Australian rugby league shuts down season as virus worsens


SYDNEY • Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) bowed to the inevitable and suspended its season yesterday, over growing fears for player safety coupled with tightened government restrictions to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The 16-club NRL kicked off a fortnight ago and made it through two rounds, as one of the last professional sports worldwide still playing during the pandemic.

The cash-strapped league is considered part of Australia’s social fabric and determined efforts were made to keep it going, but the noose began to tighten over the past few days.

The government recommended against all “non-essential” domestic travel and yesterday a shutdown of a range of businesses began countrywide, with Australia recording more than 1,600 cases of Covid-19 (at press time).

A final blow came when Queensland, a major centre for the NRL along with New South Wales, joined other states in closing its borders.

“Our pandemic and biosecurity experts said due to the outbreak it is no longer safe for our players to play,” Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said.

“This decision hasn’t been taken lightly. Our experts are very concerned with the rapid rate (of infection). We were alarmed at how everything changed over the past 24 hours.”

He said they were leaving any potential resumption of the season open.

It follows the hugely popular Aussie Rules suspending its season on Sunday, with A-League soccer the only competition still going, without fans, in Australia.

Football Federation Australia is scheduled to make a decision on its fate today.

NRL bosses have previously said closing down the season would bankrupt the game and push clubs out of business, with lucrative broadcasts contracts at stake.

V’landys admitted it was “catastrophic”.

“I don’t think we’ve ever come across a financial crisis like it,” he said.

“Rugby league will always survive in some way but I can’t guarantee it will in the same way. We’re ready for the worst,” V’landys added.

Desperate to stave off financial ruin, the NRL had earlier yesterday been considering relocating the entire competition to a vacant mining town in central Queensland.

All the players would have remained there in isolation with games played at a nearby venue.

But the decision by Queensland to close its borders put paid to the plan, with V’landys saying they did not have enough time to carry it out. — AFP