Australian Health Minister Brad Hazzard has revealed the New South Wales Government has not given the NRL clearance to restart its 2020 season — and hasn’t had any official communication with the code for four weeks.
The Federal Government and Queensland Government have also spoken out to pull the NRL back into line with revelations the code has not received any special exemptions from coronavirus restrictions.
The extraordinary slap down comes after the NRL’s innovation committee on Thursday announced the third round of the season will proceed in seven weeks time on May 28.
NRL players will reportedly return to training in just three weeks – with the New Zealand Warriors set to travel to – and remain in – Australia possibly until September.
However, the NRL’s bold plans were thrown into uncertain territory after Hazzard said he hadn’t had any official communication with rugby league officials since before the season was suspended indefinitely last month.
The NRL’s move has divided the rugby league community with many fans rejoicing at the bold decision, while others have cautioned against the decision to push ahead despite strict self-isolation protocols across the country.
Hazzard’s revelation has heaped further pressure on the NRL to reassess the May 28 return, which was rubber-stamped by Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys on Thursday.
When asked if he had cleared the NRL to return in May, Hazzard said: “I haven’t. But I can’t comment.”
Hazzard said he was open to meeting with NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and V’landys to discuss the potential return of rugby league — but stressed it had not yet been determined that it was “appropriate” for the game to start up again.
“I think there’s a balance to be struck here and whether this is the right balance,” he said.
“If the NRL want to go ahead, happy to have the chat and make sure, with medical advice, as to whether or not it’s appropriate.
“The only meeting I’ve had that I can tell you about is around about a month ago, with Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys to talk about the issue. But that was before they actually made a decision to shut the game down. So, I haven’t had any discussions with them at this stage.”
Queensland Health Minister Steven Miles also said he had not spoken to the NRL or given clearance for the code to return to action.
“That doesn’t mean they haven’t been in contact with parts of the Government and I’m sure they are,” he said, according to The Courier-Mail.
“They’re trying to find ways to restart the competition in a way that is healthy and safe, I look forward to hearing what that is, I’m sure the chief health officer is available to provide advice to them.
“I’m not aware of what the plan is.”
The Federal Government also expects the NRL will have to reassess its early season return, according to Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.
Cormann has told Sky News that coronavirus restrictions won’t be eased to allow professional sporting bodies, including the NRL, to continue.
“I’m sure that the NRL would not want to breach plans, I think that they would not want to breach legal requirements,” he said.
“I suspect that they are making assumptions on where Australia would be at that point in time, and that’s fair enough for them. I mean, of course, they’ve got to plan.”
The contrast between the comments and the NRL’s bold Thursday declarations were described by some Aussie sport commentators as “staggering”.
NSW Health Minister has had NO DISCUSSIONS with the NRL about restarting the competition on May 28. He’s not ruling out that being possible, but isn’t it STAGGERING that the NRL would announce a date without meeting with the Health Minister?
— Trevor Long (@trevorlong) April 10, 2020
Interesting that the NSW Health Minister says he hasn’t had any discussion with the NRL for at least a month.
— Glenn McFarlane (@MaccaHeraldSun) April 10, 2020
Hazzard’s wake-up call for the NRL comes after outspoken commentators Ray Hadley and Peter FitzSimons also raked the code over the coals on Thursday.
Hadley, a veteran rugby league commentator on radio and television for decades, on Thursday said the game’s decision to return so early was “fanciful”.
“It’s inexplicable, it’s strange, it’s weird,” Hadley told A Current Affair.
“It’s like someone’s got coronavirus at the NRL.
“To actually say that we’d be back by May 21 or May 28, I thought was fanciful.
“Every solution that’s been put forward so far, I scratch my head thinking how it’s going to work.
“First of all we’re going to put them on an island in Queensland, Tangalooma or something, then we’re going to put them somewhere else. Then we’re going to have one conference with 15 teams, put them before no crowd.
“The NRL obviously know they’re in financial strife, they need the money, they need the money from the broadcast partners, but they’re not going to get it by holding a gun to their head.”
According to reports, the NRL is tossing up between three vastly contrasting plans for how the 2020 season will look.
The latest proposal reportedly being considered by the Project Apollo committee is proceeding with a 22-game season — in order for the game to fulfil the majority of its contractual obligations with broadcasters Channel 9 and Foxtel’s Fox League.
The innovations committee earlier recommended two proposals for a much shorter season that would see a grand final played in October.
One plan proposed a 15-game season where the 16 clubs will play each other once before a finals series.
The other proposal called for the competition to be carved into two conferences with clubs playing seven rival teams twice, forming a 16-game home and away season, including the two rounds already played.
Warriors CEO Cameron George. Photo / Photosport
On Thursday, Warriors CEO Cameron George told the Herald the club have”a number of challenges to overcome” ahead of the mooted return of the NRL – not least of which needing to work out how they can compete, given the current trans-Tasman border restrictions.
“There are a number of challenges to work through — none greater than the fact that we have to travel internationally and the number of constraints and policy requirements that we have to adopt,” said George. “The NRL is working very hard behind the scenes with the government agencies on what that could look like, though it is still unclear.
“We are very keen to explore the opportunity to be in the competition [and] very keen to understand what our challenges are around our unique situation, being based out of New Zealand.”
FitzSimons earlier lashed out at the game’s plans to proceed with a contact sport at a time when the rest of the country is operating under strict self-isolation restrictions.
“If their sound medical advice is that there is no risk to them and their families by wrestling for eighty minutes, why can the rest of us — seriously — have to stay 1.5m from each other,” FitzSimons wrote on Twitter as part of a series of replies to Twitter followers.
“I don’t think the NRL has read the room on this.
“If they can all be tested and then totally isolate, they could do it. But mixing and mingling with family at home goes against EVERYTHING the government is trying to drill into our noggins, yes?
“Why is every other contact industry shut down, every border closed, police patrolling beaches, but an exception made for league?”
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