The story of the NRL's long and difficult road to resumption

With rangy captain Clint Gutherson leading the way, the ladder-topping Parramatta Eels ran out onto Suncorp Stadium, the grass surface looking perfect after two months' rest. They were followed by the home team Brisbane Broncos onto one of the world's best stadiums for watching rugby league. Its stands were empty, a sea of yellow and red seats save for an incongruous handful of cardboard cut-out fans there to witness a remarkable comeback. The National Rugby League (NRL) had beaten a pandemic and a long list of detractors to meet its ambitiously-set May 28 resumption date. Project Apollo was mission accomplished.

It had been just over two months since the competition was halted after two rounds of the 2020 season. The COVID-19 global pandemic has claimed many victims, professional sport admittedly being a fair way down the list, based on significance. Yet the return of sport is seen globally as a light at the end of the tunnel, a sign of hope that the world could at least be on its way back to being normal.

The very real concern however has always been that the reward of having sport back is far outweighed by the risk of this destructive disease spreading further. No one wants to see the gains made through painful social isolation measures thrown away in a rush to return to the sporting fields. The NRL had to take everything into account in their carefully constructed road to resumption. They've managed to sate the deep and varied concerns of Australia's State and Federal Governments and they have returned to entertain millions of fans on broadcast platforms across the country and indeed now the world.

Architect and face of the battle to resume rugby league in Australia is Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) Chairman Peter V'landys. The Commission oversees the operations of the NRL and V'landys took on the leading role back in October 2019, little knowing the storm that awaited him; the virus would present the game with its greatest ever challenge.

"I can't wait for 8 o'clock," V'landys tells ESPN as the hours countdown to kick-off.

"You run on adrenalin basically, it has been tiring, there's no doubt about that, because there has been a lot of hurdles.

"It wasn't an easy job, as you conquered one hurdle and another one popped up you seemed to forget the one before... I just keep moving forward and I don't want to look back."

This difficult, yet remarkable journey that took in everything from Kiwis in Tamworth, to Tik Tok breaches, anti-vaxxers and shotguns in Taree, deserves to be documented.

It was Sunday afternoon, March 22 and the Wests Tigers were battling to stay in their Round 2 game against Newcastle Knights at an empty Leichhardt Oval under clear blue skies. The Federal Government had already restricted outdoor gatherings to 500 or fewer people, leading to a lock-out of fans. As the Knights crossed for another second-half try, news filtered through that the Australian Football League (AFL), Australia's most popular football code, would be suspending its season after one round due mainly to State Government-imposed travel restrictions. The COVID-19 pandemic was starting to impact upon the lives of people throughout the country, as restrictions were tightened to slow its deadly spread.

With the AFL succumbing to the inevitable, it seemed only a matter of time before the NRL met the same fate. Both codes, having teams in multiple Australian states, needed open borders to continue playing. The NRL was already looking to keep its one international team, the New Zealand Warriors, in the country due to a pending travel ban imposed by that nation. V'landys received advice from an infectious disease expert already employed by the NRL that things were going to get a lot worse, and shutting down was the only real option.

"The concern for us was the infection rate. When we stopped it was 25.5 percent. Our pandemic expert basically told us it was the calm before storm, so we expected the infection rate to significantly increase," V'landys tells ESPN.

With the game halted, revenue from the broadcast partners stopped and questions surfaced about the financial viability of the league. Jobs around the league were under stress, with positions furloughed as the extent of the crisis became clear. Under immense pressure from competing media outlets, CEO Todd Greenberg fell on his sword with the realisation that top-heavy administration costs had combined with a lack of frugality to almost empty the coffers, despite a billion-dollar broadcast deal.

In the midst of this crisis, and with no finishing line in sight, the NRL formed a committee, dubbed 'Project Apollo' because of its seemingly herculean task. Former player and administrator Wayne Pearce would represent the ARLC and run the meetings attended by several NRL administrators, two key head coaches in Trent Robinson and Wayne Bennett, player's union head Clint Newton and a biosecurity expert. Their job was to convince the world that they could resume the competition safely and as soon as possible.

"The infection rate didn't significantly increase. Once the government closed the borders at the airports and the ports, with 60 percent of the infections coming from overseas, you've already taken 60 percent of the risk out by the fact that people were required to go into quarantine for 14 days in a Sydney hotel," V'landys continues.

