NRL trod a fine line between risk and reward this season – and just about got away with it

Emma Kemp
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Mark Kolbe/Getty Images

Last June, Victoria Racing Club chairperson Amanda Elliott called Peter V’landys “a silly little man making silly decisions”. The Racing NSW chief executive had put Melbourne noses out of joint over his prize money powerplay designed to steal the spring carnival attention in a state it did not traditionally belong.

His response? “I do my best to play the ball, not the player … Also, I’m 5ft 9.5in and 5ft 10in if I wear heels.” His election as ARL Commission chairman three months later was met with equal parts admiration and consternation. The man, a self-confessed “bogan from Wollongong”, was one with many monikers. Personable. Brutal. Decent. Frightening.

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V’landys, it was prophesied, would rule an indurated sport with an iron fist. Indeed, he did not so much take up a role in rugby league, but annexed it. Then along came Covid-19 and, as it turns out, his predilection for authoritarianism may have saved the game.

On Sunday night, Penrith and Melbourne will play a 2020 NRL grand final widely believed to have been an impossibility. The decider will cap a season that, six months ago, was perceived by many fans and players – probably even some within his administration – as unfeasible, if not plain stupid. It may still be viewed that way today but for one man’s grit, defiance and sheer bloody-mindedness.

A matter of days after the NRL finally suspended the competition two rounds in, V’landys was working the channels trying to get “the greatest game of all” restarted. Sporting spectacle aside, League Central was losing cash and gravely in need of television revenue.

The obstacles, predictably, were copious. Ergo, while the country was in lockdown worrying about their lives and livelihoods, rugby league administrators were fretting over sceptical health authorities, apprehensive governments and incandescent broadcasters.

Blind ambition in the midst of a pandemic would have carried consequences. V’landys at least had his eyes open

New South Wales health minister Brad Hazzard said he had not been consulted. Australia’s deputy chief medical officer Paul Kelly said the NRL should not be considered “a law unto themselves”. Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk put the barriers up at her borders. Channel Nine was ropable, accusing the sport’s governing body of “mismanagement” and strategically setting the tone for decidedly delicate broadcast negotiations.

By the time V’landys announced the ARLC had secured approval from all of the above to resume the season on 28 May, the whole circus had seemingly travelled to the daft end of town already visited by Scott Morrison, who was “still going to the footy”. The entire world had gone to ground and Project Apollo had its sights set on the moon.

V’landys was on the campaign trail, ingratiating himself and cultivating his narrative. NRL fans were enamoured. Some media were laying the praise on thick. “V’landys for PM” became a thing on Twitter. His predecessor, Peter Beattie, guilelessly suggested the concept was realistic.

NRL CEO Peter V’landys at the Dally M medal awards at Fox Sports Studios this week. Photograph: Getty Images

AFL movers and shakers, for their part, were outwardly appalled at the irresponsibility and inwardly aghast their cross-code rival had the jump. “There was some pretty – what’s the word – harsh rhetoric from down there, that we were irresponsible and all those sort of things, but I ignored it all, naturally,” V’landys said in May. “I knew we were on the right path. I knew that we had the facts and figures on our side.”

The prime minister, a zealous Cronulla Sharks fan, later told a breakfast TV audience the 28 May plan was “ambitious”, with the caveat that he likes ambition. Ambition is one of those funny words that can carry positive or negative connotations depending on the context. Blind ambition in the midst of a pandemic would have carried consequences. V’landys at least had his eyes open.

Even then it was still a gamble, albeit an educated one. The World Players Association said a duty to play must come second to player safety, even under financial pressure. The Australian Medical Association warned of “broader public health implications”. V’landys considered their advice, then took his own.

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For every query, the hierarchy had an answer. The NRL hired an infectious disease boffin and one of Australia’s leading biochemical and weapons experts. It examined closely the protocols employed by the Bundesliga, which restarted 10 days prior. Players were re-housed and issued with strict rules. “Green zones” were set up at stadiums.

The Storm saw out the season in Queensland, forced away from home due to the spike in Victorian cases. The Australian government granted the New Zealand Warriors a travel exemption to cross the ditch, and the team spent five months away from home to ensure all 16 teams could complete their campaigns.

Cardboard NRL fans
Cardboard cutouts populated stands during the early weeks after the restart. Photograph: Cameron Spencer/Getty Images

A hearty slice of luck helped, too. Rules are made to be broken, and the trip to Latrell Mitchell’s farm and Nathan Cleary’s TikTok episode were the first of a few, including but not limited to Wayne Bennett’s dinner in Leichhardt, Paul Vaughan’s breakfast in Wollongong and Alfie Langer et al’s trip to the pub. The Terry Lamb handshake affair is also worth a mention. Any or all could have brought the league to its knees.

The fact they did not came only partly down to the protocols. Much like some sports stars, coronavirus does not adhere to regulations, and the line between risk and reward was as fine as they come. The NRL operated at the behest of the pandemic, and just about got away with it.

It meant that, while sport remained halted across most of the globe, a competition in its southern-most corner was putting on a show in front of cardboard cut-outs (also, not without issues). The NRLW kicked off, so too will a condensed post-season State of Origin series.

“Rugba league”, as V’landys calls it, is back. The trackside bigwig took a punt and won. And on Sunday, those who backed the same horse will rejoice in his vindication.