Operation Bubble, or Project Apollo as Pearce referred to the committee, would see teams potentially split into conferences across different isolated locations in NSW. The plan hinges on medical and expert advice the governing body is expecting in the next week in relation to the trend of coronavirus infection rates.
The NRL has noted that the number of new COVID-19 cases in Australia per day has actually decreased since it suspended the competition on Monday March 23, when 328 new cases were recorded.
On Monday and Tuesday this week, 271 and 299 new cases respectively were recorded, less than when the NRL acted on the advice of its pandemic and biosecurity expert – not the government – to stop the season.
The NRL innovation committee, which also includes the NRL’s Andrew Abdo, Graham Annesley and Liz Deegan – as well as Roosters coach Trent Robinson, Raiders chief executive Don Furner, RLPA boss Clint Newton and former deputy premier Troy Grant, will meet again next Thursday, when plans to restart the season in the coming weeks will be escalated.
“We want the competition up and running as soon as possible,” Pearce told the Herald. “That’s got to factor in player safety, community safety and a range of factors we need to consider. We are saying July 1, that is fixed in the ground and we are working towards that, but if we can make it happen sooner, we will.”
There is nothing stopping the NRL, under current NSW government rules, from restarting its competition immediately in one state, although the NRL is keen to ensure a resumption does not cause any concern for the broader community.
As it stands, the Warriors aren’t allowed in the country, although the NRL is still working with New Zealand government to determine whether the team would be able to travel across the ditch if the players self-isolated for 14 days.
The Queensland government, which has shut its borders, is allowing people to travel in and out of the state for work purposes and the NRL is in discussions to gain clarity on whether it would be able to bring 13 teams into a centralised Queensland location, casting doubt over the Gladstone proposal.
While the NRL is sensitive to the situation confronting most of its fans during the global pandemic, strict testing and quarantine measures are being planned to ensure that players would be safer in a “bubble” environment and pose no risk to the community.
“We are working out ways to get a bubble over all the players,” Pearce said. “Whether that’s in one position or one location versus multiple locations and a slightly different structure. The work streams we are working through cover a whole range of different scenarios. Part of the work we’re doing is around clarifying protocols we need to adhere to with government. It’s challenging but we want the game to return as soon as possible.”
The NRL is also waiting on clarification in regards to the 1.5-metre social distancing. Clearly, the sport would not be able to adhere to that restriction, but in a boost for the game’s of hopes of returning it has been noted that jockeys in racing are within the threshold at the barriers and at times during races.
Michael Chammas is a sports reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald
Alexandra Smith is the State Political Editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.