While we’ve all been dealing with this Curtis Rona virus pandemic in our own ways with our own problems and life issues, we might have been a little distracted from the day-to-day drama involved in one of the most remarkable and entertaining sagas of events that I think has ever hit Australian sport. Not even Days of Our Lives and its 13,842 episodes (yes, wtf) could come close to matching the theatrics that have surrounded the NRL’s march on to return to play against all odds on May 28, 2020.
Fun Fact: May 28 is not only International Burger Day, but also “Border Guards Day” in Russia. How apt. I’m sure those celebrations put Mad Mondays to shame.
It’s a journey that began for the NRL just about the instant a Round 1 Steeden had been kicked in anger. While it seems like a lifetime ago, the very first time that the rugby league world really copped sight of this virus charging in for a hit-up off the back fence was probably Friday the 13th (…) of March, when Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people. One game into the season! Cue the hysteria. And cue the jibes at the Roosters and whether that would have any impact on them at all.
What did this mean for the opening of the brand-new stadium in Townsville for the Queensland Derby in just a few hours? For the people who had flown from all corners to make the game and paid a handsome sum to do so? What of the rest of the round’s games? The next week? “Screw this”, the good people of NQ cried, “just try and lock us out of this one”. They got their way, with Scomo controversially enforcing the ban on gatherings after Round 1 was done and dusted. Phew for now, but this was not boding well.
Well, a hell of a lot of water has gone under the bridge since that time. A lot of toilet paper off the shelves. A lot of #CultureCatchups posted unwittingly on social media. Broadcaster battles, CEO clearouts, government gripes, council clashes, player pushbacks, it’s on, it’s off, it’s back on, it’s in doubt, the referees might strike, the players won’t get a needle, the borders won’t open, now they will. If we truly take stock of it all, the 76 days between that fateful Friday the 13th and the second coming of the 2020 NRL Season on May 28 has really had everything. And it’s not even over yet.
This article is Part 1 of a series where we’ll look at the highs, the lows and everything in between on each step of this Road Back to Rugbaleeg. Giddyup!
A Series of Isolated NRL Events: Part One – The Show Must Go On:
Thursday, 12th March
Parramatta and the Bulldogs fight out a grinding 8-2 affair in front of 21,363 fans to kick off the NRL season, with all the buildup to the season centring on the return of Tina Turner’s anthem “Simply the Best”. Which of course had to somehow incite a political debate, in typical 21st century social media fashion. But who cares, FOOTY’S BACK!!
Friday, 13th March
Oh shit, how long is it back for?!? With the world slowly coming to grips with this Coronabeer18+ or Conanvirus or something that’s apparently just like a bad cold, it finally hits Australians where it hurts – their professional sporting leagues. Prime Minister Scott Morrison plunges the short-term future of Australian sport into disarray with an announcement that a ban on gatherings of more than 500 people will be implemented. At the same time, the Cowboys and Broncos were gearing up to open the long-awaited Townsville Stadium to add another chapter to the book of maroon feuds. As in, gearing up for a game that’s meant to be going on in a few hours. Mayhem! Mayhem on the streets of Townsville! They’ll just break into the bloody stadium if they have to!
Journalists were lining up to throw their hat in the ring and set off an endless cycle of “ROUND 1 IS CANCELLED”, “ONLY TONIGHT’S GAMES ARE BEING PLAYED”, “TONIGHT’S GAMES WILL GO AHEAD BUT BEHIND CLOSED DOORS”, “NAH WAIT EVERYTHING’S OKAY. I THINK. BUT I CAN’T STOP YELLING”. Well, not endless, but when you’re a league fan waiting to find out if you’d actually get to see a massive game that night or even the rest of Round 1, it felt like it. Everything was eventually okay, with Scomo going on to clarify that the ban would take place on Monday, after the round’s games.
In perhaps the most surprising news of the day, the two best Queensland teams in the Titans and the Cowboys go on to suffer shock losses that same night. Bad signs.
