Coronavirus keeps NRL fans out of the ground but not out of the game

LEICHHARDT OVAL - It was a steamy 28 degrees at the iconic suburban ground perched on a rise above Iron Cove, part of the Parramatta River system which carves its way through inner Sydney. The ground which first opened in 1934 holds a modest maximum of 20,000 people and on a good day like today, with the Wests Tigers playing well and facing a competitive rival, you would have expected around 17,000 to cram themselves into the limited seating, spilling onto the grassed hill which forms one side of the stadium.

Today, as another near-empty commercial jet roared overhead, the seats were empty, the grass bare. The Newcastle Knights and Wests Tigers players went through their warm-up routines, with support staff from both clubs bustling about as kick-off neared. There were all the cameramen and crew required to broadcast the game to the masses, both locally and internationally, the masses who sat at home, safely isolated from a scourge that threatens the world and has shut down most sporting codes around the globe.

The National Rugby League literally can't afford to stop. The payments from the broadcasters far outweigh the gate receipts and those payments stop the moment the players cease playing. Apart from the most obvious lock-out of fans, precautions were being taken everywhere. Media were seated as far from each other as physically possible. Players would speak to the media after the game from a safe distance. Security was tight and contact with the outside world was limited as much as possible.

What the NRL can't prevent is the inherent contact between players during the physical encounters taking place on the field across the weekend. If a single player was to contract COVID-19, then it is almost inevitable that his teammates and opponents would be exposed and likely contract it too.

The players ran out onto Leichhardt Oval in the late March sunshine to enthusiastic applause from people gathered on trestles overlooking the back fences of two houses which adjoin the ground. The properties have long allowed the owners and friends a prime and free view of the action, but today they were the only spectators. They appeared to be ignoring social distancing as they stood shoulder to shoulder adorned in mostly Tigers jerseys. Their concerted efforts to spur on their team and influence the match officials added another level of weirdness to the occasion.

The Knights scored the first try of the game in the corner closest to those select fans and they voiced their disapproval with boos which echoed off the grand stand across the field from them. They were watching the game they loved, perhaps fearing the chances of doing it again were numbered.

During the first half news filtered through the media box that the AFL had succumbed to the increased travel restrictions imposed by the Federal Government and had postponed their season after just one round of games. The AFL has a greater national footprint with teams in Western Australia and South Australia, still speculation was rife that this could also spell the end of the NRL season. Certainly not before the completion of this game, which raged on under the receding sun.

The Knights scored again after a penalty try was awarded against Josh Reynolds. As Kalyn Ponga lined up the kick from in front, a gruff voice from the fence yelled; "You're overrated Ponga!" Ponga kicked the goal regardless, but, as though still haunted by the taunt, ten minutes later he threw an intercept pass which Tigers winger David Nofoaluma carried 90 metres to score the first points for the home team.

The empty ground provided not only a strange visual experience, the sounds that came from the field were intensified without the buzz and cheers of 17,000 fans. Every call, every flesh clapping collision, the grunts and moans of the players committing themselves to the contest, you could hear it all. It was similar to watching a junior game of rugby league at big ground, except you didn't have the occasional player's mother screaming her support, piercing your ear drums.

With five minutes remaining in the first half, the Knights were awarded a penalty in front of the posts, with the kick taking the score to 18-6. The fans on the fence started up a "Bulls---t!" chant, unhappy with the referees.

With a minute to go and the Tigers attacking the Knights' line, the fence fans started up a "Tigers, Tigers!" chant, which was encouraged by the ground announcer proclaiming; "Let's go Tigers fans". The Tigers responded with a converted try and the players jogged off the field for the break with the Knights leading 18-12.

With the teams exchanging tries early in the second half, three men climbed their way onto the roof of the building, the one with a row of people peering over the back fence. The few fans were literally taking every vantage point as the game threatened to get away from the Tigers.

A mini-roar went up again as the Tigers crossed for a try in front of the fence fans, the conversion bringing the Tigers within two points trailing 26-24. Minutes later they were silenced in the most painful way when the Knights halfback, baring the name of his Tigers' legend father, weaved through the defence to score. Another Knights try followed shortly after and the gaps between fans behind the fence started to widen like the gaps in the Tigers' defence. It was all Knights from there as they ran up a convincing 42-24 victory.

Players hugged and shook hands, then filed from the field into the dressing sheds and an uncertain immediate future. ARLC chairman Peter V'landys was confident the NRL would complete the 25-round season and finals, no matter what obstacles the Federal and State Governments threw in the way.

"We are prepared for the worst, and we have looked at every contingency. We're ready for whatever they throw at us," V'landys said.

"There is a whiteboard at NRL head office full of contingencies and how we deal with these contingencies.

"Even a complete lockdown we have a strategy for that.

"We have been proactive the whole way through and will continue to do so."

It is a battle against the odds, with the NRL and A-League the last dominoes to fall in Australia. In countries where the pandemic has taken a greater hold, sport has shut down completely, with people dealing with a genuine life and death struggle. All Australian junior sport has already been put on an indefinite hold, it seems only logical that all professional sport will eventually follow.

The empty grounds will fall completely silent, fans will no longer line their back fences hoping for a glimpse of the action. Humanity will find an answer, sport will return, we just need to do everything we can to save as many lives as possible in the meantime.