On the two-year anniversary of the day Project Apollo gave us back our game, we pay tribute to the fans who stuck solid through the pandemic and emerged out other side with an even deeper connection to the greatest game of all.
Two years ago today, rugby league rose from its forced hiatus and became the first team sport in Australia to resume its competition after a 66-day break brought on by the COVID pandemic.
Sure, there would be many more hurdles to jump, but on May 28, 2020 every NRL fan had reason to puff their chest out and shout ‘footy’s back’.
The nightmare had begun nine weeks earlier, on March 23, when the season had to be shut down after just two rounds.
At the time, no one could tell us what the future would hold but the formation of Project Apollo — a committee which included Wayne Pearce, Trent Robinson, Wayne Bennett and RLPA boss Clint Newton — let fans know that no stone would be left unturned in a bid to get back on the field.
Working closely with a biosecurity expert and under the watchful eye of ARLC chairman Peter V’landys, Project Apollo targeted May 4 for a resumption of training and May 28 for the competition restart.
Match Highlights: Broncos v Eels
And that’s exactly what they delivered when the Broncos and Eels faced off at Suncorp Stadium on a Thursday night in front of empty stands but a television audience of 1.3 million – the highest rating for a regular season game since 2014.
“That’s an outstanding result for the game and our broadcast partners," said NRL CEO Andrew Abdo said at the time.
“Everything our chairman Peter V’landys and the Commission have done has been for our fans, our partners and our shareholders – the clubs and states.
"I want to thank our broadcast partners for the work they have done and the innovations to make the viewing experience as enjoyable as possible for the fans.
Project Apollo's plans for crowds to return in July
"Rugby league is part of the social fabric of so many communities. To have live unscripted sport back unites us and provides enjoyment and something to look forward to."
The next step was to get fans back into the stadiums – whether in person or in the form of a cardboard cut-out.
Dubbed ‘Fan in the Stand’, an online portal gave NRL members and fans the chance to have their photo printed on a 100 per cent recyclable cut-out and placed in their team’s home venue for just $22.
If COVID wouldn’t allow us to be there in person then this was the next best thing and fans embraced the concept.
"We wanted to make sure the lifeblood of the NRL, our members and fans, had the chance to pull on their jerseys, don their club colours and support in a really fun way," the NRL’s then head of marketing Peter Jarmain said.
"I know the players and clubs will appreciate the support, even if the fans aren’t able to shout, celebrate and jump around for the tries and hits as they usually would."
Match Highlights: Roosters v Eels
In one of the lighter moments from a tough year, Eels winger Blake Ferguson apologised to a cardboard cut-out Bulldogs fan during a clash against the Roosters after kicking the ball into its head.
The return of small crowds confined to corporate boxes as stadium guidelines were brought into line with restrictions on pubs and restaurants gave us more reason to smile.
“We play for the fans so it's good to see all the sacrifices the community has made is starting to pay off," said then Panthers winger Josh Mansour.
"We 100 per cent miss them, the fans bring the atmosphere and sometimes when you're out there it's strange and has felt like a training run at times.
"Hopefully the gates can continue to open in the coming weeks and we can put on a show for them."
And so the 2020 season rolled on, reduced to 20 rounds and finishing three weeks later than normal, with a grand final showdown at ANZ Stadium between the Panthers and Storm.
Given all the obstacles that had been overcome this was an occasion to savour, not just for fans of Penrith and Melbourne but every devoted league supporter who had feared for the future of the game in March.
"This year will be a historic grand final day. The teams competing would have overcome all challenges in front of them and we will experience the culmination of a season like no other,” said Abdo.
"We can't wait to see 40,000 fans at the venue. Our fans have been so patient and loyal throughout the season and having crowd caps increase for the finals series is the perfect way to acknowledge that loyalty."
The Storm reigned supreme in what would turn out to be Cameron Smith’s last game and fans turned their attention to an historic end-of-season Origin series across three consecutive Wednesdays in Adelaide, Sydney and Brisbane.
After such a crazy year it was only fitting that Wayne Bennett’s Maroons pulled off one of the great Origin upsets, rounding out the series with a 20-14 win in front of a raucous crowd of 49,155 at Suncorp Stadium.
Footy was back. Fans were back. We could look forward to 2021 with optimism.
Or so we thought.
As renowned league historian David Middleton wrote in his 2021 Official Rugby League Annual, "if 2020 was the year when nothing was normal, then 2021 took matters to a whole new level. The global pandemic affected rugby league from the first game to the last... and by October, Brisbane hosted an NRL grand final for the first time after the entire NRL competition was transferred to the Sunshine State."
With Sydney plunged into lockdown in June, the decision was made to relocate all nine Sydney-based teams to Queensland, along with the Raiders, Knights and Warriors.
“This will be probably for us the most challenging and sophisticated logistical exercise that we’ve undertaken since... I’m not sure when,” Abdo said.
“But we will get safely and securely 12 clubs relocated into three hubs in Queensland, mainly on the Gold Coast, in Brisbane and the Sunshine Coast. We will operate those clubs out of those hubs for a period of four weeks and we will reschedule all of the games that were originally scheduled to be played in NSW to either Suncorp Stadium, Cbus Super Stadium or Sunshine Coast Stadium.”
No less than five games were played at Cbus Super Stadium in round 18 with two at Suncorp and one at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville.
The Feldt air show comes to Rockhampton!
The roadshow then rolled into Mackay, Redcliffe and Rockhampton, where a sensational atmosphere was guaranteed as Queenslanders lapped up the chance to see the game’s very best in action week after week.
From the park benches at Browne Park to the leagues club balcony at Moreton Daily Stadium, rugby league heartlands came alive in the run to the 2021 finals, while fans in lockdown in Sydney and Melbourne took solace in the fact the game was going ahead despite the spectre of COVID.
Even when South East Queensland went into lockdown in August the NRL pushed on without fans in the stand for a fortnight before they were back again in Round 22 — small in number but big on enthusiasm, from the 2523 at Sunshine Coast Stadium to see the Storm beat the Raiders to 14,314 at Suncorp for the Roosters’ win over Brisbane.
Finals matches in Townsville, Rockhampton and Mackay brought an atmosphere all their own before the historic decider at Suncorp Stadium between the Bunnies and Panthers was played in front of 39,322 diehards as the curtain came down on an incredible season.
The Warriors are finally heading home
And so to 2022, with restrictions and spirits lifted, we celebrated big time in Round 1 with a total of 124,000 fans pouring through the gates across the eight games.
The Sharks have made a triumphant return to PointsBet Stadium for the first time since 2019, the Storm are back at AAMI Park and full houses at BlueBet Stadium, 4 Pines Park and CommBank Stadium have reminded us all why we love this game so much.
So as we mark the two-year anniversary of the day Project Apollo gave us our game back, it’s fitting that the picturesque Moreton Daily Stadium plays hosts to the Warriors and Knights before Accor Stadium comes alive for the Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers. Then the spirit fingers will be out in force at PointsBet Stadium for the Sharks-Roosters clash.
Sharks fans rejoice, you're going home
The Sharks’ home ground will be buzzing. Going off. Packed to the rafters.
Just as Mt Smart Stadium will be on July 3 for the mother of all homecomings – the Warriors’ first game in Auckland since round 24, 2019.
Having sacrificed so much to help keep the game going, the Warriors welcome Wests Tigers to town for a game where the result is almost irrelevant.
Just being back at the footy and screaming for our team is a win after everything we’ve been through.
Take a bow, footy fans. You’ve hung tough and been rewarded for your loyalty.