Saturday, 14th March
After slogging out a tough 20-0 loss to Newcastle and in response to the New Zealand Government enforcing a mandatory 14-day quarantine for all arrivals into the country, the NZ Warriors commit to staying in Australia to continue on the competition, but only until the end of Round 2 at this stage.
Sunday, 15th March
The following headline says it all
“Manly disinfect balls flying into Lottoland stands due to virus fears”
Things. Are. Getting. Weird.
Monday, 16th March
Peter V’landys gains his first piece of significant airtime in his new role as Chairman of the ARL Commission with a press conference to discuss the NRL’s future. He earns the ire from some of the wider community for calling on the Government to ensure the NRL is included in any economic stimulus packages, but earns plenty of fans along the way for his continued pronunciation of RUGBAH LEG throughout. Welcome to Planet NRL, Peter “Rugbaleg” V’Landys.
Tuesday, 17th March
Storm captain Cameron Smith comes under fire from clubs and the NRL for suggesting that the NRL should be temporarily suspended, citing health fears including for his own coach, Craig Bellamy, who falls into the ‘at-risk’ category of over 60s. His call to put the NRL on hold for a couple of weeks flies directly in the face of the company line that the show will go on.
Wednesday, 18th March
With the NRL still going full steam ahead, just without the crowds, calls for the entire league to be moved to an isolated location begin to take traction. Stradbroke Island? Tropical North Queensland where this virus doesn’t like the heat? Deep in the outback? What would have seemed a truly ridiculous concept mere days before suddenly doesn’t look that way, with NRL CEO Todd Greenberg describing it as ‘not as far-fetched as people think’.
Elsewhere, Addin Fonua-Blake has become the first player to turn up to training with a mask on, while Blake Ferguson makes news for his inability to keep his hands off other players at training, stating “I haven’t changed anything to be honest. I’m living life the way I usually do. Obviously I have to be careful with my hygiene, but at the end of the day I’ll embrace people the way I normally do. I like to be the connection and see where the friendships are at.” Uh-oh.
Thursday, 19th March
We get our first look at an NRL without crowds and it’s equal parts surreal and equal parts a relief just to see some footy still on the TV. The sounds of the big hits, players in-game commentary and the sound of Joe Stimson tackling at air go a small way to filling in the void left by the lack of spectators. Jason Taumalolo steamrolls the Bulldogs on his way to a 22-14 win for the Cowboys, who were flown into Sydney on the day of the game and flown back to Townsville the same night. The start of a new normal for travelling clubs?
Sunday, 22nd March
Scott Morrison announces further restrictions being put in place across the country, including a ban on ‘non-essential’ travel. The AFL become the first major sporting organisation to shut up shop in Australia (bit of a stretch to call Super Rugby and its 15 regular viewers here a ‘major’ organisation), piling the pressure on the NRL from anti-league Victorian types to follow suit. Greenberg and V’Landys respond to that pressure with a firm “she’ll be right mate, worst case we’ll just move to Gladstone. How good’s rugbaleg”. The NRL were close to becoming the only show in town, ala Krusty the Clown when he took over Springfield’s emergency broadcast system after Sideshow Bob outlawed television.
Monday, 23rd March
It was an admirable, brave defiance that ended with the unfortunate news that the NRL had taken the advice of its pandemic and biosecurity experts (I’m going to presume Bryce and Shanelle Cartwright were not included in any consultation) and have shut the NRL down with immediate effect. “Catastrophic”, “the biggest challenge the game will ever face”. The NRL becomes just about the final cultural domino to fall in Australia.
In the grand scheme of things, while it’s a dark day for rugby league, there’s a hell of a lot of chaos in the world around us. People’s lives have been changing for the worse well before this announcement was made. Family, friends, livelihoods, wellbeing – these are and should always be the most important things. But it still didn’t make this hurt any less for fans of this great game.
In the words of W. Axl Rose: Where do we go now…