Welcome to our new column, The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week sports editor TIM BARROW and sports writer JOSH BARTLETT discuss the fallout from the NRL shutdown.
Barrow: Well Josh, for years I'd always thought Queensland were ruining rugby league, but that was just because they kept beating us in State of Origin. On Monday, the decision to shut the Queensland borders to slow the spread of Coronavirus was a final blow in the NRL's plans to keep playing this season.
Bartlett: Like a coolly-slotted Jonathan Thurston field goal - and NSW fans know exactly what that looks like - it's game over. I will give the NRL some credit, they really looked at all options available to keep this season alive. How about that idea of relocating all 16 teams to a place like Gladstone? It sounded like a gee up for a reality TV show. But that's it folks, the season is on hold. So what does this mean for the future of the NRL, Tim?
Barrow: It's dire, if you listen to those figureheads of the game, from chairman Peter V'Landys to former NSW coach and television commentator Phil Gould. "I can't see every club surviving," Gould said on Monday night, pointing to the reliance on broadcast rights money. V'Landy's declared the likely need for loans, having already asked for Federal Government assistance previously. Which is a fair indication of why rugby league held on while other sports and industries were shutting down. Can you imagine the ratings for a Big Brother-style reality show with NRL players from Gladstone? They wouldn't even need to play footy, it would be a goldmine. Do you think the players should be prepared to cop pay cuts to keep the game going, whenever it returns?
READ MORE: NRL season halted amid Coronavirus fears
Bartlett: I'll tell you what. If a show like Married at First Sight can dominate ratings, why not support a show like NRL Big Brother? But in seriousness, it's a tough situation right now - for everyone. After the AFL suspended their season on Sunday, the ripple effect started just one day later with clubs like Collingwood forced to stand down staff members. The Brisbane Lions players will also be reportedly stood down without pay. So, whether you agree with it or not, I think we will see a similar situation over in the rugby league world. I think NRL players may have to face the reality that a pay cut awaits. If not, they may not have a game down the track. To me, it's going to be important to see how fans react. Is it fair for fans to keep paying for club memberships without a game to watch?
Barrow: This is where the shutdown really hurts. Players' livelihoods are under threat, particularly the fringe players if the NRL was to return with fewer teams or smaller squads, as the doomsday predictions suggest. For fans, well most of us are counting our dollars at the moment. Some have reduced pay and conditions, are taking leave or leave without pay, or even face the prospect of losing their business and their jobs. So like the NRL being bailed out by the government, paying for memberships and merchandise is their last priority. The goodwill of your hard earned supporting your club ends pretty quickly, when you're just trying to put food on the table. V'Landys already seems to have moved into the next phase, talking about options to maintain the league's viability and there'll be so many moving parts to that as the depth of this COVID-19 crisis continues to have a bigger impact on society and then the economic and social recovery begins. So which side of the fence do you sit with the NRL, were they a community outlier which should have shut down earlier, or do they deserve credit for pushing ahead among the gloom?
Bartlett: It was certainly a surreal weekend for any sports fan. In this barren run for sport, there was actually a bit to watch - NRL, AFL, A-League, the AFLW finals and, of course, the W-League grand final. Those opening games in both NRL and AFL on Thursday night were bizarre to watch - no crowd roar, just the commentators and the sounds of the game. By Sunday, I actually started to get behind it. You really get an understanding of how hard these guys hit and how much talk there is during a game. I fully understand the threat of COVID-19 and think all of the above organisations have done the right thing to suspend play... but gee it was a nice distraction, just for a few days. Everywhere you look right now, there is media and social media saturation about the Coronavirus. It's a bit of a concern for everyone's mental health. Without sport and activities like going to the cinemas, what can we do to distract ourselves?
Barrow: Well, as I type, the sporting highlight in Australia on Tuesday is a Class 1 Handicap at Geelong over 2233 metres. Even if you're not a punter, horse racing is the last great hope for sports lovers, just to have something live to watch. I get the NRL need to secure their own financial future, but we only have to look overseas, the UK went into full lockdown as we slept on Monday, so this has moved well beyond standing 1.5 metres away from each other or daring to go for a swim at the beach. Australia has the benefit of distance from many of the world's hot spots, but the threat is very real and very much upon us. You know it's serious when they're closing the pubs on us. I guess, one upside for Dragons fans has been delayed or cancelling the prospect of more on-field misery this season. They threw it away again against Penrith and even at 0-2 it was a long way back. What have you made of them?
Bartlett: In the past two weeks, I've really been given an insight into what it's like to be a Dragons fan. As a neutral, that game was a lot of fun to watch - players throwing the ball around, errors made and some luck for both sides. It's easy to forget that Penrith should have probably led 16-0, if not for that intercept try by Matt Dufty. But that moment of brilliance was the turning point for the Dragons and, to be honest, they probably should have gone on to win. With 15 minutes left, they held a two-try advantage. The best teams in the league - think Melbourne Storm - just find ways to win. What areas do the Dragons lack?
Barrow: I keep talking about game management. The Penrith clash was a wild sort of affair with so many momentum swings. Even in the last minute, the Dragons had possession off a short kick-off, but they had more time than they thought and then didn't really fire a shot trying to steal the game. They'll have plenty of time to think about how they fix it all up.