When the NRL started down the very difficult road to resuming the 2020 premiership, the last obstacle they expected to stumble across were the players themselves. With just four weeks remaining until the ambitious May 28 kick-off, just about all boxes are ticked, apart from the most important one of them all.
The day before the federal cabinet is set to discuss the return of Australian sport across all levels, the NRL was hit with an unexpected setback from the players' union. With the New Zealand Warriors expected to fly to Australia on Sunday to start quarantine and training in Tamworth, players have pulled the NRL up on a lack of promised detail around the arrangements they face. The Warriors are refusing to board the plane and in solidarity the rest of the league are refusing to return to training. It wasn't the first player-inspired spanner in the works this week.
The NRL, in consultation with biosecurity experts, delivered a 48-page document detailing exactly how it planned to restart its disrupted competition in the middle of a global pandemic. ARLC Chairman Peter V'landys has been busy campaigning on the back of the document, assuring state and federal governments that restarting the NRL was; important to the public, vital to the game itself and completely safe.
With infection rates falling and restrictions being slowly lifted, the argument stands that the pandemic is more under control now than when the NRL completed Round 2 on March 22. The NRL is going to strictly control the environments and movements of its players, supposedly keeping them free from the virus. The responses received from authorities were beginning to sound more positive as the situation improved and the May 4 date for training to resume loomed.
With appalling timing and scant regard for the game or any of its hopes and plans, Rabbitohs star Latrell Mitchell invited Storm star Josh Addo-Carr, Knights fringe player Tyronne Roberts-Davis and group of friends and relatives to his family's property near Taree. It was a move that might have escaped scrutiny if not for the modern day player's insistence on documenting his every move on social media. Fines for breaching social distancing laws coupled with firearms charges ensued, but even more damaging for the NRL was the perception that maybe it wouldn't be able to guarantee biosecurity if its players couldn't adhere to the simplest of restrictions.
Next Penrith and New South Wales halfback Nathan Cleary added further doubt when he let a group of women into his home, before failing to disclose fully what actually happened. Once again documented on social media were several photos of him embracing the "friends of his sister" in his lounge room. He explained that their unexpected visit was so brief and innocuous that he didn't even realise the photos had been taken. Cue social media again as TikTok posts showed him dancing away in a couple of rehearsed routines with the ladies as beers were being consumed.
All four players were slapped with fines and a suspended ban by the NRL, punishment that was seen as being too lenient by many. With the NRL battling to regain lost territory, they have now been hit with this latest impediment.
Rugby League Players Association (RLPA) members have voted to delay the resumption of training until the NRL provides them with the promised detail on how much they will be paid, what kind of provisions will be in place for the families of Warriors players and how interstate players will be treated when the season recommences. Since before the season was halted, the Warriors have complained of a lack of communication from the game's hierarchy, and they weren't willing to go a step further without some detail and the union was right behind them.
"We are in ongoing discussions with the NRL and our members today regarding a range of employment matters that require clarification," RPLA CEO Clint Newton said Thursday.
"We have requested further information and clear direction from the NRL and we are committed to continuing to work through this process in good faith."
The NRL is still trying to work out how much the players will be paid for what is left of the season. The more games that are played, the bigger the pie that can be shared. The broadcasters have to recalculate the size of that pie based on how much air time they can give their sponsors. From there they need to negotiate the NRL's share. It is a complicated process, but keeping the players informed should not have been.
The NRL has been very busy trying to get this season restart up and running. It might explain why they have generally placed players down the list of priorities when it comes to disseminating vital information. Players posting foolish behavior on social media might be out of their control, but keeping its main assets in the loop certainly isn't.
If professional rugby league is going to make its way back onto playing fields this season everything has to be perfectly aligned. The NRL has to look out for the players as much as the players have to look out for the game they love and make a handsome living from. Another week like this one could see the end of the 2020 NRL season.