MELBOURNE: Battling scheduling disruptions, social distancing breaches and unusual expense requests from players in biosecure hubs, the Australian Football League is ploughing on with grim determination to finish its season in the time of COVID-19.
Professional leagues across the globe have been slammed by the pandemic but few have done it tougher than the top flight of Australian Rules, which after a single round was forced to shut down in March for nearly three months.
Since resuming, the AFL has lurched from crisis to crisis, with a second wave outbreak chasing the league out of its Melbourne heartland.
A slew of Victoria-based teams had to scramble to pack their bags last month as authorities closed borders with the southern state, where a surge of infections has triggered a second lockdown period.
"This season that is literally like no other ... we continue to find a way through," AFL Chief Executive Gillon McLachlan remarked at the time.
Finding a way through has placed the AFL on a war-time footing, drawing up fixtures on the fly in anticipation of government restrictions that have torn up travel plans for most of the 18 teams spread across the country.
AFL rounds are usually weekend affairs, kicking off on Thursday and wrapping up on Sunday, but the competition is in the midst of a run of 33 matches in 19 days to try to create wiggle room in the schedule later on.
The demands on the teams are unprecedented.
Players and staff from Victoria's 10 teams have not slept in their own beds for weeks and are unlikely to for the final two months of the regular season, or longer, if they make the playoffs.
Teams are under stricter biosecurity protocols than the general public, meaning they have little freedom of movement and labour under the threat of fines for leaving their bubbles.
That has not stopped a slew of players from being sanctioned.
The Hawthorn Hawks were fined AUS$50,000 (US$36,000) last week after unselected players entered a public area of a stadium as their team mates lost to the Sydney Swans.
The Collingwood Magpies were fined AUS$45,000 after their head coach had a hit of tennis with Australian Fed Cup captain Alicia Molik.
FRUSTRATIONS OF "THE BUBBLE"
The AFL has tried to help players and staff cope with the frustrations of "the bubble", and last week flew several hundred partners and children from Victoria to the team hubs in northeastern Queensland state.
Accommodating the families is costing millions of dollars but it has brought new challenges, with some wives and girlfriends having trouble adhering to the same biosecurity rules as players.
Trent Cotchin, captain of the reigning champion Richmond Tigers, will pay a AUS$20,000 fine on behalf of his club after his wife visited a day spa last week and posted about it on her Instagram page.
Local media reported that the AFL has grown weary of some of the demands of hub-bound players, which have ranged from having carpenters alter living spaces in apartments and requests for reimbursements for supermarket shopping.
Warren Tredrea, a media pundit and former champion forward for AFL team Port Adelaide, told a chat show on Channel Nine that players needed some "perspective".
"They're the first to put their hands up and whinge," he said.
"Go and have a look and walk the streets of Melbourne at the moment. Look at the unemployment queues ... Good luck and grow up."
(US$1 = 1.3891 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Toby Davis)