By STEVE MASCORD
WHEN former New Zealand international Dene Halatau arrived at ANZ Stadium in Sydney’s west on Thursday, His name was checkED off a list of around 320 people and he walked tO the escalators he usually uses to access the media area.
“But all the doors were locked,” he later told the ABC radio audience in his job as a co-commentator. “For a while, I thought I was trapped. Then I went back down the bottom and found my way in … the doors didn’t need to be open because there was no-one there.”
While most other professional sports in the world have paused during the Coronavirus outbreak, Australia’s National Rugby League is attempting to quarantine it’s entire 500-strong playing population and soldier on, as it did in World War I and during the Spanish Flu epidemic a century ago.
On Thursday night it played the first match of round two behind closed doors, with government regulations adhered to that strictly limiting public gatherings to 500 people.
In the UK, sport is paused at all levels next month at the earliest.
Just as in general life where we might learn more about ourselves in the coming months, rugby league and its media will also be holding a mirror to themselves in their respective, and occasionally shared, isolation.
South Sydney coach Wayne Bennett joked that Adam Reynolds had asked him to use his over-70s ID to buy the halfback some toilet paper.
The joke was made at a media opportunity where the journalists and cameramen were kept a save four or so metres away from Bennett.
The sports media has of late been saving money by covering matches off the television – how bizarre then that there is a greater imperative to be at matches now that there was last week – because in the absence of crowds the experience of being there is something of an exclusive?
The NRL’s free-to-air broadcaster Channel Nine is keeping its commentary team away from venues to protect them – even though the League itself is trying to make those at the games the most healthy community on earth so the competition can continue – perhaps at a Central Queensland resort where everyone will live together like the film The Truman Show.
So what was being there on Thursday night actually like?
The highlights of North Queensland’s 24-16 win over Canterbury look – no, sound – like those of a curtain-raiser match and that’s exactly the vibe commentators in Sydney got from the experience.
“It feels like we’re here eight hours before the game – but it’s just about to kick-off,” said Halatau.
On the list of exclusive invitees at ANZ Stadium on Thursday was the parents of Bulldogs debutant Jake Averillo.
Journalist and administrator Rob Burgin reasoned that ratings could skyrocket during lockdowns in the general community because community players, who often training and play when professional matches are being played, can now watch.
Referees are being prevented from ‘doubling up’ in weekends and when full-time interviews are conducted, a microphone stand is erected two metres from the reporter asking the questions.
And it’s been a running joke on social media that referees can no longer be influenced by vociferous home crowds.
The media industry was hurting anyway before the world health crisis; Fox Sports Australia laid off 20 staff this week, insisting it was nothing to do with the coronavirus issue.
In England, where rugby league is a niche sport, the people most effected are those who work on game day – security, catering, stewards, TV crew, photographers and journalists, many fewer people have full-time jobs in the sport than is the case in Australia.
“These really are difficult and damaging times for freelancers,” says Sheffield-based Australian writer John Davison, who writes about rugby league and soccer in both his homeland and his adopted country. “I’ve had at least half of my salary, if not more, gone in the matter of days.
“And with no idea when or if that income will come back.”
Gary Carter, the rugby league writer from The Sun, adds: “Obviously having no games is far from ideal as it was a guaranteed source of income. No matches equals no money. However, I’m still filing stories every day to the paper and adopting a method at the moment of doing pieces relating to sides that would have played on a particular day.
“Obviously, there are the implications of the shutdown on clubs. Super League and the game as a whole to consider too and I have to report those as and when as well. It really is a strange time for all – players, clubs, directors, coaches, staff members and journalists.”
As a less robust economy than Australian rugby league, the sport itself in Britain is more vulnerable; although it would never risk the blowback of publicly asking for government money as NRL chairman Peter Vlandys has, it no double needs that support more.
In a letter to supporters, Salford director Paul King wrote: “We would be hiding something from you if we did not admit that the current situation will test our club to the limit.
“Without a benefactor the support of our loyal fanbase will be vital throughout what is set to be the most challenging time I can remember for our club.”
The likely loss of the end-of-season home Ashes series is a hammer blow to the Rugby Football League. The international game is the most profitable aspect of its operations, compared to the NRL where it is commercially on near bottom rung of importance.
The NRL would sacrifice the Kangaroo Tour to save its domestic season; the RFL would probably do the opposite if given the choice.
One thing both countries have in common is that television was the healthiest sector of the rugby league media before coronavirus – but thanks to trends in people’s consumption, even that area was already feeling the pinch.
The reality of an illness that prays on our weakest is also reflected metaphorically in the punishment being meted out in an industry that was already staggering from multiple blows.