A successful NRL relaunch will be mission accomplished for Peter V’landys after coronavirus hiatus

Before turning his attention to easing political tensions with China or sorting out the JobKeeper mess with the NRL abacus, Australia’s new messiah Peter V’landys has decreed there will be crowds at his “rugba league” matches by July 1.

Two long months ago this would have caused such derision there would not have been enough COVID-19 swabs to shove up the suspect nostrils of those snorting in disbelief.

Now, two days before the NRL’s expedited resurrection, such is V’landys’ authority he could sell out a match on the Ruby Princess and talk the sole referee into paying for his own berth.

So, rather than asking how the Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman will populate stadiums that were supposed to have remained emptier than our liquor cabinets this socially isolated winter, we just nod and ask how many spectators Pugnacious Pete plans to let in.

Sure, AFL fans might sneer that the NRL has been successfully experimenting with socially distanced crowds at Sydney’s Olympic stadium for years.

The Bulldogs NRL team's interchange players sit on a bench in front of an empty grandstand.
There will be empty grandstands during the early stages of the NRL’s return.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

But with Project Apollo preparing for lift-off on Thursday night, these are heady times for the great game of rugba league.

Assuming the Broncos and Eels don’t explode on the launch pad — and nagging memories of accident-prone “old rugby league” make you think this is not entirely out of the question — the NRL will have achieved the improbable; an actual match in May!!

So how is it that this perennially disaster-struck league will puff out its chest and burst back onto the field in the same week the always self-important AFL was still fiddling around with its fixturing and preparing to consign some players to the kind of hubs the NRL avoided?

Since March, when the NRL’s blood-stained accounts seemed to imperil the existence of several clubs and even the competition itself, everything has come up rugba league, with some of the game’s structural weaknesses becoming relative strengths.

Where once the failure to conquer southern and western markets meant the N (standing for “National”) in NRL was dubious, in the time of COVID-19 this has meant fewer closed borders to cross and red tape to cut in achieving an ambitious restart date of May 28.

If the NRL did not have the AFL’s cash reserves or canny investments to soften the crushing economic blow, its smaller playing squads will potentially make the cuts in extended broadcast rights deals at least tolerable, with V’landys already promising the salary cap will not be reduced.

And now, in declaring the return of live crowds by July, the NRL’s relatively modest attendances in comparison with the AFL mean they will have fewer fans to accommodate in isolated stadium clusters — and fewer lifelong members to feel disgruntled if they miss out.

How much of this is due to the seemingly indefatigable V’landys’ sheer force of personality will be the source of many retrospectives, perhaps even an excellent 10-part fly-on-the-wall series to help get you through the next pandemic.

V’landys on cusp of high praise

The history of Australian sport is littered with figures who achieved moments of seemingly grand success only to be considered failures when the bill arrived, administrators whose promises weren’t matched by achievement and club owners whose money disappeared faster than a punk at a Michael Buble concert.

But, if the tab has not yet come, V’landys already seems to have secured his reputation only months after putting his feet under the ARLC desk by fulfilling a once mundane task — getting a game on.

Perhaps the greatest sign of V’landys’ vast reputational improvement is that his name has even penetrated the ultra-parochial Victorian bubble where, almost 21 years after the Storm’s first premiership, many still struggle to distinguish one rugby code from another.

In Melbourne it is illegal to refer to another sport without making an AFL comparison. For instance, you can be fined for watching The Last Dance if you can’t name a Hawthorn player of the 1980s who was most like Michael Jordan, or don’t ask whether Jason Akermanis or Dustin Martin would best fit the role of Dennis Rodman.

Following these guidelines, V’landys, who also serves as Racing NSW’s chief executive, has been transformed from “that Sydney spiv who’s trying to destroy the Spring Carnival” to “that rugby bloke who’s done such a good job he might even get an office job at North Melbourne or St Kilda”.

An NRL player stands up, gesturing after scoring a try, surrounded by opposition players.
The NRL will enjoy a head start on the AFL when it gets underway again on Thursday.(AAP: Dan Himbrechts)

High praise indeed, although the greater verdict on V’landys’ victory in his space race with the southern code will be the viewing figures outside New South Wales and Queensland for NRL matches in the two weekends before the now-tardy AFL recommences.

