The NRL’s innovations committee will decide on Thursday whether to controversially scrap the opening two rounds of the season and start the premiership from scratch when the competition resumes.
It is understood the committee — christened Project Apollo — will not only send a recommendation to the ARL Commission on what form the competition should take and where it should be based when it resumes, but also whether the two games that have already been played should still count.
Should they opt to scrap those two games, it is likely to prompt outrage at the clubs who began the season with wins before the competition was forced into hibernation by COVID-19.
Commissioner Wayne Pearce, who heads up Project Apollo, said the final decision would lay with the ARL Commission but the committee would make a recommendation later this week.
It is understood there are concerns over the impact the opening two games would have on the integrity of the competition should it resume under a conference format.
“We will probably be determining whether or not we use the competition points from the start of the year,” Pearce said. “Some people would say that would take away the integrity of the competition if you are going to have a different competition structure.
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“Others will say the players have played two games and it should count. There are pros and cons both ways.”
Adding another layer of complexity to the decision is the presence of Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson and Canberra chief executive Don Furner on the committee.
Robinson’s Sydney Roosters, the defending premiers, lost both their games before the competition was forced to stop. Furner’s Raiders, beaten in last year’s grand final, won both their games. Both have plenty to win and lose depending on the outcome, particularly if the competition is reduced to 15 rounds when the NRL is given the green light to go again.
Yet former deputy premier Troy Grant, part of the committee that is deciding the immediate fate of rugby league, insisted both men only had the game’s best interests at heart.
“In that first meeting we had Trent and Donnie Furner, and I am not exaggerating or embellishing this, they made suggestions that were detrimental to both their clubs for the good of the game,” Grant said.
“So I have no question about their integrity. I was sitting there surprised with a couple of their suggestions. I know people like to throw stones but I can guarantee you they are rugby league men and they are only doing it for the good of the game.”
Canberra coach Ricky Stuart was adamant the two rounds already played should stand.
“The NRL told us earlier the first two rounds would stand,” Stuart said. “If they were to go back on this and create a whole new competition it is totally unfair to every team that prepared for the first two games and won competition points. I promise you I would fight this for my players, our sponsors and every single Raiders fan. I’m positive Trent Robinson who is on the innovations committee understands how hard players work in preparation for the start of the season and deserve their results.”
Broncos coach Anthony Seibold, whose team is also undefeated in 2020, backed Stuart.
“Surely that’s not right,” Seibold said. “For the integrity of the competition the first two games need to be counted. Obviously I’m going to say that because we’ve won two games but it’s the fair way.”
The Australian understands Grant will speak to NSW Police Commissioner Michael Fuller and NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian in coming days to seek clarity around what the NRL needs to do to convince them the time is right to reignite the game.
The game is navigating a series of minefields as it attempts to resume playing in coming weeks, not least where it should station the players should they be placed in ‘bubbles’.
There has been a push for a conference system with eight teams based in Sydney and eight in Brisbane, although there is also a belief the game would be best served by having every team in one city. Western Sydney would seem the most logical destination given it would mean players would have instant access to medical facilities as well as training grounds.
The NRL’s greatest ally in getting the competition going again may be statistics that show the infection rate has been dropping — on Sunday it was 2.21 per cent in NSW compared to 22.27 per cent when the competition was stopped on March 23.
The southeast corner of Queensland and Townsville are also in the mix to host teams when the competition resumes.
The Australian has seen the proposal by the consortium pushing Suncorp Stadium and Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast as potential venues for the code.
Their proposal suggests consideration should be given to allow families to join the players in quarantine — and raised the prospect of in-house schooling for players’ children.
Suncorp Stadium chief Alan Graham has forwarded a proposal to the NRL to have games played at three venues over a nine-week period — Suncorp, Cbus Super Stadium and potentially Redcliffe.
“While no one can predict for sure, we would speculate that at that time, social distancing measures are likely to be still in place and the competition would therefore restart without spectators,” the proposal reads.
“Even if borders are reopened by then there would still be a need to provide adequate quarantining of players, coaching staff and officials to ensure the competition is not disrupted by any fresh outbreaks amongst the key participants.
“Our proposal is designed to address each of these risks and provide the NRL with the opportunity to relaunch the competition in a safe, well managed environment as a critical stepping stone in putting the game and all of its stakeholders back on the road to recovery
“The number of teams to be based in each location is flexible. Consideration can also be given to allow families to join the players given the duration they may be in these quarantined properties. In-house schooling could be an option for player’s children.”