Opinion: NRL must maintain season’s integrity as it works towards May 28 resumption

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There has been much said about the NRL’s planned return on May 28 as it continues to deal with the fallout from the Coronavirus crisis.

Many fans are rejoicing the news of footy returning, while others – mainly those who don’t follow the game all that closely – believe the code is being insensitive and reckless by pushing towards a return so early.

The whole situation has been muddled by confusion surrounding the NRL’s communication with NSW Health and Health Minister Brad Hazzard, though this is largely a non-story. Anyone who thinks the NRL would have kicked off on May 28 without the appropriate approvals in place is kidding themselves. At worst, this element of the story is simply a communication breakdown that will be resolved.

And of course there’s the added drama surrounding the broadcasters, with Channel Nine’s ferocious attack on head office last week coming as a surprise at a time others are trying to unite to bring the game together.

Nine did make some fair and valid points, and like many involved with rugby league they’re questioning the way the NRL has handled its business structure and finances in recent years. There is much that doesn’t make sense.

Regardless, the NRL’s alleged financial mismanagement is a separate issue to the current crisis. Very few businesses could survive losing almost all of their revenue streams overnight, regardless of their cash reserves or structures, and the NRL can’t be blamed for wanting to restore those revenue streams as quickly as possible.

As we work towards a May 28 return, however, it is vital that the NRL maintains the integrity of the competition as much as possible.

Conference systems, returning to the one referee structure, dumping the Bunker, 15-round seasons and four quarter football are all legitimate suggestions at a time when every idea should be on the table. But the NRL must resist the temptation to push the barriers too far, otherwise it risks 2020 becoming a Mickey Mouse competition.

There is still time to salvage the legitimacy of the 2020 season, particularly if May 28 does become a reality.

In a perfect world – in my view at least – the NRL should play out the remaining 23 rounds of the competition, shifting the Finals and Grand Final to November.

And here’s the unpopular opinion – dump the State of Origin series, given crowds can’t attend and the concept is built around an intense rivalry that is heightened by packed stadiums. Sacrifice the showpiece for the greater good of the game and club competition, which is ultimately rugby league’s bread and butter.

If a deal can’t be reached to dump the Origin series due to its importance to Channel Nine, then let’s go ahead and play it during the season and allow club games to proceed with NSW and QLD players stepping down for three weekends. It may not be ideal, but it preserves the standard 25-round competition.

The broadcasters are indeed the key here. Fans would be happy enough with a late November finish but Channel Nine in particular have the Cricket World Cup and other programming commitments that would potentially take away from its NRL audience.

While a 15-round competition seems the most likely outcome when all is said and done, it does influence the season’s integrity and the overall meaning attached to the 2020 campaign.

Perhaps that’s where we’ll end up, but as it stands there’s still room to run the full competition – and that’s what we should be working towards.

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