When you’ll be able to go to the footy again
A biosecurity expert charged with resurrecting the NRL season has revealed he expects crowds to be back to rugby league in time for both the grand final and State of Origin series.
In a huge boost for footy fans, Associate professor David Heslop has told The Daily Telegraph he expects "mass gathering" crowds to be allowed back into stadiums by the end of this year.
An expert in analysing biosecurity risks and epidemic modelling, Heslop suggested that while the NRL would initially play to empty stadiums from May 28, a "graded" return to filling venues was the most likely course of action.
Internationally, there have been suggestions crowds may not return to some sports until 2021 at the earliest.
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However Heslop suggested that was only likely in the NRL if there was a change in Australia's current COVID-19 situation -- such as a sudden new spike in cases.
The news comes as Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk launches an audacious bid to steal not only the NRL grand final on October 25, but two games from the ensuing November Origin series.
Asked when he again expected NRL crowds of 20,000 and above, Heslop said: "Based on current pathways, and barring any changes in the meantime, this would likely be sometime in the second half of this year".
The positive prediction will almost certainly have major implications on where the NRL stages its showpiece games at the end of 2020.
While the Sydney Cricket Ground was initially chosen to host the NRL decider on October 4, it would be ruled out of the new, later timeslot should the T20 World Cup go ahead as scheduled.
With ANZ Stadium and Allianz Stadium also undergoing major renovations, the Queensland government is now pitching Suncorp Stadium as a potential venue for both the NRL decider and at least two Origin fixtures.
"It's certain that restrictions on mass gatherings of that size will be one of the last to be lifted," Heslop continued. "It is also difficult to predict the timing with any certainty.
"(However) it's my expectation that once all active cases of COVID-19 in the community are fully identified and contact traced, or better still eliminated, then the respective State and Territory Governments and federal agencies will be able to think about easing mass gathering restrictions."
October is also now shaping as a huge one for sports fans, with NRL and AFL deciders headlining a month that could also host Sydney's Spring Carnival, the T20 World Cup cricket tournament and Bathurst 1000.
The prospect of those major events being played in front of spectators shapes as a boost worth millions of dollars to sports chiefs and the economy.
Heslop said that while the NRL would initially return inside empty stadiums, there could be a chance for crowds to return gradually, with social distancing measures employed inside venues like Bankwest Stadium.
"A graded and cautious approach to easing mass gathering restrictions by authorities is the most likely course of action," he said.
"Beyond complying with the mandatory mass gathering restrictions in force, venues are able to employ other methods to ensure appropriate social distancing.
"These include controlling the density and spacing of seated spectators, plus managing the movement of spectators at entries, exits and other areas where people might group."
A lifelong rugby league fan, Heslop has a long history in planning and management of natural disasters and analysing biosecurity risks and epidemic modelling.
He is also responsible for the 50-page biosecurity document handed out to all 16 NRL clubs.
Originally published as When you'll be able to go to the footy again