The early rounds of the 2019 NRL draw will again feature weekend matches with afternoon kick offs. Accordingly, the possibility exists that games could take place in heatwave conditions. With the lucrative broadcast deals determining match times, we seem to be locked into having rugby league played at ridiculous times during March. But at what cost?
Cast your memories back to early 2018. The first two weeks of the NRL season saw temperatures hovering around 40 degrees for afternoon matches. This was heading towards unsafe conditions for an endurance, contact sport.
Sports Medicine Australia’s guidelines for sports organisations lists ambient temperatures above 36 degrees as being an extreme risk for heat distress. If high temperatures are accompanied by high humidity, the risk is increased. Heat exhaustion which progresses to heat stroke is a potentially fatal condition.
With medical professionals and qualified trainers on the sideline, one would assume that the risk to professional athletes would be minimised. After all, the opportunity is there to run water onto the field to keep athletes hydrated.
However, rugby league, even with a drink break at the twenty minute mark, is not a perfect sport for suitable hydration. Furthermore, we should not be lulled by a lack of incidents last year. This probably requires further clarification.
Heat distress is less likely in stop/start sports. Hence a summer sport such as cricket is less likely to cause distress. When they do have issues, it’s more likely to arise from batters who are required to run wearing protective equipment such as helmets. For tennis players, the surface temperature of the courts is a major factor.
So these stop/start summer sports have their heat risks, but they do not have the endurance or physical contact and exertion of rugby league. But rugby league in March 2018 was not typical of the sport.
The early rounds of the NRL in 2018 became stop/start due to the referees blowing extra penalties. The rest times around these breaks, and the re-hydration it permitted, especially when penalty goals were attempted, actually benefitted teams with bigger forwards rather the smaller mobile packs. Despite the heat, larger players were more effective than would normally be expected.
Such stop/start conditions aren’t the norm in rugby league. If teams don’t drop the ball or find touch, and if referees aren’t blowing penalties, then the breaks in play will be minimal and the game more akin to long distance running. Long distance running with the wind knocked out of you in tackles!
There are other issues around playing in the heat. Players cannot rely on hydration alone. Heat exhaustion/stroke can occur even with good hydration. If the body’s core temperature has increased to dangerous levels, the only accurate measure can be made via a rectal temperature reading. This won’t be happening on any sideline, thank goodness!
In fact, staff have to guard players against over hydration during matches. Low blood sodium (hyponatraemia) is a dangerous condition, so most players will only need to consume around 3 cups of water during the game (depending on how much fluid they lose).
The NRL and the clubs may point to the staff on the sideline as their defence when concerns are raised about players’ welfare. These people are professionals and it’s their job to monitor the players during a match. It’s also true that they are trying to monitor competitive athletes who will naturally push themselves past levels of discomfort and exhaustion. In other words, they could be dealing with “patients” who aren’t seeking assistance.
Wouldn’t the simplest alternative be to push back kick off times by a couple of hours during the first couple of rounds? Maybe make use of time zones, allocate the first two rounds to the Warriors home games, and show those in the afternoon times. Encourage the teams who take matches across the ditch to do so in the first two rounds. Have 5:30 or 7:30 kick offs in Sydney on Saturday and Sunday, with an 8:15 kick off in a Queensland game (no daylight saving) as a 9:15 TV match on Saturday. This only has to be for the first 2-3 rounds.
Surely the last matches that you would schedule for an afternoon kick off at that time of the year would be those in western Sydney. Yet this is the likely outcome.
Proponents of early starting times may argue that summer pre-season training conditions the players to such heat. They might even suggest that such training is just as dangerous.
However, this training is more stop/start than matches, and certainly never as intense. Even the toughest training still permits hats, light clothing and regular hydration. The difference between training and premiership games is why experts use the term “match fitness”. Nothing conditions athletes as well as actual matches.
Ultimately, moving matches back to a cooler part of the day is going to be appreciated by supporters. Very few of us want to sit in the summer sun to watch a winter sport.
Last season, I attended Penrith Park for three grades of football in Round 1. A full stadium of twenty-one thousand joined me. The eastern stand, and the hills, sweltered in the heat. The vendors ran out of refrigerated drinks. A number of spectators had to be treated for heat distress. I’m an advocate for three grades of football, but the Flegg was playing in the midday heat!
The following week, similar conditions were predicted for Brookvale. I made the decision not to travel there. Many others made the same decision, as evidenced by a crowd of only ten thousand. It seemed like there was little regard for spectators at the game when this schedule was decided.
Nothing is going to change in 2019. We can only hope for cooler conditions or that nothing unfortunate happens during the first few rounds. Should such scheduling continue into the future, I fear that the odds are shortening that something both regrettable and avoidable will occur.