Coronavirus takes it slow and steady in Australian football
BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — Slowly but surely, the four football sporting codes in Australia are completing their delayed seasons due to coronavirus shutdowns around the country.
The two remaining ones are the biggest — Australian rules football and rugby league. In the others, Sydney FC beat Melbourne Victory 1-0 in the A-League soccer grand final two weeks ago. And last Saturday, the ACT Brumbies beat the Queensland Reds 28-23 in the Super Rugby Australia final, an inaugural domestic-only competition created due to travel restrictions from the coronavirus.
Still to come are the much-anticipated playoffs in the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League.
The AFL playoffs begin this weekend with eight teams. The four top teams play each other in the first round, with the winners advancing straight to the semifinals. The losers have a second chance a week later against the winners of two teams placed from fifth to eighth who play elimination finals in the first round.
Whichever way the playoffs go, there will be no grand final championship match at the 100,000-seat Melbourne Cricket Ground on Oct. 24.
Due to coronavirus restrictions and a second spike of COVID-19 deaths and infections in Melbourne and the rest of Victoria state, the final has already been moved to the Gabba in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state.
The Melbourne-based AFL, known as the Victoria Football League until 1990 after it started expanding nationally, has played nearly all of its championship matches at the Melbourne Cricket Ground since 1897. The MCG wasn’t used during World War II after the government requisitioned it for the military. In 1991, the grand final was played at another stadium in Melbourne while the MCG was being upgraded.
Queensland, with stringent between-state border controls in place for most of the last three months, has had few deaths and infections and for that reason teams from all four sports codes have used the state to set up bio-secure bubbles and keep their respective competitions going.
The National Rugby League plays its final regular-season round this weekend, but all eight playoff teams have been decided, including first-place Penrith. The NRL has a similar second-chance playoff format to that of the AFL.
The revamped competitions haven’t been without problems. There were players and teams suspended or fined and the schedules rewritten to move matches from Victoria and New South Wales states when the virus spiked in those states.
The most recent came Monday, when Melbourne midfielder Harley Bennell was banned for four matches and his AFL club fined 50,000 Australian dollars ($36,000) after Bennell breached the AFL’s return-to-play protocols. He left the club’s hub on the Sunshine Coast north of Brisbane on Saturday to “visit an unauthorized residence without approval to do so,” the club said.
Once these primarily southern hemisphere winter sports are concluded, the prime summer sport of cricket is set to begin in Australia, and there are already concerns.
India is scheduled to tour Australia for a four-test tour, and there is speculation that the Boxing Day test beginning Dec. 26 at the Melbourne Cricket Ground may have to be moved due to coronavirus restrictions in Victoria. Both teams will have to spend time in isolation ahead of and during the series.
Australian cricketers are facing the prospect of a Christmas separated from their families. In Adelaide after Australia’s one-day international series win in England, coach Justin Langer and a number of players are completing a two-week quarantine at an Adelaide Oval hotel.
Langer will have to do the quarantine all over again when he returns home to Perth, Western Australia.
“The quarantine issues are going to cause the greatest angst for the families,” Langer told Australian Associated Press. “Every opportunity we are going to get for our players and support staff to see their families we are definitely going to take it. It’s really problematic but it’s the sacrifices we’re going to have to make.”
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