NRL match between the Wests Tigers and Newcastle Knights in 2019. (Image: AAP/Brendon Thorne)

If you want to have a bet on football right now your choice is meagre. There are only three competitions, among them the 16-team Belarus Premier League (the others are Tajikistan and Nicaragua).

Belarus continues because the country’s strongarm president Alexander Lukashenko does not believe that COVID-19 exists. Lukashenko has called the pandemic a “psychosis”, and as the numbers of infections (more than 6000) and deaths (over 50) have escalated so too have the president’s attacks on those he deems weak and/or stupid enough to get sick.

Meanwhile the country’s premier league carries on.

Australia is now on track to join Belarus in showcasing a body contact sport in the time of social distancing, if plans come to fruition to restart the National Rugby League (NRL) by the end of May.  

A key proponent of the NRL’s plan, former league great Wayne “Junior” Pearce, has made the Belarus-like claim that maybe COVID-19 is a bit of a beat up.

“There’s no doubt people who are probably not into sport are getting consumed by the fear frenzy,” he told ABC interviewer Tracey Holmes

“There’s a chunk of media out there that drives a fear frenzy and that sells newspapers, drives ratings. We’re cutting through that and dealing with the facts.”

Pearce is part of an “innovations” committee — which the NRL says features some of the “greatest minds in the game” — and has been charged with finding ways to get rugby league started and, most importantly, earning broadcast fees from Channel Nine and Foxtel. These are currently set at around $300 million a year but being renegotiated in the light of the impact of COVID-19.

Pearce’s take on the true public health position — what he calls the “facts” not the “fear frenzy” — coincides with a steady drumbeat which has started to build, especially from the Murdoch empire in the USA and in Australia, questioning the need for a locked-down society and pointing to the economic damage. 

At the same time the powerful and supremely well-connected figure of Peter V’landys has moved centre stage of the NRL’s survival strategy, following NRL head Todd Greenberg’s resignation from his $1.2m a year post.

V’Landys is no epidemiologist. He majored in accountancy at university before carving out a career running Racing NSW, but, like Pearce, he has formed the view the risk of the coronavirus isn’t so great after all.

On the eve of a potentially decisive meeting today, V’landys has claimed that players will be at less risk of contracting the virus while playing NRL than if they are sidelined.

“The infection rate was only six people in NSW, it’s less than 0.2%,” V’landys said, “It was 23.5% when we stopped. Everything is going towards our plan.”

V’landys is perhaps best known for his move in 2018 as head of Racing NSW to project promotions for the $14 million Everest horse race onto the exterior of the Sydney Opera House. The move culminated in a furious tirade from V’landys ally Alan Jones against Opera House CEO Louise Herron. V’landys sat quietly on the line as Jones — who has interests in horse racing — set up an ambush of Herron. 

Ugly it might be. But it worked. Under hectoring from Jones, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian ordered Herron to turn over the Opera House’s world-famous sails to promote the horse race, on the grounds that the Opera House belonged to all taxpayers and shouldn’t just exist for so-called cultural elites.  

V’landys has a record of negotiating hard to bust the status quo. He established the annual Everest race — the most valuable in the world — to wrest glory away from the Victoria and the Melbourne Cup.

He also negotiated a $235 million rescue package with prime minister John Howard when the horse racing industry was ravaged by the equine flu in 2007. 

V’landys led a groundbreaking High Court case against giant betting firms Sportsbet and Betfair who were forced to hand hundreds of millions of dollars in fees to NSW Racing. The victory had a massive flow-on effect for the finances of NSW as well as other state’s racing authorities and cemented V’landys’ hero status.

When the COVID-19 crisis started to bite in March V’landys — along with other state racing heads — made the argument to the government that horse racing should continue.

Horse racing has carried on mainly in regional Australia with the public banned from entering and with safety precautions which allow jockeys and other staff to keep their jobs.

The precautions include that anyone arriving for work at a racecourse must be tested for a fever — an imperfect test for COVID-19 because symptoms such as fever may not become apparent for several days, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Inq asked NSW Health why it agreed to allow horse racing to continue but we have received no answer.

Australia is one of only a handful of countries in the world where horse racing, greyhound racing and harness racing continue. Others include some states of the US, Japan, Sweden and Hong Kong.

The move in Australia has delivered Sky Racing, owned by betting conglomerate Tabcorp, some much-needed race content. It has also delivered other sports betting companies some markets for punters desperate for a bet. Sports betting otherwise offer meagre pickings, with the odd table tennis tournament or darts contest taking place   

V’Landys’ blunt style has succeeded in the racing business but he hit a bum note when, in his role as Australian Rugby League commissioner, he demanded that the federal government pump hundreds of millions of dollars into a coronavirus rescue package for rugby league on the grounds that “an Australia without rugby league is not Australia”.

In COVID-19 time it feels like months ago that V’landys made his brash — bordering on boorish — plea. In fact, it was only five weeks ago. 

V’landys is part of a powerful network which has influence with the Morrison government.

The NRL’s major broadcast partner, Nine, is chaired by former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello. CEO Hugh Marks last year famously hosted a $10,000 a head Liberal party fundraiser at Nine’s studios. Morrison’s Immigration Minister David Coleman is a former Channel Nine executive. One of Morrison’s closest supporters Scott Briggs was a senior Nine executive before moving across to Fox Sports. Briggs is also a director of Scott Morrison’s football club, the Cronulla Sharks.

The other broadcast rights holder, Foxtel, is a Murdoch company and is desperate for sports content for its Fox sports channel. Foxtel also owns the newly launched Kayo streaming service which also needs sports content.

Sports betting companies also have a major stake in a restart of the NRL. BetEasy is the official wagering partner of Foxtel’s Kayo, giving punters a seamless way to stream sport and bet at the same time. The NRL has its own betting partner, Sportsbet. It also partners with alcohol and fast food companies.

Despite these commercial allegiances, publicly the NRL has built its argument on the employment and social benefits of starting rugby league again: it’s a case of jobs for the players and club staff plus a dose of entertainment and normality for supporters. 

V’landys has declared that the NRL has come up with biosecurity measures to keep the game virus free. These include blood testing players, temperature checks and the logging of family members’ movements, according to AAP. 

“They are very comprehensive and I reckon will be the benchmark for other sports,” V’landys said.

Yet what of the example it sets? Inq has asked the NRL, Nine and NSW Health to answer two basic questions:

  • Do you have any concerns that the frequent body contact inherent in Rugby League risks undercutting public health messaging on social distancing which has been key to controlling the pandemic in Australia?  
  • Are you concerned about impressionable young viewers who might think it’s OK to pile on top of each other given that is what their heroes are doing?

We haven’t received an answer.

Vlandy’s move will put pressure on Prime Minister Scott Morrison to say where he stands. Morrison has called the NRL’s timeline ambitious, but as Australia’s self-styled footy fan-in-chief Morrison has not ruled out a restart to the season some time.

If V’landys — with the help of influential friends — can turn the Opera House into a billboard for the horses then who would rule out the return of a contact sport during a pandemic?