On the day when football set a return date, the AFL would not be pinned down on this question of what it would take to see the season closed for the second time.
The league’s position is that the whole COVID-19 position of the community has changed for the better and that their “protocols” – a word more associated with 2020 footy more than drop punt – are so rigorous that they can withstand a positive test to a player and have the umpire signal play on.
In this season, the overriding objective is not about winning and losing; it is about enduring the season, keeping jobs and protecting clubs.
But the AFL, the clubs and the players are walking a tightrope none the less. In this season, the overriding objective is not about winning and losing; it is about enduring the season, keeping jobs and protecting clubs.
The fate of the game in this unique season will depend heavily on three parties: the 800 or so AFL players, the chief medical officers of the states and Commonwealth and the clubs’ doctors, who will be responsible for keeping players healthy, subjecting them to daily screenings and assisting in the testing regimes.
The greatest test the players will face will not be those twice-a-week COVID-19 swabs, but of their discipline. In player circles, meanwhile, there is some concern that the public will be ready to dob on anyone who strays from the far tighter rules that the players will be subjected to, compared to everyone else.
If there was a pair of positive tests at one club, or in a hub, the decision to close the club or games down for a period would not be theirs. It would belong to the chief medical officer of the Commonwealth and/or the relevant state medical officer such as Sutton.
Five or six weeks ago, it did not seem feasible that the AFL would have footy back on our screens by June 11. When the competition was shut down after the opening round, amid a national emergency, the AFL and the clubs were talking about late July or even August as potential return dates, if a season was still possible.
That the season will begin in mid-June is largely due to the community’s efforts. The AFL’s planning for hubs – at one point it appeared that the whole competition would be in these locked-down luxury prisons – has served it well in that it forced the league to prepare these hardline measures and, yes the word of the season again, protocols.
Having managed a return several weeks earlier than seemed possible in March, the AFL has bought itself time to deal with another closure, and pivot quickly to shorter breaks between games. This is not an outcome that McLachlan and co think will happen, given that they come this far without any players or footy officials testing positive.
But they are prepared for it, as the five-month tightrope walk begins.
Jake Niall is a Walkley award-winning sports journalist and chief AFL writer for The Age.