As part of the NRL 2020 Annual recounting the major news stories in rugby league, David Middleton looks back at May.
May 1: Queensland Premier Anastasia Palaszczuk gives the go-ahead for the Broncos, Cowboys and Titans to travel in and out of the state once the premiership relaunches on May 28. Palaszczuk also demands a State of Origin game be played in the Sunshine State in 2020 and calls for the NRL grand final to be played at Suncorp Stadium if the Sydney Cricket Ground is unavailable.
May 2: The Warriors are finally granted permission to fly into Australia, where 48 players and staff will undertake a two-week quarantine period in Tamworth. The team is permitted to train in a secure environment in preparation for the NRL’s May 28 return.
May 3: The Sunday Telegraph reports Parramatta legend Ray Price and his wife, Sandy, are both undergoing treatment for melanoma.
The Warriors touch down in Tamworth on a charter flight from Auckland minus two members of their playing squad. David Fusitu’a remained behind for personal reasons, while hooker Nathaniel Roache woke with a sore throat and was ordered not to report at the airport.
Kearney: I felt a bit sad
May 4: Three South Sydney players, including Latrell Mitchell, and Sydney Roosters coach Trent Robinson undergo tests for COVID-19 after suffering mild flu-like symptoms. The four return negative results.
Players from all 16 NRL clubs undergo a day of instruction into strict new protocols surrounding training designed to minimise the risk of contracting or transmitting coronavirus.
The NRL parts ways with chief financial officer Tony Crawford.
The NRL proposes for players contracted to clubs but not selected for NRL games to be pooled together to play regular trials in order to prepare them to play in the top grade if required. The abandonment of second-tier competitions such as the Canterbury Cup for 2020 meant fringe players faced the prospect of no football before being called up to the NRL.
May 5: The Daily Telegraph reports the Bulldogs have targeted big-name players Josh Reynolds, James Maloney, Jordan Rapana and Ben Te’o as possible recruits to shore up their ranks following breach notices being issued to Corey Harawira-Naera and Jayden Okunbor.
Former Melbourne Storm centre Young Tonumaipea earns a trial and train contract with the Gold Coast Titans after completing a 12-month Mormon mission in Germany.
The Albury Council votes against allowing the Melbourne Storm to train at council facilities while lockdown laws remain in place. The Storm accept an offer from the Albury Tigers Australian Rules club to train on their ground, which is situated on crown land. The Victorian government had refused to grant the Storm an exemption from its own coronavirus restrictions to train in Melbourne, forcing the club to cross the border into New South Wales to set up a temporary training base.
May 6: Gold Coast forward Bryce Cartwright says he is unwilling to comply with an NRL requirement that all players undergo a flu vaccination before the restart of the competition on May 28. Cartwright says in an Instagram post: "I won’t be bullied into making decisions that could impact my health." Several other high-profile players including Canberra trio Josh Papalii, Joseph Tapine and Iosia Soliola, Manly’s Martin Taupau, Dylan Walker and Addin Fonua-Blake also refuse the vaccination.
Rapana: League is the sport for me
May 7: Jordan Rapana re-signs with the Raiders until the end of the 2020 season after his stint with Japanese Rugby outfit Panasonic Wild Knights was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The NRL tells players there will be no dispensation from isolation protocols to allow players to visit their mothers on Mother’s Day (May 10).
May 8: The NSW government declines to impose a "no jab, no play" order on NRL players but tougher restrictions in Queensland mean Gold Coast forward Bryce Cartwright is stood down from training and players such as Canberra’s Josh Papalii face the prospect of being banned from playing in the Sunshine State.
The NRL proposes to return to a one referee model for the rest of the 2020 season as a cost-cutting measure.
May 10: The Sunday Telegraph claims ARLC chairman Peter V’landys plans to cut $50 million from the game’s administration to ensure the survival of the 16 NRL clubs.
