NRL to make against-the-odds return for sports-starved Australians

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) has battled player scandals, top-level resignations and dire financial revelations during the coronavirus shutdown, but against the odds it returns this week to bring relief to team owners and a sports-starved nation.

The fledgling season had seen two rounds of matches when it was suspended on March 24 and will have a different feel when it resumes with Brisbane Broncos hosting Parramatta Eels behind closed doors tomorrow.

An “NRL island” off the Queensland coast, where all 16 teams would have been kept in isolation, had been considered.

But Australia’s success in containing the virus has allowed the league instead to play in two states – New South Wales and Queensland – under strict health measures, with a Grand Final planned for October 25.

The New Zealand Warriors will be encamped in rural Tamworth, about 420 kilometres north of Sydney, while Melbourne Storm have moved to Albury on the Victoria-NSW border.

File photo shows Bulldogs players of the National Rugby League train in Sydney. PHOTO: AP

Teams may struggle to match the off-field drama that has unfolded since the enforced shutdown.

“I can’t stress enough that our game has never faced such challenges,” Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys warned in March.

V’landys has remained bullish in the face of criticism, pushing for a May 28 kick-off even though many warned it was potentially dangerous in a global health emergency.

A successful resumption will give the NRL a head start in Australia’s intensely competitive sporting market.

Australian Rules football this week revealed fixtures for a June 12 restart, but no dates have yet been set for Super Rugby and football’s A-League.

Thrashing out the strict health protocols and obtaining the special permissions needed for the Auckland-based Warriors to enter the country was a protracted process, with the NRL jumping the gun several times, to the ire of officials.

“That authority has not been provided and no amount of reporting it will change those restrictions,” an exasperated Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters after the NRL prematurely said Canberra had cleared the Warriors to participate.

There were also warnings from state and federal ministers that the competition would be scrapped if a string of lockdown breaches by high-profile players continued.

A group of players organised a camping trip away, while Penrith’s Nathan Cleary was hit with a two-match ban for partying with a group of women at his house.

Problems continued to mount as preparations were being finalised, with the NRL confirming yesterday that Cronulla Sharks teen centre Bronson Xerri had been provisionally suspended after testing positive for steroids.