The Ramifications of ‘Rona’s Return

The Canberra Raiders are on the move, with the rest of the National Rugby League.

Coronavirus is a prick and it’s reemergence in New South Wales has meant that the whole competition has to get out of the state. A range of factors mean that is no longer feasible for the competition to operate primarily out of that state. It initially seemed the Raiders would escape the move but late Sunday night the Raiders confirmed they would be heading to Queensland for at least four weeks. Whether that’s all it is only time will tell.

I’m glad the NRL and its players are taking these steps. In the grand scheme of all things Covid, the continuation of a rugby league competition hardly ranks high. It’s a basic logistical and administrative challenge that all sporting competitions have handled, and continue to handle, during the pandemic. People will have far bigger problems, like health and money, to worry about. But it can be a communal good of importance to people going through the difficulty of lockdown. As someone who spent most of last year in lockdown, Thursday night football, for example, became something to look forward to and think about, rather than all the shit that comes with lockdown life.

That doesn’t mean it’s not a noteworthy sacrifice on the part of the players and clubs. For the Raiders it’s an added difficulty on what was already a dumpster fire of a year. Everything that could go wrong in 2021 has for them, and this is just another challenge to manage. Emotions have been high throughout this season for much of the squad and so this is just more pressure that the club and the players will have to find a way to bear.

This is the primary concern from our perspective. It’s already been a challenge for players and their families to operate within the bubble that has been necessary for the NRL to function this year. While it seems likely players families can join them in the new bubble in Queensland, it is likely they’ll have to go into a mandatory 14 day quarantine in order to enter the NRL bubble. We hope that the club does all they can to facilitate this. It’s hard enough not be able to do anything interesting with your family, but being separated them would be debilitating. It may not initially be appealing for families to make the move – I can’t fathom a worse hell than hotel quarantine with my toddler and newborn. I can’t think many families would relocate if it’s only to turn around a come back after a couple of weeks. Of course, it could be longer *crossed fingers, knocks on wood, throws salt, prays to Big Mal*.

One may hope that being forced into each other’s company may bring out greater camaraderie amongst the players. I hope this is what happens. However it’s just as likely that whatever tension points exist can fester to an even greater extent is such trying and difficult circumstances. Just keeping the squad happy and mentally healthy will be a massive test of Ricky Stuart and the leadership groups’ ability to muster a shared sense of purpose. Taking a bit of momentum out of last Thursday’s victory may prove critical in bringing a good mood into an elongated camp.

This won’t be easy on any team. The Raiders lose two home games (against the Sharks next week and the Dragons at the theoretical end of this in August) and avoid playing the Eels at their preferred BankWest, or the Knights in Newcastle. Playing in Queensland is hardly suitable for the normally chilled Milk. They’ve notably struggled in the heat in the past in warm weather (the loss against the Eels in Darwin in 2019 always sticks in my mind) and if the issue with their ability to compete in the middle this year has been fitness this will now be tested even more.

This means Stuart will have to use his bench rotations even more affectively than he has in recent times. Tom Starling will need to spend more time on the field than he has in most recent times (last Thursday excepted). In fact his arrival on the field around the 30th minute last game may become the norm as the Raiders say to make full use of the bench in the Queensland heat. It’s fortunate that Canberra continues to look threatening with Josh Hodgson given more freedom to roam as a ball player. However this will present defensive issues such as we saw last Thursday when both Hodgson and Starling found themselves in defensive positions too difficult for them to manage. Forwards won’t be able to play big minutes so whoever is on the bench needs to be used for a minimum of 30 minutes each game. Players like Hudson Young will be even more important in their ability to play major minutes at multiple positions in the pack, and we may see Canberra carry a back on the bench.

But this is all feeling a bit unimportant right now. I’m glad the NRL is keeping the competition going; and I’m still hopeful the Raiders can find a way (please) to play more consistent football. But mostly I’m happy that people in footy are keeping jobs, and that people stuck in their homes will have something to look forward to. It’s not going to be a fun time for anyone, but this is probably as good as it can be in the circumstances.

In the meantime look after your mates, get vaccinated if you can and enjoy the footy. Keep your chin up and your heart full.

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