MELBOURNE: The Australian Football League will resume on Thursday after a three-month hiatus due to the coronavirus shutdown with reigning champions Richmond Tigers meeting Collingwood Magpies at an empty Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The Australian Rules top flight, the country's most popular winter sporting competition, was suspended in March after a single round when travel restrictions aimed at curbing the spread of COVID-19 made it untenable.
With some state borders limited to essential travel, the AFL has had to work through huge logistical challenges to secure its restart date, putting teams in "hubs" to avoid crippling quarantine restrictions.
Players are also operating in strict biosecurity "bubbles" which bar them from many of the social activities now being enjoyed by Australians with the easing of COVID-19 restrictions in recent weeks.
In better times, the clash between the Tigers and Magpies, two of the competition's most storied clubs, would draw a crowd of 80,000-plus to the MCG but the only voices heard at the hulking stadium will be from players and staff.
Still, a decision by South Australian authorities on Tuesday to allow 2,000 spectators onto the terraces for Saturday's "Showdown" derby between the Adelaide Crows and Port Adelaide Power has raised hopes that other states will follow suit and open their stadiums to fans.
"I'm so pumped to hear there's 2,000 people coming to the stadium," Crows captain Rory Sloane told reporters on Tuesday of a game that typically draws 50,000 to Adelaide Oval.
"Good luck getting a ticket. (But) to have that is a great sign for our fans."
The AFL's restart comes two weeks after the resumption of the National Rugby League, the rival winter competition which dominates the sporting market in the eastern states of Queensland and New South Wales.
Championed by energetic chairman Peter V'landys, the NRL was the first of Australia's pro leagues to resume after the coronavirus shutdown.
The path ahead is not entirely clear for the 18-team AFL, however, which is working out its match schedules in four-week blocks in the hope that COVID-19 restrictions might disappear across the country to allow genuine home-and-away competition.
While there has been some grumbling about the makeshift arrangements, most clubs and players have sounded happy to make sacrifices to get the show on the road.
"Anything we can do to get it going we're up to, and we've got stay adaptable and agile to do that," Collingwood coach Nathan Buckley told reporters on Tuesday.
"As a football club we're open-minded into how we share that load across the 18 clubs."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)