As part of the NRL 2020 Annual recounting the major news stories in rugby league, David Middleton looks back at March.
March 1: The NRL confirm that the Captain’s Challenge rule will be introduced for the start of the NRL season.
March 2: The NRL sets up an advisory group to work with government officials to monitor the threat posed by the global coronavirus.
March 4: The NRL clears Canberra recruit Curtis Scott to play in Round 1 even though he charges after a drunken weekend in Sydney in January. According to an NRL statement, Scott’s charges "do not qualify for an automatic no-fault stand-down" under league rules.
The NRL’s general manager of elite women’s programs Tiffany Slater takes out the inaugural Her Sport Her Way Champion’s award at a ceremony in Sydney. Acting NSW Sports Minister Geoff Lee describes Slater as the "driving force" behind the success of women’s rugby league.
March 5: The 2020 NRL season is officially launched at a Sydney function featuring all 16 club captains.
Cronulla chairman Dino Mezzatesta shifts to the full-time role of club CEO with vice-chairman Steve Mace elevated to the Sharks’ chairmanship.
2020 Season Launch - Simply The Best
Former Queensland Australian prop Carl Webb is diagnosed with early-onset motor neurone disease.
Melbourne captain Cameron Smith refuses to rule out the possibility of playing on for a 20th season in 2021.
March 6: The Canberra Raiders’ $20 million high-performance facility opens in Braddon. Coach Ricky Stuart describes the Huawei Raiders Centre as "a world class facility, as good as I’ve seen".
The NRL prepare to play games in front of empty stadiums as the threat of the global Coronavirus intensifies. The game’s head body continues to monitor advice from health authorities.
Broncos veteran Darius Boyd announces plans to retire at the end of the 2020 season, his 15th year in the top grade.
March 8: The Sunday Telegraph reports that Wests Tigers prop Russell Packer will miss the opening month of the season after undergoing surgery for a toe injury.
March 9: The NRL announces an independent seven-man panel headed by former players Jason King and David Fairleigh will take charge of referees’ appointments in 2020 following a comprehensive post-season review. The full panel includes David Boyle, Russell Smith, Steve Chiddy, Jared Maxwell and Gavin Reynolds.
Parramatta winger Maika Sivo is cleared to play in the Eels’ season-opening game against Canterbury, despite facing an indecent assault charge in Fiji.
March 10: Canterbury players Jayden Okunbor and Corey Harawira-Naera are stood down after claims they invited two schoolgirls back to the team hotel while they were in Port Macquarie for a trial match. The pair were in breach of the club’s and the NRL’s code of conduct.
A New York franchise is formally admitted into the English Rugby League’s third-tier League One competition in 2022. The new outfit is granted admission to the 2021 Challenge Cup and plans to prepare by playing trial matches against Australian clubs early in 2021.
Pearce: Captain's challenge could be a golden egg
Test coach Mal Meninga is appointed chairman of the newly formed Rugby League Coaches’ Association. Meninga is joined on the Board of the new organisation by former NRL coach Neil Henry, sports lawyer Tim Fuller, government and public policy expert Stefanee Lovett and management executive Cynthia Gillespie. Former North Sydney player Kelly Egan is appointed CEO.
Sydney Roosters captain Boyd Cordner is not named in his team’s Round 1 line-up as the club continues to manage his workload across the season.
Broncos coach Anthony Seibold names new recruit Brodie Croft and lock Patrick Carrigan as co-captains for the team’s opening clash against North Queensland. Croft is the first player to captain the Broncos on club debut since Wally Lewis in 1988, while the pair become the youngest captains in the club’s history.
Amanda Laing quits her post as NRL Commissioner, citing a conflict of interests over the upcoming negotiations for the game’s next broadcasting deal. Laing was chief commercial officer of Foxtel, one of the incumbent rights holders.
March 11: Salary cap tension forces Cronulla to release centre Josh Morris from the final year of his contract, allowing him to link with twin brother Brett at the Sydney Roosters after Round 2. As part of the deal between the clubs, the Roosters agree to pay a $40,000 transfer fee to the Sharks.
The Daily Telegraph reports that NRL CEO Todd Greenberg is facing a challenge to his leadership from several NRL clubs.
The Sydney Morning Herald reports that clubs are considering chartering flights to games to counter the looming threat of the coronavirus pandemic.
Brisbane fullback-elect Jack Bird is devastated by a serious knee injury at training. Scans reveal a torn ACL that will require a full reconstruction – his second on the same knee in the space of 10 months.
Match Highlights: Eels v Bulldogs
March 12: The Sydney Morning Herald reports that the NRL asked police to investigate betting trends on the 2019 Dally M Coach of the Year after a flood of money poured in for Melbourne’s Craig Bellamy, who eventually won the award.
Parramatta edge out Canterbury 8-2 in a dour season opener at Bankwest Stadium. The season kicks off under the shadow of the COVID-19 epidemic as sporting competitions across the globe begin to shut down.
The NRL announces a series of measures designed to avoid the virus, including limiting contact with fans, not taking selfies and avoiding hugs and handshakes. The NRL form a crisis committee to deal with the threat to the competition.
March 13: The Broncos spoil North Queensland’s opening night party at their new $293 million home when they claim a 28-21 victory. A first-night crowd of 22,459 watches Broncos hooker Jake Turpin score the first try at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, while new signing Valentine Holmes scores the first try for the home team.
Match Highlights: Cowboys v Broncos
The NRL is forced to contemplate the shutdown of the competition as Cronulla centre Bronson Xerri undergoes testing for coronavirus. A positive test would have forced him and his team-mates into two weeks of isolation, however, the test proved negative.
