By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia’s National Rugby League football competition, a bruising body contact sport, will on Thursday resume after a two-month hiatus as the number of coronavirus cases in the country slows and social restrictions are eased.
Australia’s more than 7,100 COVID-19 infections and 102 deaths are low compared to many other developed countries, but the measures imposed to contain the disease have pushed the economy to the brink of its first recession in 30 years.
Declaring Australia must now get out from under its doona – a local word for quilt – Prime Minister Scott Morrison has urged locals to begin transitioning back to normal life.
The National Rugby League (NRL) competition will be one of the world’s first contact sports to resume after COVID-19 shredded the global sporting calendar.
“I don’t know what people have been watching all these months, it’s very exciting,” Morrison told Nova FM radio.
“The world will be switching on, the NRL can take over.”
Fans will not be permitted at the games, though they will be able to buy cardboard cut-outs of themselves to be set up in the stadiums.
Players must abide by strict quarantine restrictions and will be tested regularly to ensure no spread of COVID-19.
The return of the NRL will be extremely popular in a country where sport is both a national pastime and an epitome of outdoor culture.
The return may also be a boon to the code with the first game to be screened in 70 countries, including the United States, France, Britain, Papua New Guinea and Uganda.
While welcoming the return of sport, authorities have cautioned it could lead to a rise in the number of cases.
Australia is pressing ahead with plans to remove the bulk of social distancing restrictions by July as it bids to revive its A$2 trillion ($1.3 trillion) economy.
One of Australia’s busiest ski resorts, Thredbo, said it will reopen from June 22. The mountain will operate at half its usual capacity.
($1 = 1.5097 Australian dollars)
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Michael Perry)