
loading... Live
England 0
Pakistan 223/9 (86 ov)
Voting Booth
What is your favourite sport to watch on TV?
Please select an option Oops! Something went wrong, please try again later.
Results
Rugby
44% - 6002 votes
Cricket
11% - 1496 votes
Football
19% - 2597 votes
Athletics
2% - 317 votes
Boxing
1% - 127 votes
Cycling
2% - 308 votes
Golf
5% - 671 votes
Motorsport
8% - 1116 votes
Tennis
3% - 426 votes
Water sports
1% - 123 votes
American sports
1% - 136 votes
MMA / WWE / UFC
3% - 400 votes
Vote