The only spectators at Lang Park for a match that should have had more than 35,000 present. (ABC News: Quentin Hull)
It was a weekend like nothing I have experienced in my 25 years in the sports media.
Among the privileged few granted entry to the venues, I broadcast four games of football, three in the National Rugby League and one in the Australian Football League.
What started as a feeling of tempered excitement as the weekend began, finished with a hollow acceptance that the world had changed, and Australian sport was not immune.
My colleagues and I felt blessed to have some sense of normality.
Despite the absence of fans in the stands, we were able to bring people a momentary escape from the troubles of the world.
Sport is such a way of life for Australians, and the outpouring of delight from our listeners was palpable.
But as the weekend progressed and the COVID-19 story continued to evolve, there was an inescapable feeling of inevitability that our beloved winter pastime was on death row.
My experience started at Lang Park, as Brisbane hosted South Sydney for an NRL game which has averaged more than 37,000 fans over its past 10 instalments at the iconic Milton venue.
Pleasantries were exchanged with matchday staff, within current accepted social guidelines, with all sharing the happiness of being among the selected few to be on site.
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Our broadcast box at Lang Park is very small, so, abiding by current government direction, stats man Brad Tallon was moved to an adjoining empty box. The ABC was the only radio station broadcasting the game from the venue, so space wasn’t hard to find.
Quentin Hull and Brad Tallon practice social distancing at Lang Park. (ABC News: Quentin Hull)
Legendary coach Wayne Bennett sat in the stands behind the goal line at the southern end, near some cardboard cut-outs of the caricature which is synonymous with the local brewery.
It was a tight, pulsating game, won by the locals, highlighted by an amazing solo try to Brisbane playmaker Anthony Milford. A piece of rugby league wizardry which would normally have been met with raucous delight from the stands drew only the sound of applause from the Broncos bench.
The theatre of decisions from ‘The Bunker’ was muted. The posting of the red or green light on the big screen and its reaction has become a part of the flow of an NRL game, and its absence was another reminder of the new world.
Generally, we use any available microphone headset from the supply at our broadcast venues. Due to the pandemic I was instructed to take mine from Friday night and keep it with me to be used at all venues for the time being.
On Saturday afternoon, Gold Coast’s Robina Stadium played host to the stranded Warriors from New Zealand in a game which had been scheduled to take place at Eden Park in Auckland.
Widely applauded for their decision to stay in the country among the travel restrictions, a plan which was re-visited and only re-affirmed for the time being on Friday morning, the Kiwi side was duly flogged by Canberra.
Canberra Raiders tweet: It’s tough times boys, but we want you to know we have a lot of respect for you.
Two of the Warriors players, Wayde Egan and Adam Blair, had experienced their birthdays the day before, without the regular gathering of loved ones, at the team’s camp at Kingscliff, just on the southern side of the Queensland-New South Wales border.
Due to the large number of spiritual men in the Warriors squad, it’s a common sight for them to form a circle and share a prayer at the end of the game.
Social-distancing protocols were ignored, not for a quiet word of spirit, but rather brought on by the Raiders, as players linked arms so the men from Canberra could show their appreciation to their opponents for making the sacrifice to stay in the country and fulfil their playing commitments.
In the evening it was Carrara’s turn for the AFL. Gold Coast and Port Adelaide were never destined to pull a big crowd, but again the stands were empty, bar a few select family members of the debutants, who were given permission to attend to see their sons fulfil a dream.
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There were no banners to run through at the start of the game. Gold Coast runner Nick Malceski became part of our broadcast as his bellowed instructions from the boundary line were clearly picked up by our sound effects microphones.
My expert commentator, the former Melbourne ruckman Jeff White, lives in the nearby Royal Pines residential precinct. Knowing there was no pedestrian traffic around the venue he decided to drive to and from the ground in his motorised golf cart.
It is supposed to be a season of celebration for Port Adelaide as the football club marks its 150th anniversary. The Power won easily, but their first step on the field in such a significant year was played out in unsettling silence.
In the hour leading into the final NRL game of the round on Sunday, again at Robina as Gold Coast met Parramatta, the AFL announced the suspension of its competition and cancellation of the remainder of the AFLW season.
As is rugby league’s way, it remains unperturbed by others and is trying to continue. But the announcement from the rival code cast another shadow over the immediate future of the NRL.
The Eels ran riot in the first home game for new Titans’ coach Justin Holbrook.
After the game, as I walked to my car parked on the vacant concourse just behind the southern in-goal area, the emptiness of the stands matched the feeling in the pit of my stomach.
We just don’t know when we will be back at the footy again.
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