December 2021 Opinion

The NRL Vaccination Question

The NRL has largely stayed out of the vaccination debate, but it will need to wade in if it hopes to keep the 2022 season running smoothly.

As we get deeper into pre-season, questions will continue to be asked about the NRL’s vaccination policy. So what are the options and how can the NRL deal with players who refuse a COVID vaccination?

The NRL is in the somewhat beneficial position of being one of the last major sporting codes in the world to introduce an official COVID vaccination policy. While it could be seen as being backwards, they have the ability to view all of the policies in place across world sport and see which are most effective.

The fact the majority of world sport had to implement policies in the middle of the year as pre-seasons started and competitions got underway while the NRL was operating in a bubble means the sport has been in no rush to develop its COVID protocols.

At the time of writing, it has deferred to clubs to manage their players independently. But at some point there will need to be guidelines established by the governing body to deal with positive tests among its players and staff.

We are past the point of bubbles after the previous two seasons and regardless of vaccination level, it’s highly likely players and staff will test positive for the virus at some point in the foreseeable future.

It’s understood that vaccination significantly lowers risk of hospitalisation and serious illness, while also reducing the transmission of the virus. An important consideration given players, especially during pre-season, will be engaged in indoor gym work.

The important issue at stake though, is how vaccinated and unvaccinated players will be treated.

The NFL and AFL have differing vaccination policies. The AFL has mandated vaccinations, while the NFL hasn’t mandated them, but made it very difficult for unvaccinated players to operate normally during the season.

The NRL did signal it would look towards the NFL in regards to a vaccination policy. However, the big difference is going to be surrounding state laws in Australia. Victoria and Queensland have indicated they won’t accept travellers arriving in the state without being vaccinated.

This isn’t so much an issue in America.

It’s also possible that state mandated vaccine rules are more likely to impact sides outside of New South Wales as they will be continuously travelling in and out of state. 

As an example, the Roosters, had it been a regular season, would have only had to leave New South Wales five times in 2021, six times if you count the ACT, or four times if you don’t include their home game during magic round.

The Broncos would have spent nine games out of Queensland. Fortunately for them, they’re all vaccinated.

It’s very possible we will see players who refuse to be vaccinated docked match payments if they are unable to travel with the team.

There are also the COVID protocols the NFL has instituted this time around, with there effectively being a two-tier system.

For double vaccinated players, if they are asymptomatic and test positive, they only have to isolate until they have two negative tests 24 hours apart. They also won’t be subjected to quarantine if they are a close contact of an infected person.

For the unvaccinated who tests positive, they are put into a mandatory 10-day isolation. If an unvaccinated player tests positive on a Saturday before a Sunday game, then they’re effectively missing two games regardless. Just coming into contact with an infected person means they will go into quarantine for five days.

That’s not to mention indoor mask requirements and daily tests for the unvaccinated.

What should be even more of a concern is what the NRL does if there is an outbreak amongst a team that forces a game to be delayed.

On this, the NFL stated that from the 2021 season onwards, the team that has the outbreak will forfeit the game and be fined, while both team’s players would not be paid for the match that is missed. The team responsible for the outbreak would be accessed to cover any financial game day shortfall.

So far in the 2021 season, that hasn’t happened as outbreaks have been kept usually to a handful of players and staff on each occasion.

Importantly, the NFL mandated vaccinations for all coaching staff. The NFL reported in September it had a 93.7 percent vaccination rate among players.

That being said, NFL squads and staff are well in excess of 100 people. A small outbreak among more than 100 vaccinated people is unlikely to seriously spread.

For the NRL though, cancelling matches isn’t an option given how much of a stink Nine and Fox would kick up. It has postponed matches due to positive COVID tests, however that was before vaccines were available.

As much as vaccination is a public health issue, it’s also a matter of competitiveness. A team with a fully vaccinated squad is much less likely to be disrupted should there be a positive case amongst the players or staff.

It would be a competitive advantage for a team to have all players vaccinated, allowing them to travel freely, as well as avoid long isolation periods.

On the flip side to all of this is how secretive the English Premier League has been regarding vaccination levels.

All 20 clubs share vaccine data with the governing body, but it refuses to release any of it. Reports from October suggest that only seven clubs have vaccination rates above 50 percent.

CNN reported that only Liverpool FC would go on the record, with manager Jurgen Klopp confirming his squad was 99 percent vaccinated.

In the NHL there is close to a 100 percent vaccination rate among players, while the NBA has taken a similar stance to the NFL.

The NBA has had issues though because they play matches in New York City, with Brooklyn Nets star Kyrie Irving unable to play home games and being docked match payments because he is unvaccinated and New York City has a vaccine mandate.

In San Francisco, Andrew Wiggins of the Golden State Warriors has received a vaccine after initially asking for an exemption. San Francisco also mandates vaccination.

At the time of writing the NRL reportedly has 15 contracted players who are refusing to be vaccinated.

The Bulldogs have indicated they may terminate the contract of forward John Asiata, while Melbourne continues to work with Nelson Asofa-Solomona, and Penrith are a little concerned regarding Apisai Koroisau’s refusal to get vaccinated.

The Panthers have indicated they’ll retain Koroisau as he’s likely to only miss four interstate matches. Perhaps for him, he should consider if he wants to play Origin. Only one match is being played in Sydney next season and Brad Fittler doesn’t like selecting players he knows won’t be available for a full series.

But the fact of the matter remains that COVID will still be an issue next season. The number of unvaccinated players is small and continuing to shrink, however, that shouldn’t distract from the fact the NRL and the clubs need a plan to ensure the competition isn’t impacted for a third year in a row.

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