May 11: Penrith pair Nathan Cleary and Tyrone May receive upgraded penalties from the NRL’s Integrity Unit after it is revealed both players were "untruthful in relation to material matters" regarding the social distancing breaches by both players on Anzac Day. Cleary receives a $30,000 fine and a two-match suspension, while May is fined $15,000 and also suspended for two matches. Cleary is also fined $1000 by NSW police.
The Melbourne Storm are cleared to return to AAMI Park in preparation for the competition’s return on May 28 after the Victorian Government eases restrictions on professional sporting teams.
May 12: The Daily Telegraph reports that South Sydney centre James Roberts has checked himself into a mental health facility. It is the third time in four years Roberts has sought help to deal with personal issues.
The Queensland Government insists NRL players who refuse to take a flu vaccination will not be allowed to play in Queensland. Titans pair Bryce Cartwright and Brian Kelly are immediately stood down from training, while the edict has ramifications for up to 20 players across the NRL who have signed a waiver to avoid the injection. Queensland’s chief health officer, Jeannette Young said players would only be granted exemptions on medical grounds.
The ARL Commission decides to revert to a one-referee model for the remainder of the 2020 season in a bid to cut costs. And in an effort to speed up the game, the Commission decides to introduce a six-again rule that will allow referees to restart the tackle count for ruck infringements, rather than hold up the game for a penalty. Persistent ruck infringements and professional fouls will result in players being sent to the sin bin.
Coaches, players react to one-ref and six-again rule changes
The rule changes were unanimously opposed by senior NRL players in a phone hook-up after they were proposed on May 8.
May 13: NewsCorp Australia announces it will cease publication of Big League for 2020. The decision means that the game will be without an official match day program for the first time in 100 years.
The NRL places a figure of $250 million on losses expected across the game as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
May 14: Gold Coast second-rower Bryce Cartwright is cleared to resume training after receiving an exemption from the Queensland Government to avoid a flu injection. Titans teammate Brian Kelly agrees to take the vaccination after a deadline was placed upon him by the club.
May 15: The NRL releases the draw for rounds three and four, less than two weeks before the premiership is due to restart. Round three features all six unbeaten teams opposed to maximise fans’ interest. Parramatta and Brisbane are chosen to relaunch the season on May 28. The State of Origin series is scheduled for three consecutive Wednesday nights in November (4, 11 and 18).
May 16: The game mourns the passing of dual international Arthur Summons, captain of the Ashes-winning Kangaroos team of 1963 and one half of the iconic ‘Gladiators’ partnership with St George legend Norm Provan.
May 18: Greg Inglis announces plans to make a comeback with Warrington in the English Super League in 2021.
May 19: St George Illawarra halfback Ben Hunt says he would be willing to take a pay cut if it meant assuring the viability of the game.
Hunt worried about Origin selection
Former Cronulla captain Paul Gallen says he would be prepared to come out of retirement if he could help the Warriors following injuries to prop Leeson Ah Mau and utility forward Jazz Tevaga.
The NRL releases the premiership draw for the final 18 rounds of the season. Cronulla, Parramatta and Penrith are considered among the big winners by avoiding two games against 2019 grand finalists Sydney Roosters and Canberra.
May 20: ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys tells The Daily Telegraph that the game was "right on the edge of the cliff" when it was shut down in March and that finances were in such a parlous state that "this was bad enough to send five or six clubs broke".
May 21: Former Queensland Origin hooker Andrew McCullough is granted a release from the Broncos to allow him to make an immediate move to Newcastle.
Club captains grateful to be back
May 22: The NRL and match officials strike a peace-deal over the game’s return to one referee for the rest of the 2020 season. The NRL agree to review the one-ref system after the grand final.
The NRL’s Integrity Unit suspends South Sydney five-eighth Cody Walker for two matches and hands him a suspended $15,000 fine for his part in a street fight in Casino in December 2019. The Integrity Unit also fine the Rabbitohs $20,000 for failing to report the incident.
May 23: The Daily Telegraph reports Canberra second-rower John Bateman has asked for a release from his contract on four occasions since the 2019 grand final. The Raiders reluctantly grant the English international permission to negotiate with rival clubs as he attempts to upgrade his contract reportedly worth $580,000 a season.
