Confusion and nastiness as NRL aims for optimistic return

Is there anyone out there who can keep up with what is going on with the NRL at the moment? If you thought the battle to contain the coronavirus pandemic came with some confusing and often changing conditions, the premise of restarting the NRL competition has asked fans to hold its beer.

Wayne Pearce, ARL commissioner and head of the aptly named Project Apollo, fronted the media last Thursday and confidently stated that, after much deliberation, the NRL would restart its suspended season on Thursday May 28. When pressed for details, he admitted there weren't any.

"The details on the competition structure we haven't got yet because the landscape is changing around government boundaries. That will feed into the complexity structure," Pearce said.

ARLC chairman Peter V'landys went into even less detail on the league's hopeful return.

"Today what we landed on was a starting date. We haven't finalised what that [competition] looks like yet," he said.

"Our goal is to give as much certainty as we can in uncertain times. There is clear evidence the curve is flattening.

"We will be flexible, and if the trend changes or if government restrictions change then so will we. The health and safety of our players and the general public remains the absolute priority."

The following day, New South Wales Health Minister Brad Hazzard was asked whether the NRL had involved his department in discussions over what seemed to be an ambitious restart date. He said he hadn't spoken to the NRL since before they closed down the competition.

So, how could the NRL mention government restrictions being integral to their decision and yet not involve the health department in discussions? Seems they by-passed the health department and went instead to those tasked with enforcing the restrictions - the NSW Police Department, receiving an encouraging letter from police commissioner Mick Fuller.

"The competition organisers must comply with all existing State and Federal Work, Health and Safety requirements and ensure a safe workplace in maintained for all participants," Fuller wrote in the letter, published by News Limited.

"In summary, subject to compliance with the matters dealt with above, the NSW Health Minister's directions would not preclude the commencement of the modified NRL competition."

There has been talk of relocating all teams to one or two locations, which presents its own logistical problems. Then there are the governments of Victoria, Queensland, ACT and New Zealand who all have their own opinions on whether re-starting the NRL is really such a priority in these troubled times

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the three Queensland teams would not be exempt from the quarantine laws and therefore would not be able to travel back and forth into NSW for games.

"They would not meet the criteria (to cross the border) and secondly we need to make sure we have clear health advice," Palaszczuk said.

"And I say to all the sporting organisations: let's just take a break. Let's get this 'flattening the curve' under control and then we can talk to the health officers about getting advice. Let's not rush this. Let's take it slowly."

ACT leader Andrew Barr confirmed the Canberra Raiders would not be able to come and go from the nation's capital for games in Sydney.

"If the health advice was that rugby league could take place in NSW, Queensland and other parts of the country, then presumably that same health advice would apply here," Barr said.

"But as the chief health officer from the nation observed yesterday, we are a long way from that.

"I don't blame the football codes for wanting to talk up a restart, but we are a long way from that at this point in time."

Federal Minister for Sport Richard Colbeck was also concerned about the May 28 date.

"I think it's a bit ambitious, to be frank," Colbeck told ABC radio. "If you consider the advice that we are still getting from people like Brendan Murphy ... they're the people who I think should be providing advice on these things.

"I think we need to be really cautious about the circumstances we are in."

Project Apollo, we have several problems.

And as the NRL scrambles to make the dream a reality, there has emerged a lot of bitterness in the media, something not seen with this degree of ugliness since the Super League war.

Pearce's announcement came just hours after Nine launched a scathing attack on the NRL's financial mismanagement. It was followed by a string of attacks from pundits with various levels of vested interest in the game.

Paul Kent of Fox Sports demanded Todd Greenberg's resignation, Nine employee Phil Gould came out in full support of the Nine statement, before News Limited's Phil Rothfield described Nine's attacks as disgraceful. The revelation made to Nine shareholders that a cancelled NRL season could save the business $130m, and News Corp's desire for sport to return -- any sport -- to support their core business, only muddies the water further.

To add further confusion to the mix, the NRL's complete lack of detail on how the competition will look when it restarts has everyone scrambling for the best ideas.

Roosters boss Nick Politis has called for all teams to restart on zero competitions points. Not surprisingly he has found support from fellow 0-2 teams the Sharks and Warriors for this concept. Clubs that weren't struggling when the competition came to a halt have shouted this idea down and the NRL ruled it out.

There has been talk of conferences, which the NRL ruled out. We've had Rabbitohs coach Wayne Bennett calling for some sort of recognition that a restructured competition will be unfair to some teams. Meanwhile the NRL will meet on Tuesday with broadcasters Nine and Foxtel to share their vision of a restart, something Greenberg insists has already happened.

"I've heard a couple of times that we have had no consultation with broadcasters. I can tell you categorically that's not true," Greenberg told the Continuous Call Team.

"I have met with all three broadcasters in the past two weeks, and that includes Nine, Foxtel and Sky TV.

"All of them have been in consultation with us the whole way through leading into these Project Apollo meetings and the concept of the structure of the tournament."

Greenberg then hopes to meet with NSW Health Minister Hazzard later in the week to sort a few things out.

Through the whole confusing Easter period, there was at least one positive high-level reaction to the NRL's proposed return and it came from the Deputy Premier of NSW John Barilaro. As far as he is concerned, there is nothing currently standing in the way of a restart.

"The reality is that the NRL chose to close itself down at the height of the pandemic, it made that decision for the welfare and well-being of its own staff, players and clubs. But there is no public order which stops rugby league from taking place," Barilaro said.

"It's no different to racing. So while there may have been some confusion, I can tell you that in the conversation I've had with the Premier and the Treasurer, we've all spoken about the NRL (returning) and said 'yes, absolutely'."

Only passing time will bring greater clarity as to how and when this happens in the constantly shifting conditions we all currently live under. A return to the field is imperative for the game and its survival at the highest level, but it won't happen if there is the slightest chance that it will make things in anyway worse.

Most of us just sat through an Easter weekend at home, missing out on an annual celebration that usually brings our families together. None of us going through this ordeal should be willing to allow a game to unravel all the hard work - no matter how much we love and miss our rugby league.