They say a week is a long time in politics. In rugby league, two months may as well have been an eternity, such has been the seismic change the game has undergone since the season kicked off in early March.
Covid-19, of course, threw the world into a type of chaos many have not experienced and now, on the eve of the NRL’s resumption, it almost seems nostalgic to look back on the way the game was run, covered, broadcasted and talked about in the fledgling days of 2020.
Since then, the league has endured: organisational inertia at NRL HQ; outspoken opposition in the corridors of power; broadcasters who wouldn’t pay; players who baulked at a pay cut; referees who threatened industrial action; players who flouted social distancing rules; anti-vaxxers who had the potential to stop a return; and the typical rugby league bickering that has felled so many in the past.
Yet the NRL will on Thursday become the first major Australian sports league to resume since the coronavirus shutdown. And the game is not where it is today because it flowed with the current of the worldwide pandemic; it is where it is today largely, if not solely, due to one man – Peter V’landys.
Both feared and revered in equal parts, the ARLC chairman is a belligerent populist whose brand of working class fire-and-brimstone rhetoric and results-first ethos has positioned rugby league as the frontrunner through sheer force of will – and him as the most powerful man in Australian sport.
For good or ill, V’landys has bulldozed a path for the game’s return and to label him one of the most omnipotent figures in Australia is not hyperbole. He has defied the prime minister and state premiers, taken the fight to broadcasters and unions, unilaterally changed the laws of the game and obliterated rivals along the way.
V’landys was twice chastised by Scott Morrison for declaring the Warriors would be given a travel exemption, yet they set up camp in Tamworth and will play on Saturday. It has been a high-risk gambit. Governments can and will shut the game down the moment there is a health breach. Failure to have the backing of health departments and public officials gives the game zero wiggle room if something goes wrong. A thirst for brinksmanship and risk has its downside and his making, of course, could yet be his breaking.
V’landys may be able to control the narrative through cozy media relationships but any single health failing could bring the game to its knees; the game will not go on if any player tests positive for Covid-19. To keep some stakeholders in line, some obvious safety measures like player hubs have been foregone. It is a dangerous ploy.
Rugby league has historically struggled to understand the machinations of power and politics. It has too often cowered when confronted or deferred, confused and bewildered by the intrigue and subtleties involved in money and influence.
That has made the internal difficulties in the game look a complete mismatch. Former CEO Todd Greenberg was not expected to last long when V’landys assumed the chairmanship of the ARLC. Covid-19 actually gave him a stay of execution but V’landys does not suffer fools gladly. Greenberg is no fool, but when he made a mess of the player pay negotiations and was humiliated in the broadcast discussions, the chairman was both decisive and brutal.
Neither of the NRL’s two broadcast partners made a critical payment on 1 April but Fox Sports has signed on to a long-term deal ensuring the immediate viability of the game while Nine, who were clearly angling to leave their deal, look set to extend.
The players were always going to be the hardest stakeholders to both please and corral. V’landys won the support of RLPA CEO Clint Newton, keeping any player discontent individualised and nothing more than a murmuring. Anti vaxxers were not publicly humiliated as they well could have been but it became clear that they would not be allowed to stop the game returning. While the completely inadequate response from the NRL to social-distancing laws by four players was widely condemned, it does appear tactical to keep the support of both players and clubs.
The approach to the referees was both more direct and significantly heavier. A rule nobody had called for – the six-again rule designed to speed up play – was introduced with little time to prepare while the game reverted to a single referee. Despite a commitment to pay all full-time referees, the idea of industrial action was floated. V’landys responded by claiming plans were already in place to cope without them and he conceded nothing before the officials committed to refereeing the full 2020 season. The rule and the refereeing change smacks of hubris and has the ability to completely undermine the legitimacy of the 2020 season.
Rugby league has beaten other sports back because at its helm is a pragmatist who cares little for principle. V’landys has been open to ideas – the ill-fated NRL Island prompted most headlines – and not been beholden to tradition, convention or sentiment. It is an attitude which has seen the game plough on regardless of advice otherwise.
But streaks do not last forever and messiahs do not exist. Fallibility is human and at some stage, V’landys may pull the wrong rein. And if he does, the stakes are so high it could be devastating. For now though, rugby league is set to return, albeit a markedly different version to what we knew a few months back.