May 24: ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys says he wants to see crowds return to NRL matches by July 1. "You are allowed so many people so we will start looking at that with the biosecurity measures in the coming weeks," V’landys told The Daily Telegraph. "And I am not saying capacity crowds. I have to stress capped crowds."
May 25: Strict biosecurity protocols in place for the game’s return mean players who are not in the top 17 squad will be required to act as ball boys. Only 20 players and 12 staff members who have been in isolation are allowed inside the "clean zone" at playing venues, ruling out the traditional ball boys and girls.
Project Apollo's plans for crowds to return in July
Parramatta hooker Reed Mahoney is one of the major "winners" from the game’s COVID-19 enforced shutdown after being passed fit to play in round three. Mahoney broke a bone in his foot playing against the Gold Coast in March and underwent surgery.
May 26: Rising Cronulla star Bronson Xerri is handed a provisional four-year suspension after testing positive to performance-enhancing drugs. The test, conducted by ASADA is November 2019, revealed traces of "exogenous" testosterone and included androsterone, etiocholanolone and 5b-androstane-3a, 17b-diol. The six-month lag between the test and the result being made public frustrates Sharks officials, who released experienced centre Josh Morris to the Sydney Roosters in March.
May 27: The Sydney Roosters allow prop Poasa Faamausili to join the Warriors on a unique four-week loan deal to help the injury-affected club. The NRL gives the Warriors special dispensation to sign players following season-ending injuries to Bunty Afoa and Leeson Ah Mau.
South Sydney receive a huge boost on the eve of the game’s return when lock Cameron Murray re-signs with the club until the end of the 2025 season.
May 28: After 67 days, the NRL bursts back to life as Parramatta hand Brisbane a 34-6 mauling at an empty Suncorp Stadium. The return to one referee (Gerard Sutton) and the introduction of the six-again rule for ruck infringements are hailed a success, while television viewers react with mixed feelings to the introduction of artificial crowd noise.
The NRL secures new broadcasting deals with Channel Nine and Foxtel before round three. Foxtel extends its arrangement until the end of the 2027 season, while Nine recommits until the end of 2022.
May 29: ARL Commission chairman Peter V’landys says he is open to the idea of a player draft to replace the current market system for the movement of players between clubs.
May 30: The Daily Telegraph reports that cheerleaders and mascots could be casualties of a drive by clubs to reduce match-day costs in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis.
The Canberra Raiders firm into premiership favouritism after comprehensively defeating the Melbourne Storm 22-6 at AAMI Park. It is the Raiders’ third win over the Storm in Melbourne in less than 12 months.
Match Highlights: Storm v Raiders
May 31: The Sun-Herald reports the NRL is planning to slash $70 million from its bottom line in 2021 to ensure the solvency of the 16 NRL clubs.
The Warriors produce a near-perfect 80 minutes at Central Coast Stadium to down St George Illawarra 18-0. Stephen Kearney’s team did not make a handling error for 75 minutes and finished with a record NRL completion rate of 96 percent (46 from 48).
The Sunday Telegraph reports that expansion is back on the agenda of the ARL Commission and a new Brisbane team could be added to the premiership as early as 2022.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Knights
Newcastle legend Andrew Johns describes the Knights’ performance in a 14-all draw with Penrith as one of the most courageous performances in the club’s 32-year history. Already missing a swathe of top-line stars, the Knights lose playmakers Mitchell Pearce and Connor Watson in the opening 10 minutes but fight back from a 14-0 deficit to send the game to golden point. Substitute hooker Chris Randall finishes with an official tally of 71 tackles, a record for a player on NRL debut.
The NSW Government abandons its $810 million redevelopment of ANZ Stadium as part of budget-cutting measures following the coronavirus but it means an agreement with the NRL to play the grand final in Sydney until 2047 is off the table. The decision could result in the grand final heading interstate.
Broncos winger Corey Oates re-signs with the club until the end of the 2022 season.