As some have observed, the NRL always starts a couple of weeks earlier than its major Australian rival and this doesn’t generally prompt an orgy of viewing by Victorians or South Australians, who have local sport and preseason scratch matches to distract their attention from a round-two showdown between the Panthers and Dragons.

But in the current sports-deficient world, watching a once-routine Thursday night match between the Broncos and the Eels — played in an empty stadium with a single referee — on the couch seems as good as front row seats at the Super Bowl.

You can argue whether the power that has transformed the event’s status from routine to blockbuster radiates from V’landys’ bold vision, the deprivations of COVID-19 or just the NRL’s good fortune that the number of positive cases fell as the proposed start-up date approached.

But Australian sports fans will be watching the NRL blast off with the kind of excitement usually reserved for big finals or major foreign events such as World Cups and Wimbledon.

And that, Space Captain V’landys, means mission accomplished.

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Trump’s ‘mission accomplished’ moment masks deep White House unease – POLITICO

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during the news conference | Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Just before the US president took a victory lap on coronavirus testing, the White House told staff to start wearing masks after two aides tested positive for COVID-19.



On the day the U.S. death toll from coronavirus topped 80,000, U.S. President Donald Trump stood in the White House Rose Garden for a “mission accomplished” moment.

Behind Trump were a row of American flags and a pair of giant signs reading, in all capital letters: “America leads the world in testing,” referring to the total number of U.S. tests conducted in recent months rather than per-capita testing, in which America does not lead the world. In front of Trump sat his staff and reporters, physically distanced and all wearing face masks under an edict the president said he issued Monday afternoon to control the spread of coronavirus within the West Wing.

At an event carefully crafted to reassure businesses and governors they could safely restart a crippled economy, Trump declared America had accomplished its mission on coronavirus testing.

“In every generation, through every challenge and hardship and danger, America has risen to the task,” Trump said. “We have met the moment and we have prevailed.”

It was a pronouncement incongruous with the widespread anxiety among employers across America about whether enough testing exists to reopen their workplaces. It was also incongruous with the internal turmoil spreading on Monday inside the West Wing, where officials were scrambling to prevent the virus from crippling the most famous and supposedly safest office in America — one that already featured ample testing capacity for anyone who meets with Trump or Vice President Mike Pence.

The White House Management Office issued a memo that afternoon requiring West Wing staffers to wear masks or other facial coverings at all times in the building, except at their own desks. Additional new procedures include daily testing for the majority of West Wing staff and additional teleworking depending on the office, according to two senior administration officials.

The White House escalated its measures to keep the president and vice president safe from the coronavirus after two aides tested positive for Covid-19 in the past week. It marked a dramatic shift amid a national culture war over mask-wearing and a reluctant acceptance of a federal recommendation issued more than a month ago.

At the Rose Garden briefing on testing, every seated White House staffer including the president’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner wore masks — a change from even late last week.

Under questioning from reporters, Trump later clarified that he meant the U.S. had prevailed only in creating enough tests for Americans — not that it had tamed the virus, which is expected to kill tens of thousands more Americans in the coming months.

“You never prevail when you have 90,000 people, 100,000 people, when you have 80,000 people as of today, when you have the kind of death you are talking about, when you have potentially millions of people throughout the world that are dying,” Trump said. “That’s not prevailing. What I’m talking about is we have a great testing capacity now. It’s getting even better. There is nobody close to us in the world, and we certainly have done a great job on testing.”

White House aides are deeply aware the president’s message urging states to reopen their economies does not mesh with the optics of the virus spreading throughout the West Wing.

Even beyond the threat the virus could pose to the health of both Trump and Pence, aides recognized that new infections inside the White House will only mar the president’s cheerleading on the economic front and his efforts to revive the national mood ahead of the November election.

“The president’s physician and White House Operations continue to work closely to ensure every precaution is taken to keep the President, First Family and the entire White House Complex safe and healthy at all times,” White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere said of the new procedures. “In addition to social distancing, face coverings, daily temperature checks and symptom histories, hand sanitizer, and regular deep cleaning of all workspaces, every staff member in close proximity to the president and vice president is being tested daily for COVID-19 as well as any guests.”

