Virus puts Australian sport behind closed doors

Melbourne (AFP) –


Sports-mad Australian fans are to be deprived of the weekly chance to see their teams live with rugby league, Australian Rules and rugby union forced on Friday to move behind closed doors.

This weekend will be the final chance for most spectators to get their fix of sporting action after the government moved to halt events of more than 500 people from Monday to counter the sweeping coronavirus threat.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, a diehard rugby league fan, is one those heading to a game this weekend while he still can.

"The fact that I would still be going on Saturday speaks not just to my passion for my beloved (Cronulla) Sharks, it might be the last game I get to go to for a long time. That's fine," he said.

It is a major blow for the National Rugby League (NRL) and its 16 clubs, with the new season getting underway this weekend.

NRL chief Todd Greenberg said fans will be able to attend round one but then the doors will close on supporters for the first time in the code's 112-year history.

"We've listened to the authorities who are in a far better position than we are," he said, with the ban in place until medical experts decide otherwise.

Australia so far has 184 confirmed cases of COVID-19, a number that has been increasing daily, and has seen three deaths.

"It's going to have significant financial impacts on all 16 clubs and the game," Greenberg added. "We're in unprecedented times. If they're in financial difficulty we'll keep them afloat. We'll get through this together."

Aussie Rules is the country's most popular spectator sport and that too is going into lockdown on the eve of the new season.

Round one will be played in empty stadiums next week, although the sport's bosses reserved the right to revisit the decision should new information from the government and medical authorities come to hand.

It means Richmond will host the season-opener against Carlton at the 100,000-capacity Melbourne Cricket Ground on Thursday with no one there.

The move to shut out fans comes after the Australian Grand Prix was cancelled at the last minute over virus fears, while Cricket Australia banned spectator attendance at Friday's one-day international between Australia and New Zealand in Sydney.

Australian Super Rugby games are also going behind closed doors after this weekend's fixtures, while Football Federation Australia said the situation from Monday "will be reviewed in line with the very latest government advice".

Meanwhile, the Australian Swimming Championships in Perth next month have been cancelled.