If the suspension of the NRL competition wasn’t a big enough reality check for its players, Phil Gould has delivered a grim warning for what’s coming in the next six to 12 months.
Having been stood down from their playing and training commitments until at least June 1, most of the game’s stars have spent their first couple of days of isolation working out how to retain the hard-earned fitness they built over the course of a gruelling off-season.
However, speaking on Wide World of Sports’ Six Tackles with Gus podcast, Gould said a return after a break of just a couple of months “isn’t going to happen” and advised players to focus on doing their bit for the community during the enforced break, rather than stressing about their conditioning.
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“I think everyone’s priority at the moment is their own health and well-being, for their families and for themselves,” Gould said.
“And to abide by the things that the government is telling us so far as how our lifestyle has now changed and how we have to act, the things we can and can’t do. There needs to be more control and more spirit of cooperation so that everyone knows that they’re not going to go hungry … There is going to be hardship for a lot of people in the community who are not prepared financially.
“Physically, mentally there’s going to be a lot of issues for people. So the football side of things and what a coach is thinking for his players, the coach is thinking, go home, look after yourself, look after your family, listen to the instruction, and see you when we see you. That’s the reality.
“This, ‘how do I keep my players fit if we have to play next week?’ It’s not going to happen. So your priority is to be part of society and go back and understand that there are a lot of people hurting out of this, it’s going to get a lot worse before it gets better, and your priority is your own health, the health of your family and everyone around you and the support of others in the community.”
Yesterday it was reported that the NRL was creating contingency plans for a revised 2020 season based on scenarios where the competition gets back under way on June 1, July 1, August 1 and September 1.
According to those reports, the NRL would give up on 2020 if they can’t get back onto the field by September 1.
Gould acknowledged that it was the NRL’s role to plan for a future, whatever that might look like, but said he couldn’t see a trigger for getting players back on the field other than a vaccine that controls COVID-19.
Even the most optimistic vaccinologists are forecasting a 12-month wait for a vaccine and the more realistic number that has been quoted is 18 months.
If that’s the case and society can’t resume as normal until that point, it’s Gould’s view that the NRL is currently engaged in ‘romance thinking’ if it expects a return to the field this year.
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“When things start to improve, be it because we’ve controlled the virus or we’ve contained it or we have a cure for it through a vaccine, then we can start to make some plans from there,” Gould said.
“Right at the moment football is not the priority for these people. It’s their own health and wellbeing and the health and wellbeing of their family.”
While the NRL has been suspended due to a health crisis, the by-product that has created urgency for getting back on the field is the game’s insecure financial position.
According to reports, the NRL told its 16 clubs yesterday that it had a $153 million war chest to keep it afloat while the competition is stopped.
The outright cancellation of the 2020 season would be disastrous, with those funds likely to be exhausted bringing some of not all of the 16 clubs to their knees.
Looking to the future Gould said significant pay cuts for players would be “small potatoes in a month’s time” and predicted huge changes in the way rugby league is administered when it returns.
“The people that are hurting and are going to hurt even more over this. Player payments are the least of the news, trust me,” Gould said.
“And players will learn that, this is a life experience for them. This is going to get so bad for so many people.”
Gould refused to predict how many clubs would survive or which ones were at the greatest risk of collapse but he said the self-interest that had traditionally been rife in the game would make things difficult at a time when it needed to be united.
“What our game looks like in 12 months time, I’ve got no idea what it looks like. It could look completely different, if it runs at all,” Gould said.
“Now having said all that, let me tell you what the intention is. The intention is at the moment everyone survives, everyone comes back, we’ll all work together and we’ll do whatever we have to do. We need to get our clubs up and running again and we need all our staff back and we need to make sure that everyone’s got a job and we that’s the good-feel part about it, let’s everyone work together and do that.
Pay cuts loom as NRL clubs stop training
“From my experience clubs tend to work out of self interest, I don’t know how much co-operation there will be or for what length of time there will be co-operation between all the clubs because I know from experience that they work in mysterious ways and it’s all a lot of self-interest in what they do.
“I think it’s a real challenge for Peter V’landys and whoever’s left in administration or on the Commission to look at what the competition looks like going forward, to look at what our governing body’s going to look like.
“Now we’ve sort of touched on this and danced around this subject in recent weeks but there will be a complete review of what’s happened over the last 10 years in rugby league to leave us so financially vulnerable at this time to what’s happening now. And that will have a big say in what the game looks like going forward.”