WA’s strict border stance on Victoria is on track to be eased ahead of the season, according to premier Mark McGowan, but that is still dependent on there being no further community transmission of COVID-19 in Melbourne.
Victoria is the only state still subject to any WA border restrictions.
McGowan said Victoria would reach his government’s target of 28 consecutive days without community spread on March 13 – five days before the scheduled AFL season-opener.
“After that point in time I’d expect that we’ll move to soften the border if Victoria doesn’t have community spread,” McGowan said.
Sources at the AFL indicated that the situation with the border is moving in the right direction, but waiting until so close to the start of the season to make a decision on the fixture may prove difficult.
The resolutions of Victoria’s border with WA may directly impact Essendon’s round one fixture with Hawthorn. While the Bombers would like their Saturday night clash moved, that may be problematic given the MCG is already hosting Melbourne and Fremantle in the 1:45pm slot on the same day.
Historically, games are not played at the same venue on the same day as the stadium would have to be cleaned (or in the COVID-19 world, deep cleaned).
If the WA border were to remain closed, Fremantle may not be able to play in Melbourne that day. Alternatively, the Dockers could be forced to stay in Melbourne longer than one week, in which case their round one match would go ahead as fixtured.
The Sunday of round one remains clear for the MCG. The only match in Melbourne on March 21 sees North Melbourne host Port Adelaide at Marvel Stadium.
Even so, the AFL is expected to be reluctant to grant Essendon their wish and move the game. Changing fixtures not only causes a domino effect with other games, but impacts on venue contracts. Marvel Stadium – now owned by the AFL – has an existing contract with Essendon whereby the Bombers play seven home games there and four at the MCG.
The club, however, would argue that in these strange times, the priority of the league should be to maximise fan attendance.
Fewer than 25,000 fans will be able to attend the round one clash if it remains at Marvel Stadium, compared with 50,000 if the match is moved to the MCG. The past three games between Essendon and Hawthorn at the MCG have attracted an average of 66,000 people.
Sources indicated that the Melbourne Cricket Club was open to hosting the game, if a move was approved by the AFL.
Sam McClure is a sport reporter for The Age and winner of ‘best news reporter’ at the AFL Media Association awards.