March 14: The Warriors’ place in the 2020 competition is clouded by the decision of the New Zealand Government to force all visitors to the country into two weeks of self-isolation to contain the spread of the coronavirus. The team agrees to stay in Australia beyond the Government’s deadline (midnight, March 15) and later pledges to remain in Australia indefinitely. Two players, centre Peta Hiku and winger Patrick Herbert opt to return home for family reasons.
ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys and NRL CEO Todd Greenberg announce that the competition will continue in Round 2 at empty stadiums after the Federal Government bans public gatherings of more than 500 people. V’landys says the impact of a full shutdown would be "catastrophic" for the game.
March 15: Officials at Lottoland disinfect footballs at regular intervals during the Sea Eagles’ clash with Melbourne to reduce the threat of the coronavirus.
Storm captain Cameron Smith says the competition should be suspended for two weeks to allow the NRL to reassess its position and determine the best way forward during the global pandemic.
Brisbane prop Tevita Pangai accepts a four-game suspension for a high shot on North Queensland centre Justin O’Neill.
NRL COVID-19 update
March 16: The NRL announces that teams required to travel interstate will fly on private flights to limit the spread of coronavirus.
The NRL considers playing the grand final as late as November if the COVID-19 pandemic forces the postponement of the competition.
March 17: The English Rugby Football League suspend the Super League competition until at least April 3 due to the spread of coronavirus.
The NRL announce that players will be required to self-isolate to avoid the threat of coronavirus infection as the game attempts to continue in the face of the greatest threat it has faced.
March 18: The NSWRL and QRL announce that all grassroots football will be suspended indefinitely due to the coronavirus.
March 19: The Sydney Morning Herald reports that global sports broadcasting giant ESPN is interested to join negotiations for the next television rights deal with the NRL.
Former Sydney Roosters halfback Cooper Cronk criticises former team-mate Latrell Mitchell for taking time away from training with South Sydney to return home to Taree.
Canterbury and North Queensland make history by playing the first premiership game without a crowd when the threat of infection from the global coronavirus forces the gates to remain locked at ANZ Stadium. The Cowboys claim a 24-16 victory.
March 20: Warriors players commit to remain in Australia as NRL management remains determined to keep the competition running. A decision to return to New Zealand would result in players being forced into two weeks of self-isolation, effectively ruling the team out of the competition.
March 21: The historic player loan deal between the Melbourne Storm and Wests Tigers finally becomes official after Tigers centre Paul Momirovski secures a contract extension with the club before trading places with Storm hooker Harry Grant for the rest of the 2020 season.
Former Wests Tigers chief operating officer Ryan Webb is appointed the new CEO of St George Illawarra.
March 22: The Sunday Telegraph reports that ARL Chairman Peter V’landys has told clubs that suspending the competition would result in a $500 million catastrophe for the game.
March 23: The NRL’s resolve to play on despite the rising tide of the coronavirus is shattered by governments in NSW and Queensland shutting down all but essential services and closing restaurants, bars, clubs and gymnasiums and recommending parents keep children home from school.
NRL suspends season in wake of COVID-19 outbreak
Queensland premier Anastasia Palaszczuk announces the closing of the New South Wales-Queensland border. ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys announces that in the face of alarming information from its biosecurity and pandemic expert, the game has no option but to shut down indefinitely.
It is the gravest threat rugby league has faced in its history. "I don’t think we have ever, ever come across a financial crisis like this," V’landys said. "It is probably the biggest challenge the game will ever face."
March 24: Canterbury coach Dean Pay and his coaching staff are stood down without pay while Penrith’s Ivan Cleary and staff are told to take annual leave immediately. Other NRL clubs follow suit as the game comes to terms with the "catastrophic" shutdown.
Newcastle hooker Jayden Brailey is diagnosed with a torn ACL, despite playing out 80 minutes of his team’s clash with Wests Tigers on March 22.
The NRL concede that they will have no option but to cancel the season if the premiership cannot recommence before the first weekend of September.
March 25: The Sydney Morning Herald reports that ARLC Chairman Peter V’landys plans to ask the NSW State Government to redirect $500 million earmarked for stadium redevelopment into saving sporting codes from financial ruin.
March 27: The Daily Telegraph reports that St George Illawarra’s Test second-rower Tyson Frizell has agreed to a three-year deal with the Newcastle Knights, worth around $2.1 million. The NRL refuses to register the deal until there is greater certainty over future player payments.
The Sydney Morning Herald says Channel Nine has indicated an interest in renegotiating its broadcasting rights deal with the NRL and would not be making its quarterly payment under the current deal on April 1.
March 28: Manly chairman Scott Penn insists the Sea Eagles will ride out the storm of the coronavirus crisis, despite being identified as one of the most vulnerable NRL clubs. "We can ride this out," Penn told The Sydney Morning Herald. "We will absolutely be there for the 2021 season. We have committed to it."
March 29: NRL CEO Todd Greenberg prepares to take leave without pay as the NRL administration is shut down during the global virus pandemic. The Sun-Herald says the NRL will slash its operating costs by more than half.
The Sunday Telegraph reports that the NRL have issued players at all 16 clubs a strict set of guidelines that must be followed for three months. The measures, aimed to prevent any player contracting and transmitting COVID-19, include minimising all contact with anyone outside their home.
Players are banned from setting foot inside club premises and club officials including coaching staff are banned from meeting players without special permission.
March 30: NRL chairman Peter V’landys says he is "hellbent" on getting the NRL premiership back up and running by July 1.