AFL hopes new crackdown will keep season alive
PLAYERS and club officials will be banned from visiting friends and families on the eve of matches and full contact training has been outlawed for a month in a desperate bid to save the AFL season.
Rocked by Conor McKenna's positive test and Victoria's surging coronavirus outbreak, the league has enforced a series of new restrictions aimed at stopping the spread of COVID-19 across the competition.
The league is adamant it will finish the season as late as December but concedes Victorian clubs might need to relocate to interstate hubs to keep the competition rolling.
"Nothing is off the table … this season is unlike any other," AFL legal counsel Andrew Dillon declared on Monday night.
"We must continue to be flexible and agile in our decision making as we navigate through the remaining games."
Essendon has dodged a bullet with only one player other than McKenna - James Stewart - set to miss Saturday night's clash against Carlton.
In a massive win for the Bombers,, it is understood Essendon players have been told Stewart was deemed the only player at risk as a close contact and will therefore be quarantined for 14 days following McKenna's positive COVID-19 test result from Saturday.
There had been initial concerns up to eight teammates could have been sidelined after McKenna trained with the main group on Friday before attending the club briefly on Saturday morning, including the majority of the club's backline.
But health authorities poured over the vision of McKenna's time at the club on Friday and deemed Stewart as the only player required to be stood down for the game against the Blues that will now go ahead.
Stewart was McKenna's wrestling partner in the club's full training session on Friday.
The club conceded that constituted close contact, with Essendon's players set to return to training on Thursday.
The AFL remains mystified by how McKenna caught the coronavirus.
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The AFL is battling a spate of fresh fire fronts as rival states closely monitor Victoria's worsening situation.
Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan said the spread of the virus in Victoria was making him "have second thoughts" about reopening his state's border.
"Victoria has people back in ICU and if the community spread continues, they'll get a lot more," McGowan said.
Crowds of up to 30,000 will be permitted in WA from Saturday with West Coast and Fremantle determined to fly home from their Gold Coast hubs after the completion of Round 5.
Plans to allow a capacity crowd of 60,000 to enter Perth's Optus Stadium from next month could put the state in the frame to host this year's AFL Grand Final.
The Northern Territory has also put its hand up to host a number of Victorian clubs in hubs.
AFLNT chairman Sean Bowden confirmed "active discussions'' with league chiefs and the NT Government aimed at creating a four or six-team hub to play premiership matches in Darwin and Alice Springs.
Queensland authorities are also monitoring Victoria's coronavirus spike and could yet block Richmond's entry into the state for its scheduled July 2 clash against West Coast at Metricon Stadium.
IS YOUR CLUB AT RISK OF A BOMBERS-STYLE WIPE-OUT?
Clubs will still be able to split their training groups into backs, midfielders and forwards despite the league putting in place more restrictions around training on Monday.
Clubs will be told there are limits to the amount of full contact training sessions they can hold in the wake of Essendon's positive COVID test for Conor McKenna.
The AFL is still putting in place specific regulations around tackling in training sessions with full lists.
But clubs have been told for the foreseeable future tackling will be limited only to smaller group training sessions.
That protocol will safeguard clubs if player tests positive and still allow them to play football the following weekend.
The AFL has made clear Essendon's game against Carlton will go ahead if there are 26 fit players because it did not mitigate risk by splitting up its backline into different groups of nine.
Still, the league believes it is up to clubs to decide how to split up players and is not expected to ban clubs from holding small sessions with their entire backline or forward group.
HOW THE CLUBS ARE APPROACHING TRAINING
Melbourne will not reconfigure its position-based training groups despite the risk a COVID-19 infection could wipe out an entire line, a fear which has gripped Essendon.
Demons football boss Josh Mahoney has instead prioritised keeping the virus out of his club by ensuring all players and staff follow the AFL's strict protocols.
"We went position as well (in our groups)," Mahoney said.
"We felt when you went to mix up the groups it was really important they trained together as well. So that was our decision, based on training together.
"It's always the balance you're taking when you're setting up the protocols. In the end the No. 1 priority is not to have COVID-19 come into your facility."
AFL training groups are made up of up to nine players.
The Demons lumped on-ballers Max Gawn, Jack Viney, Angus Brayshaw, Christian Petracca and Clayton Oliver into one star-studded training group.
Likewise, at Richmond midfield coach Adam Kingsley is in charge of Dion Prestia, Trent Cotchin, Jack Graham, Riley Collier-Dawkins and Oleg Markov.
But Port Adelaide followed the AFL advice and mixed up their lines to avoid the Essendon scenario.
"We might be starting with a backline of (Charlie) Dixon, (Todd) Marshall and (Brad) Ebert because we have lost the whole backline (if we didn't mix them up)," coach Ken Hinkley said.
Brisbane Lions also listened to the AFL and, for example, placed key defenders Harris Andrews and Darcy Gardiner in different groups.
Players are only allowed to mix with teammates outside their group for one contact session per week.
The Demons remain frustrated they enter Sunday's clash against Geelong having played just one game in the past 98 days due to the postponement of their game against Essendon.
But the Dees hit the MCG on Sunday for the first time since Round 22 last year for a full-scale intra-club match that started with their best 18 taking on the rest.
TIGER TO RETURN AFTER DASH HOME TO WA
Liam Baker could return for Richmond this weekend after returning from his Round 3 dash to Western Australia.
The premiership defender missed the Tigers' loss to Hawthorn after he travelled to Western Australia to attend a family funeral last week.
He was granted an exemption from the state's stringent 14-day quarantine period, meaning he could attend and then return to Victoria immediately and returned to the club on Monday.
The 22-year-old was also subjected to additional protocols including COVID-19 tests upon his departure and return to Victoria and in how he travelled, including being distanced from other passengers on the aeroplane.
"The club sought an exemption from the WA Government for Liam to travel to Perth without quarantine, which is available to people attending funerals," the club said in a statement.
"The club put additional protocols in place, above the requirements of the WA Government, to ensure that he, and the community travelled safely to and from Western Australia."
Exemptions for entering WA from interstate apply to a range of circumstances including compassionate grounds such as attending a relative's funeral. They allow for travellers to skip the mandatory quarantine period.
Baker will have to train fully this week to be considered for selection for Saturday's clash with St Kilda at Marvel Stadium, but he is considered "probable" to be available.