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There’s a wild proposal in Australia to revive one of the country’s most popular sports: quarantining about 500 rugby league players and training staff on a luxury resort island and then ferrying them back to the mainland to play televised matches in empty stadiums.
The new initiative — just one option being considered by the National Rugby League — would house teams at Tangalooma Island Resort on Queensland’s Moreton Island, a luxury resort with capacity for 1,500 guests. It’s currently empty due to the collapse of tourism during the pandemic, and players and coaches would only be admitted when after being cleared of having the virus.
“It’s certainly an option,” National Rugby League chief executive Todd Greenberg told Australia’s Wide World of Sports radio Friday.
Coronavirus has shut down much of life as we know it, and sporting tournaments have been no exception: The Olympics, the NBA, and the Premier League have all suspended or postponed their games during the pandemic. Last month, Australia’s National Rugby League did the same for its 16 teams due to concerns about the threat to player health posed by the virus, which has so far infected 5,000 people and killed 26 in Australia.
But the sudden suspension of the tournament, which draws a huge following in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, has thrown the sport into financial turmoil. The game’s bosses have tasked an “innovation committee” with finding options to get the competition restarted as soon as possible.
"There are literally thousands of people that earn a living on the back of rugby league and the quicker we can unlock it and put it back on the field, our fans will enjoy it but also the industry and the economy will need it as well," Greenberg said.
The proposal was pitched by David James, the resort’s owner, who said the island’s isolation would be a major asset during the pandemic. The existing infrastructure would allow the resort to house and feed the hundreds of professional athletes and coaches, while a grass airstrip could be turned into training fields.
“The greatest thing is we can isolate the place,” he told Australia’s Fox sports this week. “We can lock it down.”
Resuming the season has become more of a possibility after a union representing the players indicated the athletes would be prepared to consider living in isolation for the duration of the season — even though it might mean being separated from their families — if the tournament could restart. Under the terms of an emergency pay deal brokered with the game’s administrators, the athletes won’t be paid from June unless the tournament resumed.
The most likely solution would involve basing the players in an isolated location like Moreton Island; Gladstone, a port city in Queensland, has been touted as another possible base. The National Rugby League’s innovation committee is due to meet next week to discuss the proposals.
But while the return of the tournament would be welcomed by many fans, others gave the proposal a frosty reception on social media.
“Can someone tell me why a bunch of meat heads and their hangers on should unnecessarily use a huge amount of COVID-19 test kits so that they can get back onto their already ridiculous salaries,” wrote one Twitter user.
Another was just as blunt and called the tournament “the very definition of a non-essential service.”
Cover: FILE - In this Nov. 30, 2013, file photo, Australia's Greg Inglis, right, keeps the ball from New Zealand's Shaun Johnson during their World Cup Final International Rugby League match at Old Trafford Stadium, Manchester, England. (AP Photo/Jon Super, File)