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!

Sixties

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Anonymous
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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.
Milo

Shelley
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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… Read more »

colin hussey
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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… Read more »

West Coast Eel
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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!

Trouser Eel
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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.

Greg Okladnikov
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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… Read more »

Milo
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Milo

Greg, the club should be stepping in saying something. Hope they do.

colin hussey
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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… Read more »

Anthony
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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.

Michael Formosa
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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).

Graz
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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.

Parramatta Tragic
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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.

Jonboy
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Jonboy

So the draw is out and it’s almost a repeat of the first 2 rounds for us!

BDon
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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.