Australia quickly became the centre of the professional sporting universe amid the COVID-19 crisis, with its three biggest domestic leagues – the AFL, NRL and A-League – resolutely continuing as suspensions and postponements hit codes and competitions across the globe.
But just hours out from completing the first round of 2020 premiership matches, the AFL made the agonising call on Sunday afternoon to suspend its competition until at least 31 May.
The most serious threat to AFL in 100 years
The latest round of measures to counter the spread of COVID-19, announced by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday morning – including bans on non-essential travel and the endorsement of state-issued border closures – effectively backed the AFL and its clubs into a corner.
South Australia subsequently shut its borders indefinitely, creating obvious issues for Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide Power if the premiership was to continue.
“To say this is the most serious threat to our game in 100 years is an understatement. It is unprecedented in its impact,” AFL CEO Gil McLachlan said. “It is unprecedented in the impact it is having on our game and the wider community, and as a community and as a code, we all need to take the unprecedented and required actions to get through this together.”
All club training has been suspended, while the 31 May resumption date will be reviewed and potentially extended as the COVID-19 situation in Australia dictates. The remainder of the women’s AFLW premiership, which staged its first batch of finals matches over the weekend, has been cancelled.
What does this mean for the 2020 AFL season?
The 2020 season had already been reduced from the standard 23-round format to a 17-games-per-team fixture, with clubs playing each other once. But despite the prospect of the league not returning to action until June at the earliest, the AFL remains committed to playing out the remaining 16 rounds – a total of 144 matches – this year.
The competition was close to being suspended prior to round 1. Meetings ran deep into Wednesday night – less than 24 hours before the Richmond vs Carlton season opener – and the AFL ultimately resolved to proceed, but it has since been revealed that some players were opposed to the premiership getting underway.
The Tigers kicked off their title defence with a 24-point victory after holding off a late rally by the Blues. But it’s the Power who head into the hiatus on top of the AFL ladder on percentages after chalking up a 47-point away win over the Gold Coast Suns – closely followed by Collingwood Magpies, who trounced Western Bulldogs on Friday.
GWS Giants made a strong first-up statement by winning their heavyweight duel with Geelong Cats by 32 points on Saturday. In back-to-back thrillers on Saturday, Essendon Bombers won a cliffhanger against Fremantle Dockers by one goal, while Sydney Swans held on for a nerve-shredding three-point defeat of the Crows in Adelaide.
Sunday’s trio of matches saw North Melbourne Kangaroos edge St Kilda Saints by two points in a low-scorer, before Hawthorn Hawks put away the highly rated Brisbane Lions by a 28-point margin and West Coast Eagles outlasted Melbourne Demons by 27 points.
Despite the AFL’s drastic call and growing pressure to follow suit, the NRL and A-League have vowed to forge on until directed otherwise by the authorities. Meanwhile, a clutch overseas football, table tennis, volleyball, ice hockey, cricket, sumo wrestling and e-Sports leagues have so far managed to avoid the COVID-19 sports purge.
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