With two and a half weeks remaining before the NRL relaunches its 2020 season, it has become abundantly clear that there will be no smooth sailing to the May 28 kick-off. In lodging the biosecurity documents needed to gain Government approval for a competition restart, it appears that the NRL has made an unhealthy assumption.
Perhaps naively the league assumed that players would be willing to do whatever it takes to get back on the playing field. Certainly the New Zealand Warriors gave credibility to that assumption as they jumped on a plane, leaving behind their families for an undetermined period, all for the good of the game. But there is a growing group of players who are unwilling to accept that receiving a flu shot is a necessary part of their ongoing employment.
Confusion continues over the NRL's flu vaccination requirements, with State Governments believing that all players and associated staff would receive the jab before the season recommenced, while the NRL says they have a clause in the documents allowing players to opt out.
The Queensland Government insisted on three Gold Coast Titans players being stood down from training on Friday because they refused to receive the shot. It has stirred up an ants nest of people who vary from staunch anti-vaxxers, to those religiously disinclined to receive injections, to those who believe they should not be forced into injecting anything into their bodies. Titans veteran Nathan Peats, who decided to give it a miss because of an adverse reaction to a flu jab several years ago, has since relented after being told there was no option.
Players were continuing to train under the impression that they could sign a waiver form and opt out of receiving the injection. ARLC Chairman Peter V'landys said as much when asked by AAP about the issue which threatens the league's May 28 restart.
"We respect the government because they have assisted us all the way through on our target day of May 28," V'landys said.
"But in the protocols we had approved by government it allowed us to allow players not to vaccinate on cultural and religious reasons."
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian, while not banning anyone from training, made it pretty clear that the NRL must stick to the plan which was approved by the medical authorities.
"The health experts have accepted the plan put to them and we expect all organisations who have had a health plan ticked off to stick to that plan," Berejiklian said as she announced the State's plan for easing COVID-19 restrictions.
"I don't care who the organisation is, I don't care who the individuals are, if you've signed off on a plan, you have to stick to that plan, because all of us are, all of us have changed our lives, all of us have heeded to the restrictions that we have put in place.
"It is important that if you have a plan ticked off, no matter who you are what organization you are, you have to stick to that plan."
Berejiklian didn't elaborate on whether the approved plan included flu vaccinations for everyone involved. NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard didn't hold back on his opinion of anti-vaxxers and the need for the NRL to stick with the plan they presented.
"I am extremely frustrated generally at anti-vaxxers and the message they send out. It's just plain stupid and dangerous," Hazzard told reporters.
"If we listen to their messages, we'd still have polio rife in our community. If they've got a short-term memory all they need to do is look to one of our pacific neighbours, who had a massive breakout of measles and a very high death rate just literally a few months ago.
"I have no tolerance or time for those views, but I'd also say this, in regard to NRL, whilst I do want to see Manly win whatever competition starts up, my advice to the NRL would be you gave certain undertakings to the community and to the government about the basis for recommencement and you have to make sure through your contractual arrangements or other arrangements with the players that you stick to the deal. Simple as that."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison weighed into the debate with his "no jab, no play" response to the idea of players avoiding the vaccination.
The problem the NRL faces is greater than a handful of misinformed individuals. It is believed that as many as 20 players including Canberra trio Josh Papalii, Joe Tapine and Sia Soliola, Manly players Dylan Walker, Marty Taupau and Addin Fonua-Blake and Canterbury's Sione Katoa, are for one reason or another refusing to accept the vaccination.
It is easy to dismiss anti-vaxxers as misinformed and dangerous. It is just as easy to tell them to get the jab or find another job, but this mess illustrates one of the pitfalls of rushing complicated health protocols through an approval process. It is wrong to assume that everyone will be willing to receive an injection, which by law has to be received voluntarily. Either players should have been allowed to opt out or at the very least it should have been made very clear to everyone, as early as possible, that declining the vaccination would be a show stopper.
Unless player contracts specifically state that the NRL can overrule a player's right to choose whether or not they are vaccinated, this whole thing could be headed for some ugly scenes in court, as players sue for restraint of trade or wrongful dismissal. The NRL has two and a half weeks to sort this mess out.