For the 17 Irish AFL players, the news that the 2020 AFL season has been suspended until May 31, after just one round of games, meant they faced an immediate decision: Stay or return home.
On Sunday, as rangers walked the now closed Bondi Beach warding off swimmers, surfers, and day-trippers, Australian Rules chief executive Gil McLachlan took to the podium to declare the immediate suspension of the season.
The news was inevitable after the federal government and states announced strict new social shutdown policies. Among the protocols were state-border controls banning any “non-essential” visitors.
It means the sport now faces the greatest financial challenge in its history. Layoffs and cutbacks are inevitable. Many organisations will face a fight to survive.
Given the unprecedented circumstances, several clubs have offered their players the opportunity to return to their home states if they so desired.
For Irish players, with the threat of a nationwide lockdown and increasing flight cancellations, this meant they needed to make an immediate decision.
On Monday, Collingwood’s Irish duo, Derry’s Anton Tohill and Cork’s Mark Keane, flew home from Melbourne. Both were advised to do so while discussions about salary cuts will take pay down the line.
For others, the process wasn’t as straightforward.
In Sydney, Derry and GWS Giants starlet Callum Brown could not leave the country. That was because he recently lost his passport and had to source an emergency one. With airlines grounding flights and others, like Emirates, suspending passenger operations as of Tuesday, it means the next available flight for him is Thursday.
“I had a decision to stay or go. I just thought of mum back home, everywhere closing, she needs support with my little brother and that,” said the 19-year-old.
Whenever the 2020 season does restart, it will feature 17 rather than 23 rounds. For the likes of Brown and other upcoming Irish prospects, this means their chances of a breakthrough this year are vastly diminished.
“It is tough for us, even for me and the other boys dying to get into the team. They have reduced this season to 17 rounds which means it will be harder to get a chance.”
His GWS team-mates were able to take the club’s gym equipment home with them on Monday in a bid to maintain fitness.
A similar process took place at St Kilda. Kilkenny’s Darragh Joyce decided to stay, and spent the day converting his spare room into a makeshift gym.
“We are off until at least May 31, but it will be longer by the sounds of it. The club have plans for everything. Right now, it is a 10-week plan,” he said.
The situation has him thinking of home, but he is comforted by the administrative reaction.
“You see Ireland at home, the way they got on the front foot. Australia has been seeing how it goes. You’d give credit to the Irish government for how they reacted.”
Conscious of the financial pressure, AFL players have pledged a 50% pay cut for the next two months. Yet Joyce is keenly aware it could be much worse.
“The AFLPA are working through it now. There has to be financial cuts. The club has laid off a lot of people. All clubs are laying people off and running with a skeleton staff, which is sad to see.
“You would be nervous but, look, we are so fortunate. We had a meeting this morning and we have so many people to lean on — doctors, trainers, coaches, psychologists, the people isolated with mortgages and everything. That is who I feel for. Us? We are privileged in a crisis.”