Australia

'I never, ever doubted it – never, ever': How the NRL made it to grand final day

Peter V'landys' role as overseer of Project Apollo, the bid to restart the NRL season on May 28 rather than the similarly ambitious goal of landing on the moon, was cast early in proceedings.

"I can remember sitting at school [when I was] nine when America landed on the moon thinking, 'Wow, they finally did it'," says Wayne Pearce, the head of the committee behind the league launch.

"The story behind it is, in 1961, [President] John F Kennedy proclaimed to the senate in America, as well as the public, that they would put a man on the moon before the end of the decade, because it was a race against the Russians.

"No one at NASA thought they could do it. There were so many doubters. They ended up doing it [even earlier] in July 1969.

"We were similar. People thought we weren't going to do it.

"I said to Peter that I'm Neil Armstrong and your role in all of this is JFK."

For most observers, May 28 was much too soon for the game to return. V'landys wanted to lift off before most other major sporting competitions on the planet. The ARL Commission chairman, the critics said, had put himself and the game before the rest of the public, that his recklessness would endanger lives.

"Mr V'landys, are you betting your career on this?" asked Herald scribe Peter Fitzsimons on Sports Sunday at the time. "You're the one who has pushed this harder than anybody. If there is a positive, will you resign?"

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Then there was the Victorian reaction.

"Peter V'landys, your behaviour reminded me of the worst of Australia's response to this terrifying plague," opined veteran journalist Caroline Wilson during a television appearance.

That was some of the more constructive criticism.

"At the time, I don't think I've copped as much personal abuse and personal criticism," V'landys says. "It was unrelenting. Like any human being, it brings you down a bit. But I never, ever doubted it – never, ever.

"I've always based my strategy on, if I think I'm doing the right thing, I've got to ignore the white noise. And I did. If I listened to the white noise, it wouldn't have got up."

V'landys was walking through New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina struck when he spotted it.

It was a poster dubbed "Peter's Laws: The creed of the sociopathic obsessive compulsive" and immediately he knew he had to have it.

They are 19 tenants to live by, according to the late, great Dr Peter Safar, the man acknowledged as the pioneer of CPR.

So when V'landys was attempting to breathe life back into the NRL season, the rules provided inspiration for what came next.

"I just think they are so accurate," V'landys says. "I think it describes the way I operate."

The "laws" include gems such as: "Do it by the book … but be the author"; "When forced to compromise, ask for more"; and "When you can't change the rules, ignore them".

V'landy's favourite, however, is No.15, which states: "Bureaucracy is a challenge to be conquered with a righteous attitude, a tolerance for stupidity and a bulldozer when necessary."

The Panthers celebrate after booking their grand final berth ... less than six months after many had predicted the 2020 season would not take place.

The Panthers celebrate after booking their grand final berth ... less than six months after many had predicted the 2020 season would not take place.Credit:Getty

Which is why V'landys was announcing coronavirus policies for governments, at state and federal level, at a pace they could not keep up with.

"That's exceptionally well put because that's exactly what happened," V'landys says. "I had the data, I had the facts, I had the figures. So when I was meeting with them, [despite] what they were saying publicly, I knew at all times they were supportive.

"Without the government being supportive, I wouldn't have got there.

"They certainly had to move with us, they had to move at a faster pace than they would have liked.

"While racing was continuing on with all of these biosecurity measures, I knew it was going to work.

"The silly thing people were saying is that it's a contact sport. So what? If you're in a bubble and everyone is negative, it's a negative person touching a negative person."

So how, pray tell, do you get a politician to do something they don't want to?

Game over: Former NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys in March, announcing that the season has been suspended.

Game over: Former NRL chief executive Todd Greenberg and Peter V’landys in March, announcing that the season has been suspended.Credit:Getty

"I think in some ways the politicians appreciated it, that someone was pushing a bit harder than what they [would normally] be doing," V'landys says. "With COVID, you had to get the right balance. You listen to the medical advice, by all means, but at the same time, you need to get the balance with that and normality.

"I was just trying to get the right balance."

Getting the bureaucrats onside was only part of it. At every turn, there seemed to be an insurmountable challenge: a new pay deal needed to be struck with the players; the Warriors weren't even allowed in the country; clubs were screaming for more money to ensure their survival; the referees threatened to walk off the job following the shift to just one whistle-blower; the broadcasters, whose money provides the lifeblood of the game, were about to walk away, too.

"There were spot fires and sometimes they turned into bigger fires," V'landys recalls. "Once you'd put that one out, a bigger one would appear."

Take for instance, the plight of the Warriors. The Project Apollo committee agreed, in the interests of fairness, that all teams should start training at the same time. Yet the New Zealand franchise was facing the prospect of a two-week hotel isolation. That's where V'landys' experience as Racing NSW boss came to the fore.

The Bulldogs after their round two loss to the Sea Eagles ... with no fans, and just days before the season was put on hold.

The Bulldogs after their round two loss to the Sea Eagles ... with no fans, and just days before the season was put on hold.Credit:Getty

"I realised in thoroughbred racing that when we bring international horses out, we put them into a special quarantine area where they can continue to train so they don't lose any of their preparation," he says.

"So I thought to myself, why can't we do that for the Warriors?"

Eventually, the politicians fell in line and Tamworth became the Warriors' home away from home. It was yet another example of V'landys stepping in at the last minute to fashion a solution. In the case of the referee dispute, he broke the impasse by personally fronting the match officials the night before they were scheduled for an arbitration hearing at the Fair Work Commission.

"It's the first time the game came together as one," V'landys says.

V'landys had many conversations with journalists during that torrid time. One in particular resonated with him.

"What got me more than anything else, and it was quite weird, I was talking to a journalist who said, 'I've got to go on leave'," V'landys recalls. "He said there was no work for him, that he had to take six weeks off. And if the game didn't get started, he might not be able to work for the rest of the year.

How the game restarted ... The Broncos and Eels clash on May 28 saw the NRL restart, with strict biosecurity rules in place.

How the game restarted ... The Broncos and Eels clash on May 28 saw the NRL restart, with strict biosecurity rules in place.Credit:AP

"That hit me, how important it was. It wasn't just about players, coaches and fans, it was all the other people who rely on the game [to make a living].

"That really motivated me substantially. A lot of people were relying on me and the commission and I didn't want to let them down."

In the end, the mission was a success. On May 28, Thursday night football resumed when Parramatta belted Brisbane. There were no fans at Suncorp Stadium, but the fixture proved a ratings hit. However, suggestions of a Super Bowl-size audience – that sports-starved fans throughout the world would discover league in their millions – never quite eventuated. The number of viewers actually tuning in on Fox Sports in the US for the season relaunch was just 32,000.

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However, the restart ensured broadcaster obligations were met, the clubs were saved and the Greatest Game of All survived.

Through it all, "PVL" did his best JFK impersonation. This was proof that rugby league could do better.

In the lead-up to the final game of the season, ex-ARLC chairman Peter Beattie, a former Queensland premier, suggested V'landys could become an outstanding prime minister.

Perhaps another world for V'landy's to conquer?

"I have no ambition for politics," V'landys says. "Zero. Actually minus."

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