AFL

Aussie rules football league the AFL has today (Friday) said it will resume its 2020 season on June 11, 81 days after it was suspended due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The ‘return to play’ plan outlined by the AFL comes after Australia’s most watched and attended sports league was forced to suspend the 2020 Premiership season on March 22, following one round of games.

The League said players and football department officials will return to clubs on Monday, with teams completing a three-and-a-half-week training block before matches officially restart. The AFL said all players and returning football department staff will have been tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to their clubs and undergone education sessions on the protocols they will need to follow.

This will also apply for umpires and match day staff once the season resumes. Strict protocols will be in place to protect players, officials, staff and the wider public with all involved in the game regularly tested ahead of any contact sessions or matches.

“Today is a significant step in getting footy back for everyone – our fans, our clubs, players, coaches, umpires, officials and staff, our broadcast and corporate partners and club partners and all who love the game,” AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan said.

“We know as this situation continues to evolve, we have to remain agile and flexible to be able to adapt where necessary while ensuring we continue to prioritise the health and welfare of our players, staff and the wider community and – importantly – don’t place any burden on the public health system.

“We have developed our model as the best option for returning to play for both players and officials and the general public and have done so following extensive consultation, including with the Federal, State and Territory Governments and Chief Health Officers.

“Our industry understands the opportunity we have been given and we also fully understand and accept our responsibility to our football family and to the wider community.”

In order to maintain flexibility and given that some states still have restrictions in place, the AFL will release the schedule for the remaining 144 games in a shortened 17-round season, plus finals of 2020 Premiership, in blocks of up to four to six weeks. The first block of games will be released over the next 10 days with games in the early part of the season being scheduled at AFL venues in states that have approved full-contact training and matches.

The Return to Play model will see all teams based out of their home state with the exception of the Western Australian teams West Coast Eagles and Fremantle, and South Australian teams Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide.

West Coast Eagles and Fremantle will complete the pre-season training block at their home bases before relocating interstate ahead of their first scheduled match while current restrictions in South Australia will mean that Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide will need to relocate interstate before May 25 when full contact training will begin for all 18 clubs. West Coast Eagles, Fremantle, Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide will all relocate to the Gold Coast.

The AFL said this move has been made possible with the support of Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, Tourism Minister Kate Jones and the Queensland Government’s strong health response.

All four clubs will be based interstate for an initial period of at least four weeks and the AFL said it will continue to remain flexible with fixturing so it can respond to any changes to restrictions in either state. The four clubs will be housed in accommodation villages.

The AFL said it eventually hopes to play games in most states and territories. McLachlan added: “I am confident that how we start won’t necessarily be how we finish and that as the situation changes around the country we have the flexibility, agility and industry collaboration to change where we need to.”

NRL

Staying in Australia, the National Rugby League (NRL) has today revealed the schedule for the return of its 2020 Premiership season on May 28.

The NRL last month confirmed that its 2020 season would recommence as a 20-round competition, having been suspended on March 23 following two rounds of action.

The return of the Premiership will be headlined by rugby league’s oldest rivalry after the NRL today released the schedule for Rounds 3 and 4 of the competition. The action will resume with the Brisbane Broncos v Parramatta Eels in Thursday Night Football. It will be the first time the two sides have met since the Eels knocked the Broncos out of last year’s finals series.

Friday night football returns with rugby league’s oldest rivalry between the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs. The NRL said the first two rounds of the season resumption are designed to give fans as much drama and excitement as possible, creating the “ultimate entertainment experience”. The full season schedule is set to be released next week.

NRL acting CEO Andrew Abdo said: “Today we have released the next two rounds of the draw to provide certainty for clubs, coaches and players so they can plan for the coming weeks. We are currently finalising the full draw with our broadcast partners and key stakeholders.

“Rugby league is so important to so many people. We hope that the football resuming will bring some positivity and excitement back to our fans and the wider community.”

Premier League/EFL

The government has said it is “opening the door” to the return of the Premier League and English Football League (EFL) in June.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden spoke out after a meeting yesterday (Thursday) between the government, Premier League, EFL and Football Association (FA). “The government is opening the door for competitive football to return safely in June,” said Dowden.

“This should include widening access for fans to view live coverage and ensure finances from the game’s resumption supports the wider football family. It is now up to the football authorities to agree and finalise the detail of their plans, and there is combined goodwill to achieve this for their fans, the football community and the nation as a whole.

“The government and our medical experts will continue to offer guidance and support to the game ahead of any final decision which would put these plans into action.”

It was reported this week that Premier League clubs are expected to be able to use their own stadia to complete the 2019-20 season, with talks overcoming a push by authorities to enact a neutral venue plan for the top division of English football.

On Monday, Premier League chief executive Richard Masters insisted that all 20 clubs remained committed to completing the season after the government announced that professional sport could resume in England from June 1.

The Premier League’s ‘Project Restart’ plan envisions a return behind closed doors on June 12, with most teams having nine games left to play after the competition was suspended on March 13. Speaking at yesterday’s daily COVID-19 briefing, the government’s deputy chief medical officer, Jonathan van Tam, who has been involved in drawing up guidance for the return of sport, said: “The overall approach with easing social distancing has been one that has been tentative, measured, slow and step-wise.

“This is exactly the plan that is taking place for all of elite sport, not just football. The first of those is really to return to safe training while still observing social distancing, and plans are taking place at quite some depth to be ready to do that.

“We’ll have to see how that goes before it is time to move on, or even think about moving on, to the return of competitive football matches. I believe we have to be slow and measured.”

