Each week, ESPN's NRL experts Darren Arthur and Christian D'Aloia take on the burning issues in the game.
Will the NRL survive the coronavirus crisis?
Darren - If we accept the pleas of Peter V'Landys we are to believe that the NRL has about three months' worth of funding left in the kitty before the well runs completely dry. Like a family living from pay cheque to pay cheque it seems that one of Australia's biggest professional sporting organisations has failed to squirrel away a nest egg of any significance. They have handed out just over $6million in grants to help the clubs through this, but that generosity represents the end of the funding. How this was allowed to happen is another discussion, but it leaves the game in a very precarious position.
The pay cheques from the broadcast partners stop with the suspension of play, there are no gate receipts and dwindling merchandise sales. The clubs that are aligned with licensed premises are suffering as people are prevented from contributing through the poker machines, bars and restaurants. It all looks very grim, with several clubs predicted to fall by the wayside. At the other end of all this, rugby league will live again in a professional competition of unknown make-up. The days of million dollar player contracts might be well and truly over, as it seems the game was living within its financial means, but only just.
Christian - Make no mistake, professional rugby league in this country has never faced a greater threat. Year after year of NRL clubs failing to turn over a profit, in combination with poor money management on the part of the NRL themselves, has ensured that the rugby league that emerges from this crisis will not look the same. At present, the NRL simply do not have the capital to support all 16 clubs while they have no income, meaning at the current rate, some clubs will fall into insolvency. If nothing else, however, this may spur the new-look NRL to build a stronger and more sustainable competition that can withstand the punishment of a similar crisis.
Having said this, the fight is by no means over. The NRL is down, but it is not out. If recent reports are true, Peter V'landys is looking to lobby the NSW State Government to abolish the upgrade of ANZ Stadium and instead dedicate the $810 million fee to saving Australian sport - including the NRL and its clubs. While unprecedented, such a move may well save the game as we know it, and in my opinion, must be done.
Was it arrogance or pure desperation to even start the 2020 competition?
Darren - It has been labeled an act of arrogance that the NRL should start its season despite what was going on in the world with the coronavirus pandemic. It was definitely a little delusional to think that, despite dire warnings from medical experts, the coronavirus would not disrupt the competition. The NRL administrators obviously thought that if they stuck to a strict set of guidelines they could muddle through these tough times - they were desperate to do so from a financial point of view. After Round 1 the Federal Government put an end to crowds and during Round 2 State Governments put an end to travel within the country. The fans wanted to see rugby league continue as a sign that their lives weren't being completely upended. The sad reality is that everyone's lives are going to be changed drastically for some time and the NRL has finally come to accept that reality.
Christian - As I said last week, the suspension of the NRL season was only a matter of time - we were never going to escape the virus. But given what we now know about the financial crisis facing the NRL, I think it is wrong to label the move to start the 2020 season as arrogant. Peter V'landys and Todd Greenberg have been doing everything in their power to save rugby league, and that meant continuing the competition for as long as they could. Unfortunately, when Queensland shut its borders the season could continue no more. The truth is, while sport is a welcome distraction in times like these, our collective focus must be firmly placed on defeating this virus, even at the sacrifice of many of our comforts.
After just two rounds, which teams surprised and disappointed?
Darren - The great pity about the suspension of the NRL season is that it looked like being another gripping year. The reining premier Roosters had lost both games, while teams like the Broncos, Knights, Panthers and Raiders looked very impressive in winning both openers. The Storm looked like the Storm always do with their two wins, while the Eels, competition leaders on for and against, put a shaky start against the Bulldogs behind them to lap the Titans. Nipping at their heels were the Cowboys, Tigers, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles. The Bulldogs, Dragons, Titans and Warriors were dismal and will welcome the break. With a lot of luck we'll be able to resume with enough weeks left in the year to complete this exciting season, with the premiership race wide open.
Christian - As many of us veteran NRL fans will know, you can never really tell who the true contenders for the premiership are until at least halfway through the season. However, several teams put forward strong performances in the opening two rounds and will have been hoping for a serious tilt at the title this year. In the preseason, I had the Eels as one of my premiership favourites and they didn't disappoint, with their 40-point thrashing of the Titans following their hard-fought six point win over the Bulldogs. The Panthers, meanwhile, were early surprise packets after defeating the premiership-defending Roosters in Round One before backing it up with a defeat of the Dragons in a high-scoring affair. The Sydney Roosters were among the biggest disappointments after following the Panthers loss with a single-point defeat to the Sea Eagles, though the Titans were dismal after losing both games by a combined 58 points. When and if the season resumes, who knows if this form will count for anything.