The NRL will resume its competition with matches played in empty stadiums and it is increasingly likely it will stay that way for the entire regular season, despite Australia’s declining COVID-19 infection rate.
The governing body had flagged the possibility of segregating fans in pockets of stadiums before the coronavirus-enforced suspension of the season, a scenario it could revisit should government authorities relax restrictions on mass gatherings in coming months.
NSW Health said it was too early to determine whether crowds would be allowed to return to NRL or State of Origin matches later this year.
But that hasn’t stopped NRL club members from re-affirming their support for the game.
“We have signed about 400 new members since the pandemic broke out and we’ve also had a good proportion of our fan base pledge their membership irrespective of how the season plays out, close to 2000 of them after launching that campaign just last week,” Parramatta Eels chief executive Jim Sarantinos said.
We’ve also had a good proportion of our fan base pledge their membership irrespective of how the season plays out
“Our members have been terrific and they’ve shown a great amount of support for the club when people are going through incredibly uncertain times.”
Bulldogs boss Andrew Hill said things “things are changing so quickly”.
“We’re expecting to start the season with no crowds,” Hill said. “But that could change by the end of the season.”
With a little more clarity on when the competition may resume, NRL clubs are poised to ramp up a response to membership queries in coming weeks. An NRL working group comprising representatives from about half of the 16 clubs will further discuss the issue next week.
Collingwood president Eddie McGuire had an on-air spat with Nine’s Tony Jones over whether the AFL heavyweights would refund membership money if asked, and club bosses are exploring a loophole which would allow members to claim tax refunds on subscriptions.
Prime minister Scott Morrison said on Friday Australia’s major sporting codes would have to meet a number of guidelines before being cleared to return as he floated the prospect of a return for grassroots competitions.
A medical panel is set to consider the three different levels – elite sport, local sport and general recreation such as surfing.
The NRL is adamant a letter from NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller does not preclude them from re-starting their competition, although they have to satisfy the state government of health and safety measures to prevent a COVID-19 outbreak.
The May 28 resumption is still being opposed by some infectious disease experts, who warn it is too early to return.
“The Australasian Society of Infectious Diseases [ASID] supports the stance taken by federal and state governments regarding social distancing and restrictions on gathering,” an ASID spokesperson said. “While these remain in place, ASID does not support the resumption of the [NRL] competition.”
with Adrian Proszenko
Adam Pengilly is a Sports reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.