Meanwhile, League Two clubs have today (Friday) indicated their preference to curtail the 2019-20 season due to the costs it would entail to continue. League Two and League One clubs met to discuss the remainder of the current campaign.

The EFL said the rationale for playing the remaining matches was fully debated with a particular focus on the issues COVID-19 has created in respect of health and wellbeing, ongoing testing requirements, player registration issues and the financial burdens clubs already face at this time.

In the event of a curtailment of the season, the EFL board outlined how this could be addressed through a framework that includes maintaining the principle of promotion and relegation, league tables to be determined via unweighted points per game (PPG) and play-offs to remain in every division to determine the final promotion place.

While League One clubs failed to reach a definitive conclusion, their counterparts in League Two unanimously indicated they would seek to curtail the campaign in line with the framework outlined by the EFL board.

In addition, clubs asked for consideration to be given to suspending relegation to the National League for 2019-20 as a result of circumstances created where fixtures cannot be completed. No commitments were made in this respect and the board will now consider the implications of the division’s preferred approach at their next meeting.

The EFL said Championship clubs met earlier this week and have indicated that it is their wish to play on and conclude the season.

Scottish Premiership

In Scotland, the use of ‘hub stadiums’ has been discussed as a means to safely return football in front of fans.

The Scottish Premiership and lower leagues are suspended until June 10 under current guidelines and the game’s Joint Response Group (JRG) yesterday staged its latest meeting to discuss options.

A club and stadium operations sub-group has analysed protocols from other countries, leagues, associations and sports including Germany, Spain, Norway, Korea’s K-League and the Swiss Rugby Union.

The utilisation of ‘hub’ stadiums across the country with potential to host multiple matches over a weekend, centralise match day resourcing and manage spectator safety has been discussed. The JRG said “positives and negatives” were noted and it was agreed that this model would be further assessed as part of their ongoing activity.

Among other issues discussed during the first two weeks of talks between six sub-groups are social distancing in stadia, closed-door games, online streaming and virtual season tickets.

Rod Petrie, Scottish FA president and JRG chair, said: “Naturally, we all wish to see football return as quickly as possible but we must continue to adhere to the guidance of the Chief Medical Officer whilst using the power of football to convey messages that will keep people safe and at home.”

World Rugby

World Rugby has today announced that the programme of internationals scheduled within the July 2020 window has been postponed due to ongoing government and health agency COVID-19 directives.

World Rugby, which this month published guidelines for the safe return to rugby, said extended travel and quarantine restrictions that apply to numerous countries, and concerns over adequate player preparation time, mean that any sort of cross-border international rugby competition cannot be hosted in July.

This affects England’s trip to Japan, where Wales were due to head before travelling to New Zealand, while Ireland had a series in Australia and Scotland were scheduled to face South Africa. World Rugby said: “All parties, including member unions, international competitions, professional club competitions and international rugby players, will be involved in the evaluation of potential contingency options with a view to achieving an aligned calendar for the remainder of the year.

“All decision-making will be entirely contingent on national government travel, quarantine and health advice and important player welfare and hosting considerations in line with return-to-rugby guidance recently published by World Rugby.”

Champions Cup

European Professional Club Rugby (EPCR) has said it is considering an expanded 24-club format for the 2020-21 Champions Cup, adding that it is targeting to stage this season’s finals on October 16-17.

In March, EPCR suspended the remainder of the Champions Cup and Challenge Cup seasons, including the planned finals of the two tournaments at the Orange Vélodrome in Marseille, France.

As part of its future planning, and with the “extraordinary circumstances” due to the COVID-19 pandemic, EPCR has now provided an update on its thinking, with a number of tournament formats being considered for the 2020-21 season.

The Champions Cup traditionally includes 20 teams, but EPCR said: “Ongoing discussions with EPCR’s league and union shareholders regarding new formats have included the possibility of a 24-club Heineken Champions Cup with eight representatives from each of Europe’s leading league competitions, played over eight weekends. If adopted, any new format would apply to next season’s tournament only on an exceptional basis.

“In the meantime, EPCR remains committed to making every effort to conclude the knockout stages of the Heineken Champions Cup and Challenge Cup season subject to official advice and with the health and welfare of players, club staff, match officials, supporters and the wider rugby community in mind. It is hoped that the 2020 finals could be staged on 16 and 17 October.”

Racing League

Organisers of the Racing League, a new concept for British horse racing, have postponed its launch until the summer of 2021, while Newcastle Racecourse has been named as the venue for the return of racing in the UK.

Championship Horse Racing have blamed COVID-19 for the postponement of the Racing League, which was scheduled to launch in July with six events at Newcastle, Doncaster, Lingfield Park and Royal Windsor.

The news marks the second postponement of the series, which was originally due to launch in 2019. Chief executive of the Racing League, Jeremy Wray, said: “Although disappointed, we are making the decision now to postpone the Racing League until 2021.

“We have committed £1.8m (€2.03m/$2.2m) prize money to the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), and will use the time we now have to work with horsemen, our partners and stakeholders to make the competition a really positive addition to the flat racing calendar for next year.”

Meanwhile, the BHA has said Newcastle will host an eight-race all-weather card on June 1, should government restrictions to control COVID-19 ease sufficiently to stage meetings behind closed doors.

The BHA’s proposed fixture list for the first eight days of racing includes 18 meetings at seven tracks, with the 2,000 Guineas and 1,000 Guineas, the first Classics of the year, to remain at Newmarket on June 6-7.

The BHA outlined plans for Royal Ascot and other events earlier this week.