As the rest of the world opens up thanks to vaccine rollouts and vaccine drives, the Australian sporting public is once again greeted by closed stadiums and player bubbles.
On the same weekend the NRL played behind closed doors, across the Tasman the All Blacks were hosting the Wallabies at a packed out Eden Park.
On the other side of the world, Anfield, the home of Liverpool FC, welcomed its first large crowds in 515 days with back-to-back trial matches.
It was an emotional moment for those who got a ticket. More than 40,000 fans filled the stadium for pre-season games such was the thirst to see live football.
A couple of weeks later, more than 52,000 fans packed the famous ground for their first home match of the season.
Local reporters told the stories of the shops that had survived lockdowns re-opening and filling with fans to purchase memorabilia. Of the pubs and restaurants finally experiencing a match day crowd after nearly 18 months without them.
Of the kids who had to sit and wait for their first chance to watch football in the hallowed ground.
And of the older fans who were grateful to be back in a stadium again.
While the UK and the rest of the world was in lockdown in 2020, the NRL managed to get gates open and welcome fans, albeit in small numbers, into games.
By the end of the year 55,000 fans had packed into ANZ Stadium for State of Origin.
2021 arrived with much hope and fanfare of grounds once again filling to capacity.
The start of the season was greeted with glee. In Parramatta the food trucks and outside entertainment returned, Church Street was bustling and the Leagues Club was once again a hive of activity.
Supporters returned to the terraces and grandstands, some of them eager to see live rugby league for the first time in a year.
The first third of the season went by with barely a hitch. It seemed the NRL would get through 2021 unscathed.
Such was the optimism of no further lockdowns, a match was scheduled to be played in Auckland for the first time since 2019.
Magic Round returned in Brisbane to a packed Suncorp Stadium.
Then COVID emerged once again in Victoria and the Storm headed to familiar surrounds on the Sunshine Coast.
And quickly, the situation began to unravel.
By the end of May, State of Origin was being moved from Melbourne to Townsville.
By game three Sydney was about to be in lockdown after an outbreak escaped Bondi. The game bounced from Homebush, to Newcastle and eventually was played in front of fans at Cbus Super Stadium on the Gold Coast.
COVID was back, and once again the grounds were about to fall silent.
In 2020 the NRL bubble was a safe haven in Sydney, not so this time around.
The NSW Government wasn’t going to permit NRL games to be played so the NRL packed up and shifted the season to Queensland.
The situation was tense, but there was hope that a four week lockdown in Sydney through August would see the game return to regular scheduling just in time for the finals.
But the Delta variant settled in and it soon became apparent that four weeks was only going to be the start.
To compound issues, the Sydney outbreak made its way to Queensland, forcing players once again into a bubble and stadiums to close to the public.
Then games shifted to the regions in Queensland so they could welcome fans to the grounds and there was an atmosphere.
Sydney fans are now experiencing what Melbourne and the Warriors have both had to deal with for much longer, but it doesn’t mean it hurts any less.
Once again the cities, streets and surrounds of Sydney have fallen relatively quiet.
There’s no more hustle and bustle around Bankwest Stadium. No more families traipsing through the lanes near Leichhardt. Moore Park is a veritable ghost town while at the foot of the mountains in Penrith it feels like the walls are closing in.
Gone is the optimism, replaced by a sense of foreboding.
Rugby league won’t return to NSW this season.
Like Jack Johnson once sung “I’ll be sitting, waiting, wishing”.
There’s only so much footy you can watch on the TV, only so many expletives you can scream in your lounge room before someone thinks lockdown has finally driven you insane.
What’s the point of a good “Get ‘em onside” in the first five minutes if there’s no one but a toddler to hear it?
How can you be sure the referees know they’ve got a call wrong if you’re not there to boo them?
Instead we’re being greeted by the now all-too-familiar sight of players, coaches and officials wearing masks on the sideline, of squad players acting as ball boys and continued speculation over where the grand final will be played.
Really, it’s the little things you miss.
Like the walk to the ground, the sights and sounds of a busy stadium, the collective energy of a home crowd that courses through you as if it’s a live current.
It doesn’t feel like a home game when it’s being played thousands of kilometres away.
It feels odd not to be packing the footy bag on game day with snacks and your trusty, dented thermos, checking the weather to see if you should be packing that rain jacket or loading up on the layers because it’s a Friday night in the middle of July and you’re trying not to freeze due to the biting wind.
All those little game day rituals have been replaced by sitting down on the lounge just before kick-off, maybe the heater running if it’s cold. At least the beer at home can’t be watered down and cost you $8 a drink.
But that’s only a little consolation as NSW bids farewell to any hope of live rugby league for the rest of the NRL season.
Maybe we’ll get to attend the NRLW when it kicks off in January. Or maybe we’ll be watching that from home too.