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Rugby league won the battle to restart first but is on track to lose the bitter war of the codes

With rugby league resuming on Thursday the NRL may have won the battle for bragging rights over the AFL but it will be interesting to see who wins the war.

The NRL faithful are rightly ecstatic over the decisive action taken by their chairman Peter V’Landys, commissioner Wayne Pearce and the rest of ‘Project Apollo’ who achieved what many felt was impossible by bringing the game back way ahead of even the most optimistic predictions.

To fans watching their TVs on Thursday as the players run onto the field – albeit in front of empty grandstands – it will be a welcome return to some form of normality.

To those who depend on the game for their livelihood it will mean much more – a rare victory over bitter rival the AFL.

The NRL will return on Thursday when Parramatta Eels go head-to-head with the Brisbane Broncos in Queensland. Pictured: Clinton Gutherson and Mitchell Moses of the Eels train at Kellyville Park on May 21

Pictured: Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter Vlandys

Pictured: Australian Rugby League Commission Chairman Peter Vlandys

For years it has been frowned upon at NRL headquarters to even mention the other code, so far in front was the AFL in terms of crowd numbers, broadcast revenue, club memberships and development.

But in recent weeks, as the NRL has moved steadily forward with its ambitious restart plans and the AFL has lagged behind, that policy changed.

Any opportunity to take a swipe at their rivals has been eagerly accepted.

One anonymous coach was quoted on the NRL website as saying, ‘At least we are not like the AFL. We are going forward.’

The pro-NRL media in NSW and Queensland has lauded V’landys as nothing short of a sporting messiah with his successes used to emphasise the perceived failures of the AFL.

As Sydney Morning Herald league writer Andrew Webster put it, ‘He’s becoming a nasal swab for the AFL, jammed so far up its left nostril it feels like an eyeball is about to pop out.’

The AFL season will relaunch on June 11. Pictured: Trent Cotchin (left) and Dustin Martin (centre) of the Tigers react after winning the 2019 AFL Grand Final

The AFL season will relaunch on June 11. Pictured: Trent Cotchin (left) and Dustin Martin (centre) of the Tigers react after winning the 2019 AFL Grand Final

By its own admission the NRL needs to slash $50 million in annual costs if it is to survive, but just where those cuts are made will be problematic. Pictured: Juniors take the pitch for a game of NRL

By its own admission the NRL needs to slash $50 million in annual costs if it is to survive, but just where those cuts are made will be problematic. Pictured: Juniors take the pitch for a game of NRL 

Mike Colman argues the obvious solution is to cut NRL staff which brings with it a major problem. Of the NRL's 400 employees, 200 are development officers

Mike Colman argues the obvious solution is to cut NRL staff which brings with it a major problem. Of the NRL’s 400 employees, 200 are development officers

And V’landys himself broke the cardinal rule of ‘don’t mention the war’ when he told a reporter this week that he had enjoyed a ‘giggle’ at the AFL’s expense as they floundered in the NRL’s wake.

But there are those who have concerns that the NRL’s current victory might be short-lived and that the true effects of the Covid-19 disruption won’t be seen for years – at which time it could be the AFL who emerge as the clear winner.

As well as bringing all sport in Australia to a standstill, the coronavirus pandemic succeeded in shining a spotlight on the financial management of major codes, and the NRL with daily running costs of $500,000 and an HQ staff said to be larger than the UK Premier League was found wanting.

By its own admission the NRL needs to slash $50 million in annual costs if it is to survive, but just where those cuts are made will be problematic.

The clubs have already said they will not accept a reduction in their salary cap, player managers will fight tooth and nail to maintain their clients’ massive contracts (and the commissions that come with them) and we all saw what happened when the NRL tried to cut back on referee wages – they threatened to go on strike.

Former Brisbane Broncos player Steve Renouf said: 'The NRL have worked hard to try to keep pace with Auskick and if they have to cut back its going to be very disappointing, and very worrying'. Pictured: Junior Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants take the pitch

Former Brisbane Broncos player Steve Renouf said: ‘The NRL have worked hard to try to keep pace with Auskick and if they have to cut back its going to be very disappointing, and very worrying’. Pictured: Junior Sydney Swans and Greater Western Sydney Giants take the pitch

Steve Renouf (left) stands with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk following a press conference in Brisbane on Sunday May 24

Steve Renouf (left) stands with Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk following a press conference in Brisbane on Sunday May 24

The obvious solution is to cut NRL staff which brings with it a major problem. Of the NRL’s 400 employees, 200 are development officers.

‘It’s a big issue,’ said former Brisbane Broncos player Steve Renouf, who has worked for over 20 years in the area of Indigenous affairs including junior sport.

‘The NRL is always talking about the grassroots of the game but if you lose those development officers, you’re in big trouble. The AFL is already a long way in front in that area. Take away the development officers and you’re giving them a free hand.’

Renouf first saw the strength of the AFL junior development operation when he headed the Queensland government’s Get Active schools program in the early 2000s.

‘We’d go to every government school in the State and wherever we went, Weipa, Cunnamulla, you name it, the AFL had already been there. All the kids had their Auskick hats and backpacks and water bottles. It was like a machine.

Former Queensland Cowboys star Johnathan Thurston (right) greets children

Former Queensland Cowboys star Johnathan Thurston (right) greets children 

‘You look at a place like Cairns. They moved in there and they just took over. The NRL has started Johnathan Thurston House up in Townsville for the promising Indigenous players to live and go to school but the AFL has had something like that in Cairns for years. They are so strong right through Far North Queensland and even up into the Torres Strait.

‘That’s where it’s really going to be felt if the NRL has to pull money from development, in the regional areas of NSW and Queensland. Junior league is already struggling out there and the AFL is so strong.

‘The NRL have worked hard to try to keep pace with Auskick and if they have to cut back its going to be very disappointing, and very worrying.

‘You might not see it for a year or two but five, 10 years down the track the NRL could be in big trouble.’

Which might be a point worth remembering as the NRL executives continues to wave the success of Project Apollo in the face of their AFL counterparts.

After all, let’s not forget that the troubled Apollo 13 lunar mission after which the NRL project was named never actually made it to the moon.

It just got back to where it started.

Renouf said the NRL has to pull money from development, in the regional areas of NSW and Queensland

Renouf said the NRL has to pull money from development, in the regional areas of NSW and Queensland

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