‘No reason why we couldn’t have kept playing’: V’landys reflects on NRL’s COVID-impacted season

The Australian Rugby League Commission (ARLC) chairman says if he had his time again he “would have thought twice about stopping the game” referring to the code’s enforced stoppage two rounds into the season because of the spread of coronavirus.

On the eve of the NRL men’s and women’s grand finals, Peter V’landys reflected on “a challenging time” not just for rugby league but “for the whole community and all of Australia”.

“Look, I see a lot of challenges and hardships at the beginning but joy at the end,” he told The Ticket.

“It’s been a mixture of a lot of emotions over the year.”

The ARLC Chairman is also the chief executive of Racing NSW.

Dealing with Equine Influenza in 2007 gave him confidence the NRL could return in late May from the forced eight-week COVID-19 hiatus, becoming the first major sport in Australia to do so.

When asked whether he’d do anything differently if he found himself in the position again he was forthright in his response.

“I think we proved in racing that if you’ve got the proper biosecurity measures in place you could operate.

“If the players abided by the biosecurity measures and stayed in the bubble and followed every protocol, as they did conscientiously and professionally, there was probably no reason why we couldn’t have kept playing.

“But in saying that it did give us a breather to be able to do the biosecurity measures properly and ensure that the community rate had come down and there was little risk to the players or the community.”

Cost-cutting looms

The NRL will make a number of cuts to its operating expenses next season after the television rights deals were redrawn during the break.

Specific areas labelled by the chairman as “nice-to-haves” will be dropped while other key programs will not be touched.

“The integrity area — we certainly won’t be making any cuts there,” V’landys said.

“The education and welfare of the players — we won’t be making any cuts there, it’s important that we have these educational courses especially in regard to respect to women and [the players’] general behaviour, so that won’t be decreased.

“There are a lot of things there that are ‘nice-to-haves’ but are not ‘must-haves’ and we’ll get rid of those … to ensure we get the same outcomes for a lesser price.

When it came to identifying the ‘nice-to-haves’ he said only: “There’s a lot of them, and they all add up”.

Women’s comp to remain a focus

A player tucks the ball under her arm as she runs toward the tryline in an NRLW game. A player tucks the ball under her arm as she runs toward the tryline in an NRLW game.
The Broncos and Roosters will meet in the NRLW grand final.(AAP: Dean Lewins)

Ahead of Penrith Panthers and Melbourne Storm vying for the men’s title, the women’s grand final will see the Sydney Roosters up against two-time defending champions, the Brisbane Broncos.

The women’s competition will remain as an area of focus and investment.

There are only four teams in the women’s competition and the 2020 season consisted of three rounds before this weekend’s final.

“I was quite argumentative that we should expand it but the reason we didn’t is because the players themselves didn’t want it.”

V’landys said the women were concerned that without first developing depth in the ranks, expansion could result in injuries to players who were not yet ready.

“We need a little bit more time on the grassroots to get those players ready otherwise their safety [will be] compromised,” he said.

“I had to retreat from my argument of trying to get up to eight or 10 teams.

“What we have to do with it though is grow it from the bottom up, we need to spend a lot more on participation, we need to start getting a little bit of semi professionalism and then professionalism.

“Unfortunately, it is going to take time.”

Predictions time

The chairman offered his thoughts on who might walk away with the premiership in 2020.

“It’s hard to go past the Broncos in the ladies but … I might go for an upset … the Roosters [to] beat the Broncos.”

“In the men’s, it’s a hard game and I think the weather’s going to have a lot to do with it,” he said.

“It’s a bit like racing, is it going to be a soft track or a heavy track or a good track? By all predictions, it’s going to be a pretty wet Sunday.

“You’d have to lean towards the Storm with the current weather forecast, but if it’s a dry track I think Penrith will win.”

A Penrith NRL player kneels on his left knee as he is tackled by a South Sydney opponent.A Penrith NRL player kneels on his left knee as he is tackled by a South Sydney opponent.
V’landys says the weather could determine the NRL grand final winner.(AAP: Craig Golding)

He said Sunday was a reward for the players’ commitment to a season lived in a COVID-19 bubble that got the NRL back on television, avoiding the need to borrow money.

“If we had to borrow hundreds of millions of dollars that means that future generations would be affected because you have to pay that money back,” he said.

“One, relief, definitely, although we’ve still got three State of Origin games to go.

“Two, a celebration and, three, just a reward for those two teams for what they’ve done.”

After originally being criticised for brazenly naming a return date during COVID-19 lockdowns, V’landys has since been dubbed by some within the game as ‘a genius’ and ‘St Peter’.

When asked whether Olympic officials had come knocking for his advice on managing a successful return from a COVID-19 delay, he replied: “No … I was a good 100-metre runner but I don’t think they’d select me now.”