Game on! NRL confirms season restart date
Update: NRL clubs are on track to be back in full contact training in just three weeks with a season kick-off date now finally locked down for May 28.
The NRL innovations committee told clubs on Thursday that government and biosecurity experts will allow players to return to training during the first week of May.
It would be an astonishing development given just a fortnight ago many thought a July recommencement was a pipe dream and total cancellation was more likely.
NRL management must engage with governments, clubs, broadcasters and players before securing final approval.
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"I'm pleased to announce we are aiming for a competition start for May 28,"said Wayne Pearce, who has headed up Project Apollo.
"The details of the competition structure we haven't got to yet, because the landscape is changing very quickly."
"Why we want to firm up a date is to give certainty to players and their schedules, clubs and thousands of people who are out of work.
"It's a mark for everyone that's associated with the game to work towards."
Public behaviour over Easter will also prove decisive with NRL officials aware a spike in the coronavirus could cause the Government to delay approval for the NRL kick-off.
"If everyone buys into staying home this weekend and buys into what the Government has requested, we will be all good," tweeted Gold Coast and former NSW hooker, Nathan Peats.
There had been speculation the NRL premiership would kick-off on May 21 but that will now be pushed back to May 28. Rival Australian sports are expected to now be swayed by the NRL's decision.
And there remains a hope the NRL grand final could still be played on Sunday, October 4 - the traditional date for rugby league's decider.
A 22-round competition could be played to appease Nine but insiders claim the network wants less footy and therefore less financial outlay.
Clubs are incredibly reluctant for the competition to push into December but did agree matches could, if necessary, be played as late as November. An NRL innovation committee meeting discussing season scheduling stretched for four hours on Thursday before another hook-up with clubs and chief executives.
The most likely competition draw would have each team playing each other once over 15 rounds - two have already been played - with four weeks of finals footy and three free weekends for State of Origin.
That would ensure a 20-week competition with State of Origin played midseason. A 16-round, two-conference system has been scrapped.
"We haven't got to the competition structure just yet because the landscape is changing very quickly in terms of protocols around government boundaries," said Pearce. "But what we landed on was a starting date.
"We wanted to firm up a date to give certainty to players and their training schedules and also clubs and the thousands of people out of work through the clubs, and the millions of fans of the game."
An October 4 grand final could mean one State of Origin game would be contested midweek, as The Daily Telegraph revealed on Thursday. The grand final could also be shifted back a week.
It was also resolved that interstate and overseas teams could enter a bubble when the season re-starts with Sydney clubs - including Newcastle and Canberra - allowed to remain at home.
NRL officials are hopeful border restrictions may be eased by late May and interstate clubs can travel freely into NSW.
It was a day of meetings in Sydney with the innovations committee convening - which included an appearance from Wayne Bennett - along with phone hook-ups with club chief executives and NRL coaches.
"Our goal is to give as much certainty as we can in uncertain times. There is clear evidence the curve is flattening. The NSW Government has done a great job in reducing the infection rate from 22.27 per cent when we suspended the competition to 1.43 per cent today,'' said ARLC chairman Peter V'landys
"The situation is changing dramatically and we need to get moving. It is in the best interests of our clubs, our players, our stakeholders and importantly our fans that the competition resumes as quickly and as safely as possible.
"We have said right from the start that what we say today may need to change tomorrow. We will be flexible, and if the trend changes or if government restrictions change then so will we. The health and safety of our players and the general public remains the absolute priority."
Nine have threatened to walk away from rugby league over the NRL's plan to resume playing. The network claimed to have been snubbed in NRL scheduling discussions.
Some at NRL want to fire back questions at Nine over the network's financial plight. Nine has publicly declared the station would retain $130m in proposed outlay should the NRL season be cancelled.
Originally published as Game on! NRL confirms season restart date