Mar 20, 2020 10:43 AM

The games go on: Australia’s football leagues in action

Posted Mar 20, 2020 10:43 AM

An advertisement painted on the field near the center square would usually have summed up the hype of the Aussie rules season-opening game between Richmond and Carlton: Footy, Oh What a Feeling.

Last September, a crowd of 100,014 packed into the Melbourne Cricket Ground to watch Richmond trounce Greater Western Sydney to claim the Australian Football League’s premiership flag.

There were no fans there on Thursday when the Tigers opened with a 16.9 (105) to 12.9 (81) win over Carlton.

What an eerie feeling.

The AFL, the National Rugby League and soccer’s A-League competitions are all going ahead in Australia despite heavy travel restrictions and bans on crowds of more than 500 assembling at outdoor venues amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The 2020 NRL season kicked off last weekend with fans in the stadiums. The start of the second round was an entirely different story — there wasn’t a paying spectator at Sydney Olympic Park on Thursday. A sign on the big screen behind the North Queensland Cowboys in the first half read: It’s On, Sydney.com.

But it was only on, it seems, for a broadcast audience. For the record, the Cowboys won 24-16 against the Canterbury Bulldogs. One of the game’s leading players, former Australia captain Cam Smith, questioned the wisdom of playing the games, given how easily the virus has been spreading. He got some support from fans, and criticism from others. To play, or not to play? The question has divided fans, players and administrators.

Supporters of both the AFL and the NRL complained on social media about the lack of atmosphere and noise at the games, which was obvious on the broadcasts.

Some said the leagues would be better off postponed entirely. TV commentators joked about the lack of people to throw the ball back to players when it was kicked out of bounds, talked about the lack of ambiance and described it as almost like watching a practice session.

At the MCG less than two weeks ago, more than 86,000 people gathered to watch Australia beat India in the women’s Twenty20 Cricket World Cup final. Sports are, evidently, a major part of life in Melbourne, where Aussie rules was invented. And Melburnians like to say that the AFL is in their veins.

More than 90,000 attended the AFL’s season-opening game in 2018, and more than 85,000 were there at last season’s opener. But after the season-opening Formula One race in Melbourne was canceled last weekend, there was never any doubt the various football authorities would have to plan for games in empty stadiums, if their seasons went ahead at all.

This time, it was only match officials, team officials and staff, players and members of the media at the MCG.

“It’s so weird,” ABC radio sideline analyst Tim Hodges said. “Not a soul here.

“The concourse is bare, the turnstiles are locked, the gates are shut,” he said. “The restaurants, the food shops, the cafes are closed, the bars are locked … these are normally heaving on this night. It is like a ghost town.”

The AFL’s hierarchy left it until Wednesday to confirm the games would go on, after floating the idea of postponing it and having a shortened regular season.

When the Richmond players ran onto the field, the club song boomed over the stadium speakers. There were fan club signs draped over seats where fans should have been sitting.

Captains Trent Cotchin and Sam Docherty met at the center circle for the coin toss, and shook hands — a long tradition in the game, but a no-no in the new coronavirus era of “social distancing.”

There was no separating the teams once the whistle blew, anyway, with almost constant contact between players for two hours in Melbourne.

After the win, the Richmond players formed a huddle, arms over shoulders, and sang their club song in the locker room.

In the rugby league game in Sydney, there were almost 700 tackles completed — most of them involving shoulders crashing hard into players running at speed.

The ABC reported there were only 241 people — including the 34 players participating in the game — allowed inside the venue. The interchange bench chairs for both teams were separated by at least a meter (3 feet) and the match balls were washed regularly.

“It was very different. Certainly different times at the moment,” Cowboys coach Paul Green said of the lack of a crowd. “I was really worried about (the players) being flat. We’ve never had a prep like this before.”

The NRL plans to keep teams together, in isolation from the public so that there’s less risk of players being infected by the virus.

“It’ll become routine for us,” Green said.

