The Cumberland Throw

The Spotlight – NRL Early Round Scheduling: A Disaster Waiting To Happen?

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 Eels played the Panthers in heatwave conditions in 2018.

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.

Training during summer is nothing like playing in the heat.

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.

Eels forever!


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37 thoughts on “The Spotlight – NRL Early Round Scheduling: A Disaster Waiting To Happen?

  1. Anonymous

    I laughed when I saw this again; and while the weather may be cooler, that time of the year was v bad and the NRL again seem to lack common sense. The night games earlier in the yr would make sense; hell what about parra v pennies on Thursday night? oh sorry Broncs and Melb etc. have the monopoly.

    1. sixties Post author

      Milo, I was reminded on Twitter about Danny Shepherd. Shepherd was a prop who ended up in a coma after suffering heat exhaustion playing for the Roosters against the Gold Coast in March in 1990. He was fortunate to survive and never played first grade football again.

      1. Milo

        Mate I recall him too; the NRL seem to lack common sense and again I reiterate, why not Broncs and Melb? they seem to have monopoly.

  2. Shelley

    There are a few harsh realities with the NRL and the most prominent one being the power brokers get what they want.They get the rules they want, in regards to salary cap, the draw and match conditions they want. If they don’t they will whinge and gets their mates in the media to write article after article until the NRL give in. Parra rate on TV so they will always get prime time, especially early in the season and the man who runs Channel 9 league ( Gus Gould) wants a blockbuster so we can spend the entire afternoon hearing him talk about new the flavours with Oak Milk, the ‘Youth’ coming through the academy and also the important information about what Panther players got married and had kids over the off season. Player welfare and consideration for supporters should matter but it does not.

    I think I might stay home for no other reason than jinxing our team. The last 5 times I have been to Penrith, Parra have lost, even when leading in 3 games by 10 or more points. The three games in between those five they have won. So I will have to select between Alexander on Fox or Gould on Nine. No matter which punishment I go with I will be cheering loud.

    1. sixties Post author

      Your’e fired up Shelley. Good stuff!
      I know that it was a big day for you to travel with your son to Penrith, and if I recall correctly, it was his first time watching from the hill.
      Even though this has impacted Parra, my stance would not change if other teams were drawn to play in the afternoon.. There just shouldn’t be afternoon games scheduled in Australia in March.

  3. colin hussey

    Its easy for those at NRL headquarters in these circumstances to make the decisions as they have, reality is that March is not suitable for RL and would be better pushed back even if the Finals go back a couple of weeks which would help.

    While the heat stress and possible stroke aspects are there, the gladiator mentally will have fans baying for blood, why should they care when the big wigs who know it all couldn’t give a one let alone two hoots about it, as they will say we monitor the players welfare – bet they do on monitors in the cool of a watching room and by means of a monitor screen for them.

    Maybe something that could help is to allow clubs to have 2 more interchange players on the bench that can be used should the temp go over 36, many outdoor trades have provisions in their OH&S conditions to walk off after that temp is reached. Why not the players?

    Even night games as was found in Maitland this year in the trial match really is bad also, so its not just a problem when the sun is out. While the game was promoted in a new area, the knights home ground would have been better as its closer to the coast and does capture some better breezes.

    1. sixties Post author

      Colin, I agree that it was still warm at night in Maitland, especially for those of us who’d been baking in the sun during the day – our core temperature had little opportunity to cool down. The brief rain also added humidity. It was a stinker wasn’t it! There was just no shade at that venue. I actually got sick of the sun and sat in an unoccupied seat in the stand during the Flegg game.
      I don’t think we need to push the comp back, we just need starting times outside of direct sunlight. By around 6 pm, you’re getting a sun that’s low in the sky.
      You’re interchange idea is interesting but I don’t think the NRL would cater for different team rules in the same comp. it then calls into question the advantage of a draw and when you get to play certain teams under different interchange conditions.

      1. colin hussey

        sixties, the interchange would be for all the teams on those first few games, and allowed for all aspects regarding the weather.

        I don’t disagree re the matches not starting prior to 600pm but remember Maitland kick off was later than that.

        1. sixties Post author

          Understood Colin. My point was that I don’t think they would change something that was as significant as the number of interchanges for a few rounds. Maybe others see it differently.
          I agree about Maitland being bad – and for me it was because of the later humidity due to the showers. But late in the day was nowhere as unbearable as being in the sun earlier in the day

  4. West Coast Eel

    Nothing surprises me with the NRL administration and their scheduling. It would seem obvious to start games later for the opening month, but these guys are the geniuses that think 6pm Friday games and Thursday night games in Sydney is a good idea. Common sense isn’t always that common!

  5. Trouser Eel

    Players and fans would prefer evening games in summer but the TV viewers don’t need to step out of their air conditioned homes to watch. That’s where the money comes from, and money talks – until someone dies or is seriously injured. I wouldn’t even wish that on a Manly/Melbourne/Bulldogs player.

  6. Greg Okladnikov

    I think the playing conditions are super difficult in the heat. NRL needs a provision to delay the start of games. If the doctors can stop players playing because of head knocks and associated risks, they should also be able to stop players playing if they think that heat fatigue / exhaustion /overheating is a real issue. If they feel it is extreme – like the penrith and manly games last year – the TV schedules need to accept it and reschedule kick off

    A few years ago they paused a roosters game due to hailstorm and lightning due to risks to players – i think the game stopped for 30 or 40 mins due to the risk. No reason why they couldn’t do the same for heat reason??

