Finally, someone had said it. You just didn’t expect it to come from the NRL in its pitch to the government about resuming training on Monday as it scrambles towards a May 28 restart like George Costanza trying to vacate a burning building.
The prominence of that statement in the report certainly surprised the bureaucrats who read it, and it brings into sharp focus just how much damage could be done to the game’s reputation if “widespread” infection breaks out among its players, coaches and their families.
The problem for the NRL is that it all hinges on its players obeying the strict biosecurity protocols laid out in its pitch to the higher authorities.
Ask any manager of any rugby league team, especially a rep team, over the past 20 years about young footballers doing what they’re told and they will answer with a deep chuckle. It’s easier herding cats.
Which brings us to the events of this week.
Australia and NSW stars Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr, along with Knights player Tyronne Roberts-Davis, were caught camping at Mitchell’s property on the mid-North Coast, hooning around on dirt bikes, shooting stuff and sitting around the campfire.
They were caught out because Addo-Carr posted videos and images of these activities on his Instagram account, so it was only natural that he and Mitchell issued their mea culpas via videos on their Instagram accounts.
They admitted to the “slip up” but insisted they were “practising that social distancing and stuff” and “connecting to their culture”. Apparently, that now includes shooting inanimate objects and tearing up the beach on dirt bikes before documenting it on Insta.
Meanwhile, back in Sydney’s western suburbs, young Penrith halfback Nathan Cleary was also connecting with his culture as a group of young women lounged all over him at his home at the weekend, giving new meaning to the term “flattening the curve”.
He also apologised but said the women had just dropped over for 10 minutes or so while waiting for an Uber. Evidently, none of these people have been getting the memos for the last six weeks about staying at home and not gathering in groups. A day later, TikTok videos emerged of Cleary dancing with the aforementioned women.
I know: what a time to be alive.
This was interim chief executive Andrew Abdo‘s first big test since replacing Todd Greenberg as NRL chief executive just last week to show a strong hand. To send a clear message to the public, to state and federal governments, to the Australian Border Force, to the national cabinet that’s meeting on Friday before it issues guidelines for elite and community sport to resume.
Abdo failed miserably.
Mitchell and Addo-Carr were each fined $50,000, with $30,000 of it suspended. Cleary and Tyronne-Davis were each fined $10,000, with $6000 suspended.
The suspended fine is the greatest myth in rugby league. Like non-alcoholic beer, it fools nobody. It’s the punishment you hand down when you don’t have the cojones to hand down a tough one.
You have to hit the players where it hurts — by suspending them. A month on the sidelines would’ve sent a strong message to the other players to do the “social distancing and stuff”.
The speed of the investigation suggests the NRL wanted it out of the news cycle as soon as possible, which is fair enough. The lettuce-leaf punishment, however, suggests it didn’t want to lose three of its biggest names when the season restarts, including Mitchell’s first match against his old club the Roosters after defecting to South Sydney in January.
While Abdo was answering the curly questions from reporters on the doorstep of League Central about the social distancing scandal, ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys was conducting interviews at his Racing NSW offices, celebrating the 20-week broadcast agreement he’d just struck with Channel Nine (publishers of this masthead) and Fox Sports.
When the coronavirus pandemic finally subsides, and normal transmission of rugby league resumes, they will probably make a musical about V’landys.
The future of the competition rests with the remaining players and whether they can be trusted.
He’s been a true force of nature, the war-time leader the game has needed, blazing ahead with shirt partly untucked and tie askew as he saves rugby league with one hand while keeping racing ticking along with the other.
But he also hasn’t had the greatest of weeks after being smacked down by no less than Prime Minister and Sharks fanboy Scott Morrison for declaring the New Zealand Warriors had been given an exemption to fly to Australia on Sunday.
V’landys trumpeted to several media outlets that they had, only for Morrison to say they hadn’t. Border Force also issued a statement saying no exemption had been given. Oopsie.
The line out of the NRL is that V’landys had been given a verbal assurance, but it was yet another mixed message out of League Central/Racing NSW, which has been vague on detail about most things except the fact it will “definitely” restart the NRL competition on May 28.
It was also another kick in the teeth for Warriors players who are sitting at home in Auckland, passports in hand, their packed bags waiting near the door; uncertain about when they are about to leave for Australia; uncertain about whether their families can come with them; uncertain when they will return; uncertain about whether they have to lock down in hotel rooms for 14 days when they arrive meaning they can’t train; uncertain about how much money they will be paid as V’landys negotiates with the broadcasters about how much they will pay this season.
Many people have been telling footballers to suck it up, princesses, but here’s a question: Would you ever agree to that deal?
The integrity — not to mention the lucrative broadcast deal — rests entirely on the Warriors players, yet they’re continually left in the dark about their immediate futures.
The future of the competition rests with the remaining players and whether they can be trusted. Most can, but some can’t, something Kangaroos coach Mal Meninga spoke to when asked about Mitchell and Addo-Carr’s actions.
“They have shown they can’t be trusted, for me, it makes me look at whether they are deserving of a green and gold jersey,” he told Fox Sports.
The subtext to these comments was the Kangaroos Test against Tonga in Auckland late last year.
As the players hunkered down the team hotel the night before, Mitchell and Addo-Carr were zipping around the streets on hired scooters until all hours.
Big Mal wasn’t impressed. Australia lost the Test with Mitchell in particular having a stinker.
Blowing a Test is one thing. Blowing up the future of the season and jeopardising the financial viability of the game is another.
“As Beyonce knows, it’s time to make lemonade out of the lemons we have been left with”. — Alan Jones liberally referring to Beyonce in his column in The Australian last week about the state of Australian rugby was exactly what the world needed in these uncertain times.
Shoosh! Which veteran scribe was caught out crowing about his own exclusive when he accidentally sent a triumphant text to an old group chat of reporters? All hail the king!
Yes, these are chaotic times but Rugby Australia boss Paul McLean “missing” the angry text message from Ten chief Paul Anderson expressing his dismay about Raelene Castle‘s departure was a serious air-swing.
It’s a big weekend for …
Russian table tennis, one of the few sports that’s still being played in the world.
It’s an even bigger weekend for …
The rest of the world as we count the sleeps until sport starts again. Eat. Sleep. Dan Murphy’s. Repeat. Eat. Sleep. Dan Murphy’s. Repeat.
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Andrew Webster is Chief Sports Writer of The Sydney Morning Herald.