One White House aide said staffers are being more cautious and trying to do as many meetings as possible by phone, three days after Pence’s top spokesperson tested positive for the coronavirus and the vice president himself spent the weekend at home.

Pence’s only public event on Monday was a teleconference with governors, and as of now he has no travel publicly scheduled for this week. He did not appear alongside the president at the briefing as he usually does when not traveling.

The new White House memo on masks marked a turning point for the Trump administration.

Trump, Pence and top officials all traveled within the past week without wearing face coverings, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in April urged Americans to start wearing masks in close quarters in grocery stores or pharmacies and in areas with high levels of transmission.

Pence did not wear a mask on his recent visit to the Mayo Clinic, though he later said he regretted that move, Trump’s aides and advisers said it was doubtful Trump would start wearing a mask — both because he views it as a political liability and because staffers around him are tested daily.

The president last month said he could not envision himself in a mask at all. “I just don’t want to be doing, somehow sitting in the Oval Office behind that beautiful Resolute Desk, the great Resolute Desk, I think wearing a face mask as I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens, I don’t know, somehow, I don’t see it for myself. I just don’t. Maybe I’ll change my mind,” Trump said in early April.

Until now, different offices in the White House complex have also been handling the threat of the virus in wildly different ways.

Trump’s deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger has worn a mask inside the White House complex for weeks, sometimes facing eye-rolls from his colleagues. The first lady’s staff also has been consistently wearing masks, keeping their distance from her and largely teleworking.

“Everybody’s working from home, and if I go in there for any meetings, I’m tested every single day,” Stephanie Grisham, the first lady’s chief of staff said during an appearance on Fox News. “If we do meet with her, you know, we sit 6 feet apart. If you haven’t been tested, you wear a mask. And then even when we’ve done the videos, it’s a very, very small footprint in terms of staff and video crew. That’s very important to her. She’s also reduced the number of resident staff, and they all wear masks, as well.”

Trump’s top three health officials are all self-quarantining and doing meetings remotely after they came into contact with an infected person last week at a coronavirus task force meeting. One of the president’s military valets and Katie Miller, Pence’s top spokesperson, both tested positive for the virus last week. Miller is married to Stephen Miller, one of the president’s closest aides, who is also avoiding the White House.

Maintaining 6 feet from others is virtually impossible in the West Wing, with its cramped hallways and stairwells, low ceilings and cubicles, so aides now must keep masks with them at all times.

The seven people who work for second lady Karen Pence have been teleworking since mid-March, as well as two staffers who work for the vice president’s residence, according to a spokesperson for Karen Pence. Karen Pence’s staffers usually work from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and from an office in the Naval Observatory.

The staffing and work hours for naval aides, who prepare meals and maintain Pence’s residence, were reduced in mid-March, according to the spokesperson. The naval employees at the Naval Observatory have also been following Defense Department guidelines, which require staff to wear masks on military bases.

Pence arrived at the White House on Monday after remaining at home all weekend, but instead of heading into the West Wing, he worked during the early part of the day out of an office he keeps in the adjacent Eisenhower Executive Office Building. A spokesperson said Pence was eager to start traveling again soon.

“We are taking the advice of the White House Medical Office. There are no announcements to make on travel, but the VP is looking forward to getting back out there to show the American people what we can do when we come together,” said Devin O’Malley, one of Pence’s spokespeople.

The president is expected to go to Pennsylvania later this week.

In addition to new mask requirement, some health experts would like to see the White House rely on a different method of testing to keep its staff and top officials safe.

The White House has relied on a point-of-care coronavirus test made by Abbott Laboratories that can deliver results in under 15 minutes, but it drew fire from Francis Collins, the director of the National Institutes of Health, last week for having too high of a false negative rate. The company says the test performs as expected when samples are directly tested instead of transported in chemicals — but some health experts say other rapid tests that take longer to run should be used by the White House.

David Lim, Daniel Lippman and Gabby Orr contributed to this report.

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