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.
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”.
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.