Rigorous health scrutiny needed before NRL restart


Like a front-row forward barging up field, Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’Landys last week upped the ante by announcing he planned to restart on May 28.

The Herald would love to see the season restart but it is a pity that Mr V’Landys has not adopted a more consultative approach on this complex issue. It makes it look as though the NRL is putting the game’s financial health ahead of its responsibility to the community.

While fans love NRL and it would be a great morale boost for many if they could watch games on television, the sport should face the same discipline as everyone. The NRL season should only be reopened if it can be done in full compliance with social distancing rules.

Federal Sports Minister Richard Colbeck has described Mr V’Landys target date as “a bit ambitious” and warned him that he would need permission from state and federal health authorities.

Obtaining that permission could be complicated given the game is a contact sport. It wouldn’t take long for one case of COVID-19 to spread to dozens.

The NRL will have to guarantee that it can quarantine effectively the 1000 players and staff, and perhaps their families. NRL players are not renowned choir boys – wags might joke that the NSW community would be safer with some NRL players locked away in quarantine.

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The NRL will also have to explain how it expects to source virus test kits which are still in limited supply and could be needed urgently if infections rise again.

Even if it can meet these conditions, the NRL will still have to decide whether it makes business sense. The NRL is currently in negotiations with Nine, owner of the Herald, over the broadcast rights. While Nine chief executive Hugh Marks has said he is committed to the long-term future of the game, a lot will depend on how much advertisers will pay for television slots when the economy is poised for a very sharp contraction.

Happily the NRL seems to have bought itself some time by striking a deal for a $250 million loan to carry it through this crisis.

None of this is to say that the NRL’s plans are unreasonable. If COVID-19 infections keep trending down it might well be possible to start easing restrictions across the economy by the end of May. But this is a crucial time and the NRL must not do anything to undermine Australia’s national effort to defeat this disease.

  • Herald editor Lisa Davies writes a weekly newsletter exclusively for subscribers. To have it delivered to your inbox, please sign up here.

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