Canterbury coach Dean Pay said it was a challenge to adapt to fan-free stadiums and isolation of teams, but it was better than suspending the competition.

“At the end of the day, we still want to keep playing,” Pay said. “It’s not ideal, but that’s what it is at the moment.”

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Mar 20, 2020 10:43 AM
Saints coach Payton says he tested positive for coronavirus

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton says he has tested positive for the coronavirus, is resting comfortably at home and is making his test result public in hopes he can motivate people to do more to fight the pandemic.

Payton learned Thursday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus, he told ESPN before posting a photo of himself smiling as he sat on a couch next to his dog.

“Appreciate the well wishes,” Payton wrote on his Twitter page. “I’m feeling better and fortunate to not have any of the respiratory symptoms. 4 more days at home.”

Payton, 56, is the first employee of either an NFL team or the league to make such a diagnosis public.

Payton told ESPN that he was tested Monday for coronavirus after he began to feel ill a day earlier. He added that he has not been admitted to a hospital and does not have a fever or cough.

“I was fortunate to be in the minority, without the serious side effects that some have. I’m lucky,” Payton told ESPN. “Younger people feel like they can handle this, but they can be a carrier to someone who can’t handle it. So we all need to do our part. It’s important for every one of us to do our part.”

Payton said he felt it was important to be particularly vigilant in Louisiana and the New Orleans area because of international tourist traffic, especially around recently concluded Mardi Gras festivites.

“So our parents, and those that are more susceptible to this virus, deserve everyone doing their best to combat it,” Payton said. “There are hundreds of people right now in tough predicaments, fighting for their lives. Let’s be part of the solution, not the problem. We can easily help reduce the numbers of those impacted. We have to do our best to beat this.

“This is not just about social distancing,” Payton said. “It’s shutting down here for a week to two weeks. If people understand the curve, and understand the bump, we can easily work together as a country to reduce it.

“Take a minute to understand what the experts are saying. It’s not complicated to do what they’re asking of us. Just that type of small investment by every one of us will have a dramatic impact.”

Payton was tested soon after he returned from attending horse races Saturday at Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, and the coach’s announcement had a ripple effect in horse racing.

New Orleans-based thoroughbred trainer Tom Amoss said he had spent time with Payton at Oaklawn Park and would immediately stop training horses that were scheduled to run at New Orleans’ Fair Grounds Race Course. On Saturday, Oaklawn remains scheduled to host the Louisiana Derby and several other graded stakes races — minus fans.

“I am self quarantining immediately and will get tested at the earliest possible time,” Amoss wrote on social media. “I feel great and have had no symptoms. Wishing Coach a fast recovery.”

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wished Payton well in a statement, and urged those in the NFL community and elsewhere to focus on public safety.

“Our primary concern is for Sean’s health and well-being,” Goodell said. “He did the right thing by seeking medical attention and we wish him a speedy recovery. It shouldn’t come as a surprise as this pandemic continues that members of our NFL family will be directly impacted.

“This news underscores the importance of everyone following the advice from medical and public health experts to protect themselves and others.”

Payton took his first head coaching job with the Saints in 2006. It was the club’s first season back in New Orleans after being displaced to San Antonio by Hurricane Katrina for the entire 2005 regular season. Payton has coached the Saints every season since — except 2012, when he was suspended for what the NFL said was his failure to stop an improper cash-for-hits bounty program run by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams and some defensive players between the 2009 and 2011 seasons.

Eight of the 13 Saints squads Payton has coached have made the playoffs, advancing to the NFC title game in the 2006, 2009 and 2018 seasons, with the 2009 team winning the franchise’s lone Super Bowl title.

Payton designs the offense for the most part and calls plays for the unit led by record-setting quarterback Drew Brees, whom Payton recruited to New Orleans as a free agent in 2006.

With Payton at the helm, the Saints have have ranked first in the NFL in total offense yards six times, in the top four 10 times and never worse than ninth.