May 2020

Rugby league has never stopped

Rugby league has stopped for the first time in its history and it may never recover.

Sport is one of the few things that never really stops. Musicians can get sick and postpone tours, outdoor events can be postponed due to weather but sport, and specifically rugby league, hardly ever stops.

Cricket can be halted due to rain, tennis too and sometimes golf. Soccer in Europe is often brought to a stop by winter, often deliberately in Germany where the season is given a mid-winter break. There are other codes like rugby union, American football and indoor sports that allow them to be played in all conditions.

However, there’s a certain degree of continuity in rugby league unseen in most other sports. The last time an NRL game did not proceed as scheduled was ANZAC Day 2015 when the annual clash between the Sydney Roosters and St George Illawarra Dragons was brought to a halt midway through the first half due to a sudden and intense hail storm. 15 minutes after the storm passed and the game resumed.

Rugby league in Australia has in fact, never been fully stopped. During the first and second world wars the playing stocks were down due to the number of young men who travelled overseas to fight. In the first world war the NSWRL struggled financially but survived. In fact it was the league’s decision to continue that moved it ahead of union in terms of popularity and player numbers. A position that union has not overturned to this day.

During the second world war the game actually received an increase in crowd numbers and increased popularity. The Australian government saw rugby league as a way to continue some resemblance of a normal life during a war in which the country itself would be attacked and a brave stand in PNG was all that stood between Australia and the Japanese.

The last time rugby league faced down a pandemic, it was the Spanish flu. Raging from 1918-1920 it is estimated to have infected more than 500 million worldwide with virtually every person in the world being impacted by it to some degree. 

It hit the rugby league world with Dally Messenger and his wife both contracting the disease. Dally recovered, his wife unfortunately didn’t. 

But in the midst of that pandemic rugby league continued to be played despite a ban on virtually all other public gatherings. And that was a time when perhaps a suspension of the game wouldn’t have been as financially catastrophic as it seems to be today.

The code had 5,520 pounds in the bank, 27 pounds of debt and had contributed a further 5,500 pounds to the war effort in 1918. A cash flow situation the current head office would very much like to exist today.

But 2020 marks the first case of rugby league stopping in this country. In the case of the lower grades, their seasons won’t go ahead while the NRL scrambles to assemble something resembling a season in order to preserve the precious TV dollars.

When rugby league eventually resumes, it will be a different competition. Some clubs may not be there, others will exist on shoe strings. There has already been talk of severe wage cuts for next season with the salary cap being halved.

Time will tell regarding the eventual outcome. The NRL will do everything it can to preserve the 2020 season as well as ensure all 16 clubs survive.

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