"We then started analyzing the infection rate and we believed that if it continued to decline, then the risk declines and we wanted to make sure that the trend would continue and it did. That's when we started planning our resumption. We did some calculations as to what we expected the infection rate to be come May 28, and we expected it to be less than 0.5 percent, going on the trend.

"The fact that the airports and ports were closed gave us confidence, because the community infections were being well maintained by the Government. So that's when we decided to set ourselves an ambitious target date of May 28.

"What we said to ourselves was, if it spikes and the trend reverses and the infections rate goes back up, then we can always change the date of the resumption. But if it continued to decline we didn't want to come to May 28 and not be ready to resume. In that case we'd be letting our fans down, our players down, everybody down."

Pearce triumphantly announced that May 28 was the day that the NRL would resume competition, but the optimism was short lived. Moments later Newton suggested the players had not signed off on any particular date, as a chorus of the sceptics scoffed at the announcement, declaring that May 28 was completely unfeasible, an unrealistic and irresponsible dream. Convinced by their own calculations, the NRL set about writing up a set of strict biosecurity protocols, guided by their new hiring.

"We commissioned a new pandemic expert who specialised in chemical and biological warfare. The protocols that he put forward were going to be very strict. He believed at the time that without his protocols, the chances of a player getting it with such a low infection rate was around 1000/1 and with his protocols it was 10,000/1," V'landys says.

"We did our risk analysis and believed the risk was low. That's what gave us the confidence to recommence our competition. By putting our measures in place, we didn't need to put them in bubbles because with self-isolation and ensuring they reported any symptom or anything unusual, and when they arrived at the ground they would be temperature tested... the risk is very low."

The protocols involved players maintaining strict isolation, travelling to and from training venues and their homes, refraining from interacting with the public. On game days teams would travel to venues, whether local or interstate, play their game and return home immediately afterwards. Anyone displaying any symptoms whatsoever would have to isolate himself from his playing group until tested. The NRL was so intent on limiting the number of people unnecessarily coming into contact with the players that match-day ball boys were banned, leaving players in the squad who weren't playing to take on the duties of fetching the errant balls.

But before they could even return to the training field the NRL had to receive clearance from the Federal and three State Governments. They presented their plans and biosecurity protocols to the appropriate Health Ministers and awaited their answer. Key to the whole resumption plan was being able to convince the authorities that the NRL could control its players in a manner that would keep them from risking infection.

That very weekend three stars of the game proved that they couldn't even adhere to the current public restrictions, let alone the NRL's new guidelines. Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr posted photos and videos on Instagram of themselves enjoying a camping weekend with ten other friends in the New South Wales far north. Two days later, Penrith Panthers and New South Wales halfback Nathan Cleary was seen in TikTok videos with a handful of female visitors to his residence in clear contravention of state restrictions. It was a blow to the NRL's credibility, but one which V'landys understood to be the actions of naïve young men.

"They honestly didn't think they were doing anything wrong," V'landys says. "They didn't see it as being a risk. In the normal world it was young men doing what they do and having fun with each other, but in a world where you have COVID-19 people see it differently, I think they have learned a valuable lesson.

"I think the players now realise that one slip up can stop the competition. In normal circumstances, where people misbehave, its only themselves that they hurt, but here they hurt their colleagues, they hurt everybody, they hurt the game and I think they realise that."

Despite the embarrassing breaches, the NRL's plans were approved by all concerned. It was a massive breakthrough, but one that was conditional - the COVID-19 infection rate must remain on the decline.

Meanwhile the Warriors, now safely back in New Zealand, expressed concern that they were fast running of time if they were to hop on a flight back to Australia, spend 14 days in quarantine and be ready for the May 28 resumption. The NRL was busy trying to obtain the necessary permission from authorities to have the Warriors in Australia, and when they finally received clearance for them to travel, the players said they would not board the plane without more certainty about their salaries, living conditions and plans to include their families.

"It was a big hurdle because what we wanted to do was to have the Warriors in quarantine, but have them in an area where they are on their own with facilities so they could continue to train," V'landys explains.

"Under normal circumstances somebody that is in quarantine has stayed in a Sydney CBD hotel for 14 days. We sought special dispensation to place the Warriors in a resort of their own where they had access to football grounds and gymnasiums, etc, and serve their 14 days quarantine in that facility. We were allowed to by the State and Federal Governments, so they at least were able to have a level playing field with the other clubs because they all started training at the same time.

