NRL’s ‘Project Apollo’ aims to provide smooth landing in Oz

National Sports

It has been dubbed the Project Apollo, a think tank tasked with giving Australia’s National Rugby League a smooth landing when the season resumes following a shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s not a lunar mission, but it has already generated some out there ideas for getting the players onto the field.

Some suggestions involve confining all teams and officials in a kind of bubble or capsule, like a reality TV program, in a secluded island location for a period of quarantine to avoid COVID-19 infection, and then keeping them there for several months to churn through enough rounds to make the competition viable.

A day after coming to terms with the players’ union on a 71 percent pay cut for the remainder of 2020 to counter the economic fallout of the pandemic, NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg said there was “no bad ideas” when it it came to pitches to the sport’s recently formed Innovation Committee. That’s what the local media is calling Project Apollo.

“The concept is as simple as trying to find innovative ways to get the game back,” Greenberg told Fox Sports on Friday. “And whether that’s putting players in secure environments, or restructuring how the competition looks and feels, we’re open to all suggestions.”

The season was suspended after two rounds, played in empty stadiums. It finished on the same weekend that the Aussie rules Australian Football League shut down after just one round.

The AFL and the NRL attract the biggest crowds and TV audiences in the Australian winter. Now both leagues are in hibernation, just like all other sport amid some stringent social distancing guidelines and travel bans that include border closures in some states.

Both leagues are aiming for mid-year restarts, but those dates are likely to be pushed back.

The 16-team NRL is centered in Sydney but has three clubs in Queensland state, which has closed its borders, one in Melbourne and one across the Tasman in New Zealand, which has closed its international borders. One proposal to possibly allow a June 1 start involves setting up conferences based in Sydney and in Queensland.

“Obviously there are some things out of our control,” Greenberg said. “We don’t have a line of sight yet on what the government restrictions will look like or border controls on our teams in both Queensland and New Zealand, but what we don’t want to do is not be ready.”

Rugby League Players Association chief executive Clint Newton said the playing group was open to innovative ways of getting the season restarted.

“We’re willing to explore all options for players, provided first and foremost the players are going to be appropriately protected and kept safe,

The NRL players have already been paid for four months, but will now go without the equivalent of five months’ pay.

“This is a difficult time for our game and the wider community and the challenges we face are immense, and unprecedented,” Greenberg said in a statement announcing the restructured pay deal. “The players understand the severity of the circumstances we face and have demonstrated their willingness to work with us to secure the best possible outcome to protect the long-term future of our game.”

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