The world as we knew it was thrown into complete turmoil during 2020. The battle to contain and defeat a global pandemic required all of us to fundamentally change our way of life. Through various degrees of lockdown, each Australian state fought breakouts, hotspots and waves of infections. Lives, livelihoods and entire industries were lost in the struggle, as the country largely ground to a halt.
Now almost 12 months after Australia's first recorded case, with a vaccine on its way and the virus seemingly under control -- Sydney's Northern Beaches cluster is a concern -- sport hopes to return to normal in 2021. That return to normality will mark the end of a remarkable tale of survival, during a year which threatened the very existence of some professional codes.
The National Rugby League was in serious trouble when the announcement came through on March 22nd that the competition would be suspended, as the virus spread across the land. Moving teams of players around the country each week was too great a risk, even after fans had been locked out for Round 2. It was soon revealed that a culture of liberal spending, with no foresight for a rainy day, had the NRL coffers near empty, with broadcast income logically only flowing if the game was being broadcast.
Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) Chairman Peter V'landys, who had only been in the role since October 2019, stepped up to save the game. V'landys brought with him a wealth of experience garnered through his role as the Chief Executive of Racing NSW, after the racing industry had battled through its own health crisis during 2007's equine influenza outbreak.
His mission was to have the NRL return as soon as it was safe to do so. With the league's return would come the broadcast money and the survival of the industry which rotated around the game. He established a taskforce, named "Project Apollo", which set an ambitious return date of May 28. In order to complete this mission, protocols had to be drawn up which would satisfy both state and federal health officials.
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.
V'landys spoke to ESPN in the days leading up to the May 28 resumption, explaining the sequence of events that saw the NRL go from the brink of collapse to being one of the first professional sporting leagues in the world to resume during the pandemic.
He started with the decision to suspend the season, after receiving dire advice from an infectious disease expert already employed by the NRL.
"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 told ESPN.
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. Just when V'landys most needed a right hand man, he was alone at the top.
"You run on adrenalin basically, it has been tiring, there's no doubt about that, because there has been a lot of hurdles," V'landys continued.
"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."
The key to convincing the scientific community that the game should resume, was to continue with a scientific approach to the battle at hand.
"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 said.
"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."
May 28 rolled around and the ladder-topping Parramatta Eels ran out onto Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium, which was completely empty apart from those needed to run and broadcast the game and a few hundred cardboard cut-out fans. The NRL had beaten the odds and the virus, but not without some difficulties.
One of the biggest hurdles involved the Warriors, who were back in New Zealand. For the competition to continue in its entirety, the Warriors would have to relocate, go through quarantine and remain in Australia for the duration. Once the NRL obtained the necessary approvals, they lined up the town of Tamworth to allow the players to both quarantine and resume the training they would need to hit the ground running with the rest of the teams. It was a masterstroke of organisation and public relations. Tamworth adopted the Warriors and the rugby league community applauded the sacrifices they were undertaking for the sake of the game.
"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 explained.
"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."
Before the competition could restart, the broadcast partners had to agree to new terms, based on a reduced number of games and a new draw.
"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 told ESPN.
At one point it was suggested to Nine Entertainment Co. 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 confirmed. "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."
The NRL also announced a change in the way the game would be officiated. Instead of having two on-field referees, they would revert to the pre-2009 system of having just the one. V'landys insisted that the change, coupled with a new rule allowing a tackle count restart for ruck infringements, were all about making the product more entertaining.
On May 28, just minutes before the competition resumed, the NRL announced it had reached an agreement with the broadcasters. A five-year extension was signed, securing the financial future of the game. V'landys had delivered an exclamation point to all that he and the game had achieved.
The season played out with only a few scares and protocol breaches, each stomped on immediately. With a fresh outbreak of the virus in Victoria, Melbourne Storm were forced to relocate to the Sunshine Coast. From there, they managed to record an extraordinary premiership victory in the most unusual of seasons. In front of a socially distanced half crowd of 37,303 at Sydney's ANZ Stadium, they proved to be too wily for the Penrith Panthers youngsters.
The Grand Final on Oct. 25 was followed shortly after by three-consecutive State of Origin Wednesdays. Queensland proving once again that they thrive on the underdog tag, beating New South Wales 2-1 to take the series. The final game was played in front of a full crowd of 49,155 at Brisbane's Suncorp Stadium.
The site of the NRL's miraculous May 28 return had been home to the rugby league season finale.
'Saint' Peter V'landys, the man who saved the NRL, had only one regret at the end of it all. He questioned whether the season should have been halted at all, arguing that the league handled the situation so well it could have played right through.
"I think we proved in racing that if you've got the proper biosecurity measures in place you could operate," V'landys told the ABC.
"If the players abided by the biosecurity measures and stayed in the bubble and followed every protocol, as they did conscientiously and professionally, there was probably no reason why we couldn't have kept playing.
It is a credit to V'landys and his tireless team that the NRL still exists at all. Teams are back on the training paddocks preparing for what hopefully will be a 2021 season that looks little like the 2020 version did.