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A year in sport we’ll never forget, even if it was all a blur

“They have just shut down the NBA!”

Yup. As staggering as it seemed at the time, after one Utah Jazz player had tested positive just before his team was about to play Oklahoma City Thunder in the latter’s Chesapeake Arena, they moved faster than the virus itself. The game was cancelled on the spot. The announcer came on and told everyone to go home. Before the crowd had even got home the NBA had shut down the entire competition!

What a year ... Peter V'Landys saw the NRL back before most sports in the world; The NBA shut down, and brought racial justice protests to the fore; Queensland won State of Origin in front of a full stadium; The Wallabies and All Blacks played out an epic in Wellington; and Dustin Martin produced a grand final performance for the ages.

What a year … Peter V’Landys saw the NRL back before most sports in the world; The NBA shut down, and brought racial justice protests to the fore; Queensland won State of Origin in front of a full stadium; The Wallabies and All Blacks played out an epic in Wellington; and Dustin Martin produced a grand final performance for the ages.Credit:Getty

Ah, but Lachlan was just warming up.

“And the value of Channel Seven,” he said, holding up his iPhone, “has dropped to $180 million … sorry, no, $150 million. And … Trump has shut down all flights from Europe to America!”

In hindsight, the last part was the most amazing thing of all, as for most of the rest of the year, and to this very day, the Trump card most often played in the face of any fresh disaster in the Plague was to go and play a round of golf – which is why he has played four times in the last six days.

In that lunch though, lay the roots of the sporting year.

Coming away, reeling, it didn’t look just as if sport was shutting down, it felt like the whole world might stop.

And yet, as we know, it was truly remarkable just how well both the world, and the world of sport adapted to the times once things were worked out as to how make things – and here was a new word for the year – “COVID-safe”.

As I think I mentioned at the time, rugby league both kept playing recklessly long, and came back recklessly early, but ended up with as successful a season as they could have hoped for under the circumstances.

In terms of the quality of the games played, they seemed to be even better than usual. In part it was because of the cleverness of the six-again rule which saw the ref empowered to wave his arm any time he saw anything he didn’t like, and the attacking team got to attack more. It meant we saw a lot of attack!

In the stands, we all got used to seeing cardboard cut-outs in the seats and it was amazing how quickly we adapted to this being situation normal. Meanwhile, somewhere in the bowels of Channel Nine – current landlords of this paper, blah, blah, blah – someone came up with the plan to simulate crowd excitement by having the commentators press a foot pedal like an accelerator, every time they felt the crowd would have roared. This was somewhere between tragic and absurd – but the weirdest thing of all was … it worked.

After all, we had all be been raised on sit-coms having canned laughter, so what was the difference?

For yonks it seemed like State of Origin would be cancelled this year. In the end though, they not only played it, but also gave it the most traditional of all possible endings – Queensland came back at the death, to win the final match against all odds, in front of 50,000 hillbillies screaming “Queenslander! Queenslander! Queenslander! Queenslander!” until they were hoarse.

Some things really never do change.

In rugby, the most remarkable thing was that there was any rugby at all, given that the game was on its knees even before the plague hit. We had coups, counter-coups, bankruptcies, resignations, dismissals, wild tribes of Wallaby captains charging down from the hills on hit-and-run-raids, not to mention the usual vicious factional warfare.

Somehow, through it all, the game went on and – as previously discussed – it even managed some amazing matches. None were better than the final eight minutes after the 80 minute siren went off in the first Bledisloe Cup Test. In the most amazing and unheard of scenes rugby people had ever heard of, the ball swept back and forth in about 30 phases of play until finally the whistle went and the game finished with an extraordinary 16-16 Wallaby victory.

Good Lord willing, and the creeks don’t rise, we will still be talking of that match.

In the AFL, both the Swans and the Western Sydney Giants were disappointing – the former because they never quite rose off the mat, the latter because this was the year they were meant to consolidate their grand final appearance of 2019 and come back older, wiser, more experienced and even hungrier to carry all before them. But they just kind of … drifted away. The year will mostly be remembered for Richmond not only winning the grand final courtesy of the usual stunning performance by the Dusty Martins – there was surely four of him running around on the day, kicking goals, hand-balling, taking marks, terrifying the opposition, mowing down poor bastards not fast enough to get out of the way in time, and doing everything bar handing out the half-time oranges – but for a wonderful episode after the actual final siren.

For although the Richmond victory had spoiled the farewell match of Gary Ablett Jnr – the archetype for The Son Also Rises … Higher – the Tigers rose to the occasion to give Ablett an honour rarely accorded. That is, before embarking on their own victory lap, the Tigers joined Geelong to give Ablett a guard of honour to leave his field of dreams for the last time. Ablett wept, and around Australia people teared up in wonder that big-time sport was still capable of such a heart-warming gesture.

In soccer, Maradona died – the thing that 2020 will always be remembered for in that sport.

The cricket? I honestly can’t remember. As I write it seems likely that this will be the year they invented Will Pucovski, but as I write he is still more “harbinger than Harvey Wallbanger,” if that makes sense? The point is that in terms of specific innings, victories, trophies it all feels a bit blurry? Stand-out matches of the last twelve months are not coming easily. The exception was something that happened just before the plague hit, when the 2020 ICC Women’s World Cup final was held at the MCG on Sunday March 8, and the Australian women’s team beat their Indian counterparts by 85 runs before a crowd of – get this – 86,174 people!

Even five years ago, such a thing was unimaginable, and yet it fitted with the times, which has seen the rise of women’s team sports particularly, being so inexorable, that it could happen even in the Year of the Plague.

All up, an extraordinary year, and one that we will never forget.

Twitter: @Peter_Fitz

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