NRL’s plan for crowd comeback... with a twist
ARL Commission boss Peter V'landys wants to end the NRL's crowd lockout from August under plans for full access to all stadiums, including more than 30,000 fans for Broncos games at Suncorp Stadium.
But fans may not be able to grab a beer at the game, as authorities grapple with how to ensure food and drinks are served safely at the stadium.
The Courier-Mail can reveal V'landys will table a proposal to the Queensland government "immediately" as part of a staggered crowd-return plan that would see gates opened to all rugby league fans from August 1.
The revelation is a huge shot in the arm for Queensland and NRL fans as V'landys looks to reward the code's millions of supporters for sticking by rugby league during the COVID-19 crisis.
The NRL was dealt a savage blow on March 13 when the governing body ordered a crowd lockout for the first time in rugby league's 112-year history in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
But V'landys is ready to give the game back to the fans.
Having successfully relaunched the competition on May 28, the NRL will allow 50 corporate fans to attend games this weekend with a view to having all restrictions removed for full crowds in August.
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V'landys last night confirmed his plan to unlock the gates at NRL venues in the coming months, saying the NRL would conduct temperature checks for every fan at the entrance and have sanitisation points throughout the venues if crowds were allowed to return.
"There's no reason not to have crowds if we have the right data on infections rates," he said.
"At the moment, crowds will be capped but gradually our plan is to have it eased off and hopefully by August it will be totally unrestricted and we open the doors to all league fans.
"In New Zealand, they have removed all the measures (around COVID-19 self-isolation protocols), it's unrestricted, so their first match for rugby union will have a full crowd.
"We have to start getting to that point ourselves.
"We will speak to the Queensland government about this. If they are looking at capped crowds in the short-term, we will make an application immediately."
V'landys' stance is a major boost for NRL fans and Queensland's three clubs, the Broncos, Cowboys and Titans.
As part of its return to competition a fortnight ago, the NRL's 16 teams are playing in six, COVID-compliant venues.
They are Suncorp Stadium, Townsville's Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Parramatta's Bankwest Stadium, Gosford's Central Coast Stadium, Melbourne's AAMI Park and Campbelltown Stadium in western Sydney.
It's understood crowds of just 1000 people may be welcome back to Suncorp Stadium initially, potentially as early as the round six clash between the Gold Coast Titans and St George Illawarra Dragons on Saturday, June 20.
Among Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young's considerations are how "discreet groups" are seated - which would allow groups of friends to attend together.
It's understood families could sit together, socially distanced from other household groups of friends and family, and be told which bathrooms they have to use.
Staggered arrival and exit times are a possibility as a way to thin crowds funnelling into and out of stands.
But it's not yet been decided whether supporters will be able to grab a burger and beer, with decisions being made about whether food can be served from canteens at staggered times, served to people in their seats, or not served at all.
Fans would only be allowed to pre-purchase tickets online, and authorities are considering how they can be discouraged from congregating before and after games.
However, it's understood public transport wouldn't be particularly impacted, with buses and trains not covered by social distancing rules and with planners anticipating they won't be full because of reduced crowds.
The NRL hopes full crowds could return as early as round 12 of the season, when the Broncos are due to host the Sharks at Suncorp. The Cowboys play at home on the same weekend against the Raiders on Saturday, August 1.
The NSW government has allowed pubs, clubs, cafes and restaurants to have up to 50 customers at a venue.
The NRL is using that social-distancing metric to allow corporate sponsors to attend games this week - starting with the Broncos-Manly clash at Gosford on Thursday night.
V'landys says the sight of 25,000-plus fans at venues such as Suncorp, Bankwest and Queensland Country Bank Stadium would be a morale booster after the dark months of COVID-19.
"To see all the fans coming back to Suncorp, Townsville and all the venues in NSW would lift the spirits for everybody," he said.
"It would be wonderful for people in society generally and lift the spirits of the players.
"I don't waste the governments' time. I have great respect for the NSW and Queensland premiers. We must make sure our case is strong with the appropriate evidence on COVID infection rates before we make applications to government.
"Once we prosecute our case in NSW, we will certainly be looking at Queensland as well, but it's important we do it (bring fans back) gradually.
"Early July is our Stage One where we have some fans back at games.
"With the co-operation of the Queensland government, we would love to see capped crowds at grounds like Suncorp Stadium in the coming weeks.
"At some point, the infection risk is low to nothing and with the proper biosecurity measures in place, it (full crowds) can be done."
This Saturday, the AFL will lead the way with 2000 supporters at the Adelaide and Port Adelaide game in the South Australian capital.
Queensland premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said she was not ready just yet to give the green light amid reports that AFL crowds of 1000 would be allowed in the Sunshine State this weekend.
"We have to be measure and responsible," she said.
"I'm very encouraged we're on zero (new COVID-19 cases).
"Hopefully it means at the end of the month we will be able to open up more things."
Originally published as NRL's plan for crowd comeback... with a twist