    The other issue is recovery – Last year Parra got 2 super hot afternoon games – Penrith and then Manly……the fatigue and recovery from those days woiuld have taken longer than normal and would have impacted the next few weeks performance

    1. colin hussey

      The other aspect Greg is one only has to think back on the preseason trial that the eels had against NCLE at Maitland, I live near Maitland and that day and night was terrible as far as heat is concerned, both hot and humid. The eels had how long between that trial and the opening round matches to recover, something they didn’t really do.

      The games need to be played in 20 minute quarters while its still summer, which does not officially end until end of march, with April often not much better either. On that basis the NRL should be looking at any game being played in the afternoons until end of April to be played in those brackets, and shared out among the clubs.

      Other words no club/team should play in the daytime more than once during those two months,

      1. sixties Post author

        I like the idea of spreading arvo games around Colin, but only if they refuse to move games to the night.
        Now to all March games. Rather than quarters of footy, the drink break at the 20 minute mark should be mandatory in March then determined by temperature in early April. The body needs 5 minutes for the core temperature to lower. Therefore the drinks break should last for 5 minutes. It only needs to be 3-4 weeks

        1. colin hussey

          No problems with that, having a 5 minute break at the end of the first and third quarter would have to be a benefit all round, allows players to refresh also tv gets add breaks.

    2. sixties Post author

      Greg, will we reach the point that players consider legal action due to playing at these times – similar to head injuries? I’d hope not, but maybe that’s the necessary step.
      You have provided a good example of the game being stopped due to the dangers of weather conditions. To my recollection, that’s happened about three times due to lightning/storms. Surely, extreme heat is also worthy of postponement. Then again, we can even take that out of the hands of doctors by scheduling matches for later in the day.
      Those two heatwave games to start the year certainly didn’t help the Eels cause.

      1. Milo

        Sixties, how many sports like league would play in such conditions? let alone play Flegg ISP etc. from Midday on such days? The more I think about it and the chances it can occur again are concerning; let alone to Parra and Penrith. Compare a runner (10-20km) running in the heat or jogging to full force of league. It does not compare when taking into account the collisions, tackling and speed.

        1. sixties Post author

          You might be interested in knowing that the sports medicine site ranks endurance running at a greater risk than stop start sports. Imagine where rugby league fits in. It is a winter sport now being played in summer heat.

  7. Anthony

    My thoughts are the same as your sixties and those that have commented. Player welfare is paramount, and with much commentary from the NRL, clubs and media around player welfare, it is only right that concessions and changes occur for games that will be played in extreme heat. It is dangerous – and it’s as simple as that. I agree, it is only a matter of time until someone is again critically ill from playing in these conditions. We can only hope it doesn’t become a fatal incident.

  8. Michael Formosa

    I totally agree with you Sixties and I rolled my eyes when I saw we have been given the same time slot again. I hope after going through it last year BA will have the team more prepared for it this time around. I remember the heat didn’t slow our opposition down at all. If I remember correctly Penrith won their first lot of games while we are all still having nightmares about round two (and it didn’t get much better after that).

    1. sixties Post author

      I’m not even considering the form with this one. I didn’t go to Brookie due to the heat. People that I knew who went were afraid for the welfare of the players, especially after two weekends in a row.

  9. Graz

    Riduculous. A tragedy waiting to happen. The first 2 games last year were played in diabolical heat. I was lucky to survive just watching the games at Penrith then Brookie.

    1. sixties Post author

      You’re made of sterner stuff than me Graz. After Penrith, there was no way I was travelling to Brookie. Besides the heat, it’s hardly the most comfortable venue in the best of conditions.

      1. Rowdy

        Being a committed and loyal supporter, I’m surprised that we didn’t win both games easily? Perhaps me not attending either game was because I don’t like winning by large margins, it reminds me too much of how boring it was during the 1980’s beating everyone all the time and even 2001 racking up big scores. At least my disdain for lopsided scores was placated by Brian Smiths well executed plan to give Newcastle an opportunity to ambush us in the GF.

  10. Parramatta Tragic

    If ever there was a case for The Rugby League Players Association to become involved this is it. Playing at those times in such high temperatures is just not on for both players, referees and fans alike. I think the referees are still potentially striking for the first few games at this stage, so that may eliminate the problem. I would personally refuse to play in those conditions.

    1. sixties Post author

      Unfortunately PT, I think it will take a health emergency event to get this ridiculous situation to change. Let’s pray for cooler conditions in March next year.

      1. colin hussey

        What The!!!! & ????.

        To hammer the nail in the eels have to back up 5 days later in an evening game.

        Then when one looks on we get 1805 matches on Sundays when the weather cools down, Great draw, not.

  11. BDon

    Taka gives away penalty 40 mtrs out in first set. DCE runs around Nathan Brown into an acreage and scores under posts, Fonua Blake runs thru Hayne’s right shoulder like swatting a fly and scores. Probably our 2 best leaders for a tough day faltering in the first 5 minutes. Then just couldn’t lift. Weird, weird,weird. Physically and mentally drained small team,never going to cut it on that day, one penalty and curtains. Whilst there may have been some preparation factors to learn from, 100% agree sixties, the club should not accept such high risk conditions.

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