There were no fans there on Thursday when the Tigers opened with a 16.9 (105) to 12.9 (81) win over Carlton. What an eerie feeling. The AFL, the National Rugby League and soccer's A-League competitions are all going ahead in Australia despite heavy travel restrictions and bans on crowds of more than 500 assembling at outdoor venues amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2020 NRL season kicked off last weekend with fans in the stadiums. The start of the second round was an entirely different story — there wasn't a paying spectator at Sydney Olympic Park on Thursday. A sign on the big screen behind the North Queensland Cowboys in the first half read: It's On, Sydney.com.
But it was only on, it seems, for a broadcast audience. For the record, the Cowboys won 24-16 against the Canterbury Bulldogs. One of the game's leading players, former Australia captain Cam Smith, questioned the wisdom of playing the games, given how easily the virus has been spreading. He got some support from fans, and criticism from others. To play, or not to play? The question has divided fans, players and administrators.
Supporters of both the AFL and the NRL complained on social media about the lack of atmosphere and noise at the games, which was obvious on the broadcasts. Some said the leagues would be better off postponed entirely. TV commentators joked about the lack of people to throw the ball back to players when it was kicked out of bounds, talked about the lack of ambiance and described it as almost like watching a practice session.
At the MCG less than two weeks ago, more than 86,000 people gathered to watch Australia beat India in the women's Twenty20 Cricket World Cup final. Sports are, evidently, a major part of life in Melbourne, where Aussie rules was invented. And Melburnians like to say that the AFL is in their veins.
More than 90,000 attended the AFL's season-opening game in 2018, and more than 85,000 were there at last season's opener. But after the season-opening Formula One race in Melbourne was canceled last weekend, there was never any doubt the various football authorities would have to plan for games in empty stadiums, if their seasons went ahead at all.
This time, it was only match officials, team officials and staff, players and members of the media at the MCG. “It's so weird," ABC radio sideline analyst Tim Hodges said. "Not a soul here. “The concourse is bare, the turnstiles are locked, the gates are shut,” he said. "The restaurants, the food shops, the cafes are closed, the bars are locked … these are normally heaving on this night. It is like a ghost town.”
The AFL's hierarchy left it until Wednesday to confirm the games would go on, after floating the idea of postponing it and having a shortened regular season. When the Richmond players ran onto the field, the club song boomed over the stadium speakers. There were fan club signs draped over seats where fans should have been sitting.
Captains Trent Cotchin and Sam Docherty met at the center circle for the coin toss, and shook hands — a long tradition in the game, but a no-no in the new coronavirus era of “social distancing." There was no separating the teams once the whistle blew, anyway, with almost constant contact between players for two hours in Melbourne.
After the win, the Richmond players formed a huddle, arms over shoulders, and sang their club song in the locker room. In the rugby league game in Sydney, there were almost 700 tackles completed — most of them involving shoulders crashing hard into players running at speed.
The ABC reported there were only 241 people — including the 34 players participating in the game — allowed inside the venue. The interchange bench chairs for both teams were separated by at least a meter (3 feet) and the match balls were washed regularly.
"It was very different. Certainly different times at the moment," Cowboys coach Paul Green said of the lack of a crowd. “I was really worried about (the players) being flat. We've never had a prep like this before.”
The NRL plans to keep teams together, in isolation from the public so that there's less risk of players being infected by the virus. “It'll become routine for us,” Green said. Canterbury coach Dean Pay said it was a challenge to adapt to fan-free stadiums and isolation of teams, but it was better than suspending the competition.
“At the end of the day, we still want to keep playing,” Pay said. “It's not ideal, but that's what it is at the moment.”
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