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Sport

Project Apollo bears fruit as NRL lifts off again

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia’s National Rugby League will bring professional team sport back to the southern hemisphere for the first time since the coronavirus shutdown when the Brisbane Broncos host the Parramatta Eels in Brisbane on Thursday.

FILE PHOTO: The South Sydney Rabbitohs of the National Rugby League (NRL) train amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) at Redfern Oval in Sydney, Australia, May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott - RC2FNG9QP41M/File Photo

Rugby league chief Peter V’landys was met with widespread disbelief when he announced in early April that the NRL would resume on May 28 but his ambition will pay off when a season suspended in late March resumes at Lang Park.

That ambition has been aided in large part by Australia’s success in containing COVID-19 due to early travel restrictions, social distancing measures and widespread testing.

Restrictions have been eased but some remain and the NRL, the most popular winter sport on the country’s east coast, has had to get special dispensation from government to get the players back on the pitch.

The matches will be played behind closed doors at a few selected stadiums and while the rest of the country is enjoying a bit more freedom, players and staff are still living under strict isolation rules.

The New Zealand-based Warriors squad have made the biggest sacrifices to get the season going again, spending two weeks in quarantine in an interior city before moving on to Gosford, where they will play the St George Dragons on Saturday.

The Warriors will have to play all their matches in Australia until the mooted trans-Tasman Sea “bubble” is put in place to allow travel back-and-forth to New Zealand.

Internal travel restrictions also remain in place and special permission has had to be granted by the Queensland government for sides from New South Wales and Victoria to fly in to play the three teams from the vast northeastern state.

The self-proclaimed “greatest game of all”, the 13-man version of the more international sport of rugby union, will resume in round three of the NRL season with round-robin matches running for another 17 weeks until the start of the playoffs.

The grandly named “Project Apollo” committee which plotted the return of the NRL is even hoping to have a limited number of fans in stadiums by the start of July.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA) described that proposal as “absurd” and “dangerous” on Tuesday but given what the NRL has already achieved, it might be premature to rule it out altogether.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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