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Jokes, banter and a sense of community: Inside the first NRL game without fans

Thursday's Cowboys-Bulldogs match was the first fixture in premiership history to be played without fans - it was a weird experience but one that also demonstrated the sense of community within the game.

North Queensland coach Paul Green paused to say hello to journalists sitting behind his team's bench on his way to the coaches box before kick-off at ANZ Stadium, while someone on the bench pulled away Peter Parr’s plastic seat as the club’s long serving GM of football went to sit down.

Welcome to NRL 2020, which looks set to be played in closed stadiums for the foreseeable future to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

There were 200 people working at the game, as well as the 34 players and four on-field match officials. The parents and girlfriend of Canterbury debutant Jake Averillo took the total number of people inside the stadium to 241.

After more than 25 years of covering the game, I knew most of the people in the cavernous stadium.

Sitting on their own in front of Green’s coaches box, Averillo’s parents, Mick and Bev, and his girlfriend, Charli, were easy to identify and I was interviewing them at full-time when photographer Grant Trouville phoned to suggest they come to the fence for a photo with Jake.

Besides Green and Bulldogs coach Dean Pay, those not playing or officiating were either on the sideline or behind the fence.

It was close enough to hear the laughter in the Cowboys camp when Parr landed on his backside when his seat was surreptitiously moved or to be able to chat with officials during the game.

That’s not to suggest they weren’t focused on their jobs and there was constant shouting of instructions or encouragement from the sideline to players on the field – and for referees Adam Gee and Chris Butler to get the opposition back 10 metres or appeal for a penalty.

However, it was the other sounds you don’t normally hear in large crowds that created an eerie atmosphere, such as the thud when North Queensland second-rower Gavin Cooper slid into the goalpost pads and the contact in tackles.

Before kick-off and after half-time, Cowboys officials leaned over the tunnel area to clap their team onto the field, while one joked as they came from the field for the interval leading 22-6: "At least we took the crowd out of it."

There was some swearing on the field and the sideline but not as much as many people would have expected.

However, the lack of atmosphere raised concerns about how motivated the players would be.

Instead it was the ball boys who appeared to be affected as match officials had to scream for a ball so Valentine Holmes could take a conversion attempt, while twice Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt was left waiting for a tee to kick off.

Match Highlights: Bulldogs v Cowboys

Whenever a ball was kicked over the fence, the ball-boys had to fetch it as there were no fans in the grandstands to throw it back.

The Steedens were washed every 10 minutes, while calls from trainers and players could be heard clearly.

There was no noticeable drop-off in intensity in the match from the players and the talk grew louder the closer it got to full-time as the Bulldogs desperately tried to reel in a 24-12 deficit and the Cowboys were determined to hang on.

“Legs, legs” was the call from the Bulldogs every time Jason Taumalolo ran the ball, while they shouted “great challenge, Jacko” after a successful captain’s challenge by skipper Josh Jackson in the second half.

An empty ANZ Stadium hosted the opening game of round 2 between the Bulldogs and Cowboys.
An empty ANZ Stadium hosted the opening game of round 2 between the Bulldogs and Cowboys. ©Grant Trouville/NRL Photos

Taumalolo was outstanding and ran a record 345 metres in 26 carries of the ball – the most record by a forward in premiership history – in the eight-point win but there was no fanfare after the match as the new protocols introduced to restrict the risk of players contracting COVID-19 meant the Cowboys had less than 50 people in their travelling party.

The North Queensland players had arrived at the stadium at 4pm after a two-and-a-half-hour charter flight from Townsville to Bankstown airport and they were home by 2am.

The Cowboys had to bring their own masseuses from Townsville because of precautions put in place due to the coronavirus and the players spent the additional two hours before they would usually be at the ground on a massage table or in an ice bath set up on level four at ANZ Stadium.

It is a routine they are set to become used to as the NRL is prepared to fly teams directly to and from games on chartered planes and play without crowds for as long as necessary.