No fans no problem: NRL delivers in spades on return to biggest of all stages

Nick Tedeschi
The Guardian
<span>Photograph: Darren England/AAP</span>
Photograph: Darren England/AAP

With a reported 300 million people able to watch across the globe, Project Apollo officially landed on the date ARLC chairman Peter V’Landys has promised, despite the sniggering and tut-tutting. In arguably the most anticipated regular season game in premiership history, the NRL on Thursday night became the first contact sport to resume after the sporting world came to a grinding halt in March. 

It was 67 days since the last NRL match was played. The world has changed due to Covid-19, and so has rugby league. The game looked different, felt different and sounded different. It was no less engaging though. Its essence – brute force the showcasing of speed and skill and athleticism – remained the same, even if so much had changed. 

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Related: Broncos' Brodie Croft nearly falls victim to biosecurity rules on NRL resumption

Never before had a fit player been so close to being ruled out for a slightly elevated temperature, but that is what nearly happened to Brisbane halfback Brodie Croft, who twice was tested and twice fell outside the acceptable bounds before being cleared on a third test.

The NRL has done a remarkable job in getting the game back on the paddock, clearing more hurdles than Edwin Moses and Red Rum combined. Yet one player testing positive for Covid-19 could end the season and cost the game millions. All precautions will be taken. 

Ball boys were one of the casualties of the new protocols, with players who didn’t get a game now fetching balls and running on kicking tees, something not seen since the days of the old Kangaroo tours. 

There are, of course, no crowds. While most sports are anticipating playing without fans in the stands for the remainder of the year, V’landys has stated he wants to see crowds back by 1 July. Few would bet against him after what has been achieved so far. For the season resumption though, only a handful of cardboard cutouts had seats. 

<span class="element-image__caption">Cardboard cutout fans in the stands at Suncorp Stadium.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Scott Davis/AP</span>
Cardboard cutout fans in the stands at Suncorp Stadium. Photograph: Scott Davis/AP

No crowds may have meant no noise at the ground but that was not the case for the viewer at home. Broadcasters, in particular Nine, argued that the produce was less entertaining and less valuable without crowds. The producers at Fox Sports ensured that was not the case though with an broadcast that featured piped-in crowd noise throughout. It did not dominate, but helped fill the void of the deafening silence.

When the whistle blew and rugby league was officially back in business, there was only one referee. It was a point of significant contention when the NRL made the call to scrap the two-referee system midway through the season. Just one game in, it is too early to make any definitive judgments but the game flowed like it rarely has in recent years.

That was assisted by the freedom given by the new six-again rule. While it was only awarded on five occasions across the 80 minutes, it allowed the game to roll without referee interference. It penalised defenders who impeded the ruck harshly and allowed the attacking team to really build up significant momentum. There were plenty who were sceptical of such a major rule change being implemented with little debate but it passed its first test with flying colours. 

Related: NRL 2020 returns: Brisbane Broncos 6-34 Parramatta Eels – as it happened

It helped contribute to a game was lightning quick. V’landys wanted a faster and more attractive iteration of rugby league. He got that with a game that was played at a breakneck pace. The only dissent came from Brisbane coach Anthony Seibold, who complained about issues around the 10m rule, a classic coach deflection. 

In the end Parramatta dominated Brisbane 34-6. The game was as one-sided as the scoreline suggested and would have been bigger if not for some gritty Broncos goalline defence. It was a tremendous spectacle and outstanding game of football. 

The final score mattered little though in the wider context. The NRL, against all odds, had returned. The world watched on. Only months from being on the verge of financial destitution, the sport stood in triumph. 28 May will be remembered as the day the game truly delivered on the biggest of stages. 

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