Welcome to our column, The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week league writer MITCH JENNINGS and sport scribe JOSH BARTLETT discuss the fallout from Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr's now infamous trip north amid the COVID-19 lockdown.
Jennings: Well JB, another week another NRL off-field drama. Didn't think it was possible with players supposedly locked down and taking it all very seriously at home ahead of the NRL season resumption but it's what we have given Latrell Mitchell and Josh Addo-Carr's decision to go away and shoot what looked like a BCF ad and upload it to Instagram. It did look BCF'n fun but in circumstances was a staggeringly silly thing to do. Now you can throw Nathan Cleary into the mix. What's your take?
Bartlett: Look, Jenno, it was hardly the crime of the century - but in the middle of social isolation, it's hard to let this one slide either. Probably the silliest part for them is the only reason that people found out about the trip is because they posted on social media, which was just a gimme for NRL media types in this current landscape.
Mitchell and Addo-Carr weren't the only two involved but, as the highest profile players in that group, they have copped the more severe punishment.
New interim CEO Andrew Abdo has handed down $50,000 fines, more than half of it suspended, along with a suspended one-game suspension to the pair, while Knights player Tyrone Roberts-Davis was fined $10,000 for his involvement in the trip. Cleary also copped a $10,000 fine for breaching health orders in a separate incident. So, Jenno, are those punishments enough?
Jennings: I think they were on the soft side to be honest, I was expecting the NRL to go the other way and maybe cop some flak for being to harsh. It's a tricky one as we're dealing less with the actual conduct and more with the timing and context of it but I think the fact they won't miss any games is pretty weak.
It seems a relatively small "slip-up" as Mitchell described it but, throw the Cleary situation on top of it, I honestly think it could jeopardise plans to get underway in May. So much of the NRL's plan to get back rests on selling the fact, not just to government authorities but to the public, that they can do so safely and responsibly. Plenty of people, myself included, have been critical of the bullish approach to getting the game up and running while the rest of society is at a standstill but Peter V'landys has done a pretty decent job of winning enough people over.
No doubt his greatest fear was the media snapping players flouting the strict guidelines. To me that was just about inevitable but, as you said, they saved paps the trouble by putting it on social media themselves. You could just imagine V'landys hitting the roof when he picked up the paper yesterday. What did you make of their apologies?
Bartlett: It felt a bit like the old case of apologising for being caught, rather than apologising for the actual act. Mitchell said the trip went ahead because Addo-Car and his cousins needed to get away from the city. "I couldn't turn down the brothers in a time of need." You can't accuse him of not being a good friend there, but it's all about timing.
So many people have sacrificed a lot during this pandemic. Grandparents have gone weeks without seeing their grandchildren. Others haven't been able to go visit their partners. So why should the rules be any different for some rugby league stars? The situation will definitely pour more pressure on V'Landys and co to get this bubble right.
So the question needs to be asked: can the players themselves be trusted to do the right thing and obey rules? Or will the NRL need to employ someone to watch over their every move?
Jennings: No. I think that's why the NRL punishment needed to err on the harsh side just to get that message across.
I've seen a lot of people defending the players' actions by posting pictures on social media of crowded shopping centres, people getting kicked off Coogee beach and all the rest but it's a completely moot point. V'landys and co. have gone to huge lengths to justify the game's return hinging it primarily on assurances its players meet much higher isolation standards than the broader community.
Clubs and their players knew, or certainly should have known, that strict measures were coming. The NRL circulated a 48-page document to clubs last week outlining the stringent measures it intended to put in place. It's yet to be officially rubber-stamped, but the NRL needed to treat these players' actions as they would any breach of that policy - harshly. Instead, on the same day it's trumpeting the strict protocols for a 20-round season, it's also fining players for breaching basic guidelines.
Ultimately it looks like these players got in just in time. It's got to be said, though, the NRL has backed itself into a bit of a corner on this one. If they'd really brought out the big stick, people would reasonably ask: if you deem 12 blokes getting together on a rural property 300 kilometres away from Sydney as such an egregious act, why is it OK for 34 to tackle, sweat and spit on each other in close quarters every weekend?
It's obviously not as simple as that but people will make it so, particularly if they've just had to tell loved ones they can't come to Nan's funeral because only 10 people are allowed. I guess, to put you on the spot JB, do you have a gut feel on whether we will see the game up and running on May 28?
Bartlett: Like most people, I've had my reservations from the start about the NRL returning by the 28th. It has always felt like it's coming back too soon in this strange, COVID-feared world. But, like many fans, I miss the game so much and want to see it back as soon as possible - in whatever format that is.
I guess it's a game of head versus heart on this one but if they can make it work, I believe it could have a domino effect on other codes. It already feels like the AFL is watching to see how the NRL experiment goes, same with Football Federation Australia who want to finish off the A-League season. It will be interesting to follow.
It definitely feels like there is a more positive vibe, compared to say even two weeks ago. You've covered the Illawarra rugby league comp looking to return by mid-July, and I've looked into the local Australian rules and football comps eyeing off return dates. It begs the question, Jenno: how important is sport in this current environment? Should it be on the backburner, or is it time to give us fans something to look forward to?
Jennings: I share those reservations mate and I agree that the AFL, A-League et cetera are sitting back and letting the NRL be the flak vest while they quietly go about a return.
Given we both earn our crust covering sport I've probably got to be careful how I answer that question JB. My general take is that there are always things more important than sport - never more so than in the current environment - but few things more enjoyable.
I guess the present times are a reminder that sport is a luxury for all of us - certainly a privilege for anyone making any sort of living out of it. That's certainly hit home for me of late. It's disappointing it doesn't seem to have hit home for some NRL players.