BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — If there’s such a thing as clarity in this uncertain pandemic world, National Rugby League players and their fans in Australia received a bit more of it on Thursday.
The NRL announced a revised 16-round schedule for the competition, which has been suspended since March 23 because of coronovirus restrictions imposed after just two rounds of the season were played. There will be no paying spectators at matches.
The venues for the opening nine rounds were confirmed with all matches to take place at one of six grounds — two in suburban Sydney, one north of Sydney in Gosford, two in Queensland state at Brisbane and Townsville, and one in Melbourne. If coronavirus restrictions are further eased after nine rounds, it’s possible teams may be able to play matches at their home grounds.
The season resumes May 28 with the Brisbane Broncos hosting Parramatta to start the third round, which also features a match between old rivals the Sydney Roosters and South Sydney Rabbitohs. The Roosters are seeking a third NRL premiership in a row.
“Everyone has fought so hard to get the game back on the field,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said. “There are new fixtures and new venues, but when the players take the field, the desire to win will be that much higher given the sacrifices made to this point.”
Abdo wasn’t wrong when he talked about difficulties getting the game back on track.
First the Australian government gave the New Zealand Warriors permission to travel to Australia and train during a 14-day quarantine period, despite a general ban on incoming travelers. They’ll be without their families, for now, and will likely not be able to return to New Zealand until the NRL season ends in October.
The Warriors are now based in Gosford. Because of a mounting injury toll, they asked about the possibility of loaning players from other teams. The NRL has refused that request, but the Warriors have asked them to reconsider because any players they call in from New Zealand would be subject to a 14-day quarantine.
It also required the Queensland government to allow the state’s three teams -- Brisbane, Gold Coast and North Queensland -- to be exempted from strict interstate travel bans.
Most controversially, there was concern over the “no-jab, no-play” policy in which NRL players are required to get the annual influenza shot to prevent the spread of more illness. A small minority of players have refused, and it's uncertain if they will be allowed to take the field when play resumes.
Other key features of the draw include the much-hyped State of Origin series, the annual grudge contest between Queensland and New South Wales, being played on three straight Wednesdays -- Nov. 4, 11 and 18. The second game has the potential to clash with a cricket Twenty20 World Cup semifinal at the Sydney Cricket Ground, if that tournament goes ahead.
The NRL grand final is scheduled for Sunday, Oct. 25.
Stringent controls and early boarder closures have contributed to Australia having only 100 deaths from COVID-19 and just over 7,000 cases.
The federal government has announced a three-phase plan to ease restrictions in the coming months, with the states and territories to determine their own timings. But social distancing and hygiene measures will be retained indefinitely.
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