A dream start and 'Milli Vanilli': four things as NRL resumes

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Brisbane (Australia) (AFP)

Australia's National Rugby League defied the sceptics and resumed its season Thursday after a 67-day COVID-19 shutdown, with Parramatta Eels beating the Brisbane Broncos 34-6 at Queensland's Suncorp Stadium.

The match marked the return of professional sport in Australia and made the NRL one of the earliest to resume worldwide, with broadcaster Fox estimating the potential global television audience of many millions.

AFP Sport looks at what we learned form the restart:

- Test, test, test -

Test, test and test again has been a common mantra through the pandemic and NRL medics followed it to the letter ahead of the season restart, at least until they got the result they wanted.

They were under orders to exclude any players who showed the slightest sign of fever, and there were doubts over Broncos halfback Brodie Croft when his temperature was above the 37.2 Celsius threshold.

The finding was confirmed by a second reading, but it was third time lucky for Croft when another check produced an acceptable result.

"I think the excitement got to me there at the front gates but I'm keen to get to kick-off now," said Croft, who went on to score the Broncos' only try of the match.

- Dream start -

Not only did the NRL beat Australia's other sports to be first to return to the field, it also announced new broadcast deals which will bolster its troubled finances.

The NRL said it had secured a free-to air agreement with Nine until 2022 and a marathon deal with pay-TV operator Foxtel extending through to 2027.

Foxtel chief executive Patrick Delany revealed he had been in close contact with Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V'landys throughout the NRL's shutdown.

Delany revealed even he was sceptical about the game's ability to meet V'landys' ambitious deadline for restarting the season.

"Peter V'landys used to send me a text with the infection rates and saying 'May 28' -- in the early days, I responded 'you're dreaming'," he said.

"But it's a great lesson for all of us that what seemed impossible then is possible now."

- Pitch perfect or tone deaf? -

Among the strangest aspects of the match for television viewers were the fake crowd noises used by broadcaster Foxtel to try to recreate Suncorp Stadium's big-match atmosphere.

"What we add will be subtle so we can still hear big hits and players communicating," Fox Sports head of television Steve Crawley said.

"Our audio guys have developed a world-class solution to a unique problem and we think it will be adopted elsewhere during this time."

Opinion was divided on the innovation, with Australian rules chief Gil McLachlan a surprise fan.

"I thought the canned crowd noise was good, I thought it was a positive... it added to the atmosphere of the game," he said

But not all were convinced, with one disgruntled fan complaining on social media: "The fake crowd noise is to the NRL what Milli Vanilli are to live music."

- Crowd control -

The NRL may have met its restart deadline but the Australian Medical Association is warning against its stated goal of bringing back spectators to matches by July 1.

"This absurd and dangerous idea belongs in the sin bin," AMA president Tony Bartone said.

"The NRL should be satisfied that it has its competition back in action, but it is unfair and unwise to put the health of the game's fans at risk."

Bartone said there was no way public health experts would allow crowds to return by July.

"Decisions on the safety of holding mass gatherings should be made by medical experts in consultation with the National Cabinet, not by rugby league administrators," he added.