The AFL’s patchwork 2020 season is all starting to seem a bit desperate

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There were some very good reasons to get this disrupted and increasingly complex AFL season restarted, most of them manufactured at the Royal Australian Mint.

Accordingly, the work of those officials who have burnt the midnight oil responding to constantly changing state and local regulations, rejigging fixtures and dealing with sundry logistical nightmares should be lauded.

And yet as players and their families are dragged from Melbourne’s COVID-19 hotspots, hubs are formed and dissolved before they have even been occupied, matches are rescheduled or postponed and players are publicly shamed for having the temerity to record a (false) positive test, it is time to pose the dreaded question.

At what point does this season cease being a noble enterprise that saves jobs and provides welcome distraction for those who have long completed Netflix and mastered sourdough, and become an act of sheer desperation?

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The truncated 17-match home-and-away fixture, shortened quarters, and spontaneous scheduling and travel requirements ensured this season (though not the premiership itself) would have an asterisk attached.

Yet Victoria’s COVID-19 spike means the “pivoting” now required to keep the AFL’s spluttering engine firing will have a far more profound impact on the outcome of the competition than we anticipated.

As we prepared for relaunch, it was gravely stated that “the integrity of the season will be preserved”. But with Victorians as welcome on state borders as drunken uncles at 21st birthday parties, suddenly the outer limits of “flexibility” and “agility” are being explored.

Maybe some teams will have to play each other twice? Is it too late for NFL-style conferences? Does Gina Rinehart’s place have enough swimming pools to host a four-team hub?

This Victorian-centric lament might prompt derisive laughter in Western Australia, from where the Eagles and Dockers have long been banished to their five-star Gold Coast purgatories.

The Eagles and Dockers are used to playing interstate on a regular basis.(AAP: Gary Day)

Indeed, all of the eight clubs sniffily labelled “interstate teams” by their entitled Victorian overlords might have a chuckle about the fate of the 10 pampered heartland franchises as they are evacuated from the game’s capital like Londoners during The Blitz.

Given some Melburnians are no more willing to drink instant coffee than relinquish footy birth rights such as hosting the AFL grand final, this schadenfreude is well justified.

While Victorian clubs suddenly discover the hardship of constant interstate travel, surely a Perth grand final before a packed crowd is preferable to one before cardboard cut-outs at the MCG.

Compassion now in short supply

It took just one reported positive COVID-19 test for the “we’re all in this together” pandemic compassion to be replaced by the customary dripping sanctimony, self-interest and prurient curiosity of the footy media.

Such was the opprobrium after Essendon’s Conor McKenna produced what proved to be a false positive it was difficult to tell whether the Irishman had (seemingly) contracted a potentially fatal disease or drowned Gillon McLachlan’s kitten.

Collingwood’s Steele Sidebottom deserved less sympathy for a drunken night out in which he violated football protocols — but no actual laws — when he visited an injured teammate, and an ex-teammate and now club official who had been laid off.

A Collingwood AFL player looks to his left as he runs with the ball in both hands in front of a Richmond opponent.
Steele Sidebottom gave the AFL a headache it could have done without.(AAP: Michael Dodge)

Yet even normally measured observers ludicrously took Sidebottom’s football misdemeanours outside the AFL bubble and mischievously conflated them with Melbourne’s local lockdowns to justify his inflated four-match ban and front-page vilification.

Woe betide any player who chooses not to join his team’s interstate hub and instead stays home to care for family. The full weight of the law, as imposed by the hanging judges of the footy panel shows and talkback radio callers, will descend like a cartoon anvil.

Sadly we do not even have the consoling normality of local footy to provide a distraction from the growing hysteria of the AFL’s fractured season.

The cancellation of most local senior competitions has compounded the most glaring inadequacy of the AFL’s patchwork season. If you live in the wrong state, perhaps even the wrong postcode, you can’t go to the footy.

An afternoon spent watching the weekend warriors from a socially acceptable distance might have helped compensate for this live AFL deprivation. In some cases a well-contested local game might have been an upgrade for the clogged and congested scraps at the MCG.

Instead the best hope is the Trojan efforts of dedicated coaches and hastily trained COVID-19 officers will give the juniors a chance to play.

Should they get back on the park, well done to those volunteers who made it happen. Your efforts will be rewarded with beaming smiles and the far greater likelihood the kids will be back next season.

Meanwhile, unless a second wave of COVID-19 cases spike in states other than Victoria — and perhaps even if they do — the AFL season will roll on to some sort of conclusion.

Perhaps this one will be remembered more fondly than some others due to its quirks and unpredictability and for the very fact that it happened.

But as players are evacuated from their houses, shamed for displaying false-negatives and shuffled around the country in packs it is all starting to seem a bit desperate.

All the latest sports issues and news from the weekend matches will be discussed in detail on Offsiders this Sunday at 10:00am on ABC TV.

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