SYDNEY (AP) — Concerns about the National Rugby League’s push to restart during the coronavirus pandemic have been compounded by sanctions against four players who flouted social distancing restrictions.
The NRL has yet to receive formal consent of governments to resume in Australia on May 28 after it was suspended last month following the second round. The late-May restart means clubs would return to practices next week, while social distancing laws remain in place for the public.
Those opposed to the NRL’s plans say they pose health concerns, particularly if the players who are supposed to be socially isolating to prepare for a COVID-19-free environment can’t abide by existing rules.
Three high-profile players — South Sydney’s Latrell Mitchell, Melbourne Storm’s Josh Addo-Carr and Penrith Panthers’ Nathan Cleary — were fined and given suspended one-match bans on Tuesday, shortly before plans for a 20-round competition with an Oct. 25 grand final were confirmed by the league.
Addo-Carr and Mitchell, who both played for Australia last year, had already been fined by New South Wales state police for camping last weekend with a group of men, including Newcastle Knights player Tyronne Roberts-Davis. Roberts-Davis, who plays in a lower tier, was also fined by the league.
Addo-Carr and Mitchell were also charged by police for alleged firearms offences after images of their weekend activities were posted on social media. Their court dates are scheduled for August.
Photos of Cleary sitting on a couch with five women who visited his house were also posted on social media.
The four players were fined a combined total of 120,000 Australian dollars ($78,000), with more than half of the total suspended, and were each given a one-game ban, which was also suspended pending their disciplinary records for the remainder of the season.
Australia coach Mal Meninga told Fox Sports News he’d have to think twice before selecting the players for representative teams.
Former player, coach and long-time TV analyst Phil Gould said the players should have been suspended for the season to send a stronger message.
Other critics of the sanctions said the NRL had already broken people’s trust, as it had promised a strict approach to the health and safety of players, staff and officials in practice and in games, which will be played initially in empty stadiums.
Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales state, which is likely to host of most of the NRL competition, on Wednesday said the actions of the players had jeopardized the league’s restart.
“There are a number of question marks, and the organization doesn’t do itself any service by having players acting that way,” Berejiklian said. “We are in a pandemic. It’s life and death. You might forego your own safety, but to compromise someone else’s safety, that’s inexcusable.
“”We can not afford to take chances or endorse any risky behavior in a situation where lives could be lost because of a flagrant breach of a rule.”
The NRL has applied for exemption to strict international travel bans to allow players and staff from the New Zealand Warriors to fly to Australia and go into quarantine before the competition.
The federal government will have the final say on Friday on when sporting leagues can resume, when it outlines a national plan for the return of sport.
Andrew Abdo, who took over as interim NRL chief executive last week after Todd Greenberg quit, said the four players’ punishments were for only breaking social distancing rules and for bringing the sport into disrepute. Further sanctions could apply for the alleged firearms offences, which reportedly involved the sharing of a licensed weapon.
Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys said the players have to be more responsible.
“The players have to understand that they are putting the game and the community at risk by their actions,” he said. “It’s certainly hard to accept such behavior when the game is doing everything it can to persuade the community that its players are responsible and behave appropriately.”
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