"The Warriors have been very selfless, they have been easy to deal with and we can't say how much we appreciate how much they have done, because it has been immense."

With the Warriors safely ensconced in Tamworth, players from all clubs were due to report for briefings on the new protocols. The need for everyone involved to receive an influenza vaccination didn't sit well with a number of them, who were more than happy to sign a form which would allow them to opt out. Titans forward Bryce Cartwright, an outspoken campaigner for freedom to choose what goes into his body, and husband of a renowned anti-vaxxer, insisted that he would not receive the shot. He was not alone and there was some dispute, with the Queensland Government in particular, over exactly what the protocols required. Cartwright and a teammate were stood down from training as the Queensland Premier joined the Prime Minister in his "no jab, no play" call.

"When we gave the documents to the various Governments, it was a draft document pending consultation with all the participant groups," V'landys explains. "When we finalised the document we changed it to allow them [the players] to opt out, but the Government had only seen the document in relation to everyone having to receive a flu shot, so that was the confusion.

"In the end I was very proud of our players, with 98 percent of them getting the flu shot... and a lot of these players have never had a flu shot before, ever. In essence even the Governments were impressed by how many players we were able to get to have the flu shot."

In the end, Cartwright received special exemption from the Queensland Government on medical grounds. And despite more public mutterings, another potential crisis was avoided, as the May 28 resumption loomed large.

Before the competiton could restart, the broadcast partners had to agree to new terms, based on a reduced number of games and a new draw. Above all else the broadcast deal was the lifeblood of the NRL. From the administration to the players, from coaching staff to equipment managers, no one was going to be paid unless the broadcast deal was renegotiated satisfactorily.

"The toughest hurdle was the broadcasters. We've hit some pretty harsh economic conditions, their advertising revenue was soft, subscriptions were soft, because there was no sport, so they were doing it tough," V'landys tells ESPN.

"When you're in partnership you have to look after your partner. We had to get the right balance between what they needed to stay viable and what we needed to stay viable. It was a negotiation where both parties tried to seek the best outcome for the viability of all the organisations."

At one point it was suggested to Nine Entertainment shareholders that the broadcaster would be financially better off if the NRL season was cancelled completely, talk that only added to the difficulty of nailing down a deal.

"Look it did [make things more difficult], but once we started the negotiations all the parties acted in exceptionally good faith," V'landys confirms. "Channel Nine were back on board. They are a good partner and they have been a good partner for a long time. They honestly didn't expect us to get to the position where we are now."

As the negotiations continued, with just over a week to go before the resumption, the NRL announced a change in the way the game would be officiated. Instead of having two on-field referees, the NRL would revert to the pre-2009 system of having just the one. It was seen as a cost-cutting measure, but V'landys went on the offensive insisting that the change, coupled with a new rule, was all about speeding up the game in response to criticism from both fans and the broadcasters. It was all about making the product more entertaining.

The referees weren't happy with a lack of consultation on the matter and threatened to take industrial action. On the doorstep of the season, yet another hurdle was in place that could bring it all crashing down. Enter the indefatigable V'landys, who reached a compromise whereby it was agreed to trial the system for the remainder of the 2020 season, before a full review of the results ahead of any long-term implementation. The game would have its referees. It was all systems go for May 28.

But what of the chances of that infection rate climbing again, following the much talked about second wave? Won't that bring the game back to its knees?

"No, our Chief Medical Officer in New South Wales says it is highly unlikely now that there will be a second wave," V'landys says with some confidence. "If you base it on the figures, the data, which is what we're basing all our decisions on, we don't base it on emotional clichés or fear-mongering, we base it on the facts and figures and she's done exactly the same thing.

"The infection rate is less than 0.5 percent, she doesn't believe there will be a second wave and I can't see how there will be a second wave when 60 percent of the initial infections came from off shore and the airports and ports are still closed."

In the dying minutes before the players ran out onto Suncorp Stadium, the NRL announced that it had signed a five-year extension of its broadcast deal, securing the financial viability of the game. V'landys had delivered a final coup de grace. The exclamation point to all that he and the game had achieved in the last two months. The man himself is suitably optimistic about where the NRL we be in a year's time.

"I'm hoping that we are right over this crisis, that we've got full crowds and that we are back to normal," he says.

For the record, Parramatta put Brisbane to the sword to go 3-0 for the season, and reignite hopes that the long wait for a Premiership would be over.

Rugby league was truly back.