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SA teams Gold Coast-bound as AFL restarts, but fears remain for the future

Football

The Crows and Port Adelaide are set to play at least four matches straight in Queensland when the AFL season resumes next month, as clubs begin to contemplate the “disaster” of crowd bans continuing into next year, and even beyond.

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AFL chief Gillon McLachlan today confirmed the 2020 season – halted after just one round as the coronavirus pandemic took hold – will resume from Thursday June 11, with both South Australian clubs to join a Queensland ‘quarantine hub’ comprised of the Brisbane Lions, Gold Coast Suns, West Coast Eagles and Fremantle Dockers.

McLachlan said the fixture for the season’s remaining 144 games – plus finals – was still being honed and would be rolled out “in blocks of up to four to six weeks, with the first block of games released over the next 10 days”.

However, he said, “because of the uncertainty with the way the model will work, the most likely scenario is those [Queensland-based] teams will play each other in the first four rounds”.

Port will go into the long-delayed second round as ladder leaders, having already played one of its fellow hub teams, 2019 wooden-spooner Gold Coast – a fact that could complicate the initial fixture, which could see all six teams play each other once at either the Gabba or Metricon Stadium.

Adelaide and the Power will be forced to leave SA within days, after state health authorities canned the league’s proposed plan for a ‘fly in/fly out’ model to restart the season – despite the model having been strongly and publicly favoured by Premier Steven Marshall.

It’s understood AFL insiders are privately seething about SA’s decision, which forced it to scramble to accommodate the hub model.

“We know we’re going to need to retain maximum flexibility with the fixture to allow for home games in each state if circumstances change,” McLachlan said.

“The AFL will continue to remain responsive with fixturing, so it can respond to any change in restrictions in any state…

“I feel confident how we start is not how we’ll finish.”

Insiders say the most optimistic hope is that crowds will be allowed into venues – even in a limited capacity – by the time finals are played – with the Grand Final likely to be held in late October, unless the season is derailed a second time.

But InDaily understands clubs have begun modelling a worst-case scenario, as the prospect that health authorities refusing crowds access to games continues into the 2021 season – a live possibility if a COVID-19 vaccine is not developed and widely available by that time.

“That’s definitely a risk,” said one club source.

“System-wide, we’re starting to focus on it as a collective – if we can’t have crowds there, it makes the business model very unsustainable.”

The source, who did not want to be named, said such a scenario would mean the “whole membership and sponsorship models [and] commercial relationship models are going to have to be re-examined”.

“You’d classify it as a disaster,” they said.

Clubs are still hoping most members and supporters will continue to pay membership fees this year in the hopes of returning to games in 2021, but “if that was to go on for a second season, a whole rethink would have to be undertaken”.

“It’s tough… but we’ve got to remain optimistic,” they said.

McLachlan confirmed the league was now working on “what does 2021 look like, and ‘22 and ’23”.

“A plan went to the AFL Commission on Monday, covering broadcaster [rights], clubs, soft caps… and that will be worked out in coming weeks,” he said.

But for now, he said, “the AFL competition is returning”.

“From Monday, all clubs will return to training [and] all AFL clubs will return to full-contact training on May 25”.

That means the SA clubs will relocate within 10 days, given state restrictions still ban large-scale contact training until June 8.

Immediate family members will be allowed to join them if requested.

McLachlan said all players and returning football department staff are being tested for COVID-19 prior to returning to their clubs, with “rigorous ongoing screening and regular testing” to remain in place throughout the season.

“Our industry understands the opportunity we’ve been given,” he said.

“We also understand and accept our responsibility to our football family and the wider community.”

The temporary relocations mean the SA and WA clubs will be at what Port Adelaide chairman David Koch described as a “significant disadvantage”.

West Coast captain Luke Shuey said his club was prepared to do what they had to for the sake of the competition.

“We realise we’re going to have to travel at some stage and be away for a certain amount of time,” Shuey told Fox Footy.

“Fortunately for us we’re used to travelling, albeit not for up to four or five or six weeks.”

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