By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The curtain lowered on spectator sport in Australia and New Zealand on Sunday, with fans watching top flight soccer and rugby matches at stadiums for the last time before crowd bans and border controls kick in to fight the spread of coronavirus.
With sport at a virtual standstill across much of the globe, the Antipodean nations are among the last hold-outs for elite competition, even as infections rise and the noose tightens around international travel.
Australia’s top winter football codes have resolved to play on with spectator bans for as long as they can reasonably do so, but the governing body of Super Rugby had little choice but to suspend the sprawling rugby union competition.
New Zealand announced the world’s “toughest” border restrictions on Saturday, effectively preventing the nation’s five Super Rugby teams from playing away and their opponents in Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan from visiting.
The ACT Brumbies were nonetheless able to welcome the Sydney-based New South Wales Waratahs to a sunbathed Canberra Stadium on Sunday and win the last Super Rugby game “for the foreseeable future” 47-14.
COVID-19, the deadly respiratory illness caused by the coronavirus, has infected more than 153,00 people globally and killed more than 5,800.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who called for an end to all non-essential gatherings of more than 500 people from Monday, scrapped plans to watch his favorite Cronulla Sharks in the National Rugby League after a senior minister contracted the virus.
But a decent crowd turned up at Brookvale Oval on Sydney’s northern beaches to watch the Manly Sea Eagles lose 18-4 to Melbourne Storm in the opening round’s penultimate match.
When the match balls went out of play, ball-kids wearing gloves passed them to staff who dunked them in bins of disinfectant before handing them back into play.
It was otherwise a relaxed atmosphere of families on picnic rugs and friends cradling beers, completely at odds with the sense of crisis engulfing the sport at its Sydney headquarters.
Earlier on Sunday, NRL management warned of “catastrophic” financial losses for the most popular sport in the country’s eastern states, with Rugby League Commission boss Peter V’landys making an early plea for government assistance.
The league’s sole New Zealand team, the Auckland-based Warriors, were praised for keeping the season alive by setting up camp in Australia’s northern New South Wales state.
For the Warriors to head home after midnight on Sunday would mean having to self-isolate for 14 days, which would hopelessly compromise the competition’s integrity.
A couple of players returned to New Zealand but the rest face an indefinite period away from home.
“That’s a huge solid for the entire NRL,” Warriors captain Wade Graham wrote on Twitter.
“Massive sacrifice basing themselves in Australia away from family and friends.”
It may only be a temporary relief for the NRL, however, with Warriors CEO Cameron George saying his side were only committed to one more game in Australia.
“There were a lot of devastated players there yesterday. There were some grown men with tears in their eyes,” George told New Zealand media.
The Australian government on Sunday followed New Zealand’s lead by imposing a mandatory 14-day period of self-isolation on international arrivals from midnight.
The measure has plunged Australia’s A-League, the country’s top-flight soccer competition, into jeopardy some six weeks from the playoffs.
Wellington Phoenix, the league’s sole New Zealand side, hosted Melbourne Victory on Sunday afternoon, with little prospect of either side reaching Australia before the midnight deadline.
A temporary suspension, at least, appears inevitable for the A-League while the Phoenix, like the Warriors, may have to choose between giving up the season or basing themselves in Australia.
The Phoenix players were left to ponder an uncertain future after the final whistle at Wellington Regional Stadium but sent their fans home happy with a 3-0 victory.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)