How the NRL and the Melbourne Storm Began their Return to Play

In the first of a new series with Elite Performance Partners, Melbourne General Manager Frank Ponissi reflects on one of the first leagues in the world to return to play and attributes their speed to collaboration, adaptability and careful planning.

This article first appeared on the Leaders In Sport Performance Institute member’s site on 29 May 2020

By John Portch with Dave Slemen

The National Rugby League [NRL] is back today, with games being played throughout the weekend across Australia.

The Melbourne Storm will entertain the Canberra Raiders behind closed doors at AAMI Park on Saturday evening as round three of the Telstra Premiership gets under way after being on hiatus
since 23 March.

“It’s been a bit of a whirlwind,” says Frank Ponissi with a smile. The General Manager of Melbourne is talking to Dave Slemen from Elite Performance Partners [EPP], a search, selection and advisory firm working across elite sport and specialising in performance, and the Leaders Performance Institute. It is currently two weeks before the return to play and the NRL has yet to announce a venue for the team’s meeting with Canberra.

Any notions of our growing mastery of Microsoft Teams during this lockdown were dispelled when an email arrived from Ponissi asking where his invitation had gone. Moments later, with apologies proffered and any complacency freshly dispelled, we are chewing the fat with the man, who, having returned from training, is sat in his upstairs study as the Melbourne sky visibly darkens through the slither of a window behind him.

He cracks a joke about all the unseen artifacts to be spied in people’s homes in this burgeoning Zoom era. “We don’t spend time in each other’s houses so there were lots of conversation-starters,”
he notes. “‘What’s that thing on the wall?’ or ‘what room are you in?’ We’re usually in a hotel and we don’t know each other as well as we think.”

All part of the so-called ‘new normal’ and just one consideration amongst many in this pandemic, as the conversation returns to the NRL’s restart. “We have had to think on the run, change on the run, and be adaptable,” he continues. “Usually sports coaches are not good and that – they want a heap of plans. Today we found out who we’re playing and when we’re playing – usually, coaches and performance staff would be in a foetal position when they can’t plan! But it’s the new world.”

Ponissi is both affable and candid throughout our conversation and is a reassuring presence at a time when cool heads have been essential. Few of the conversations either EPP or the Leaders
Performance Institute have been having with the sports market in recent weeks have involved performance practitioners in such an advanced state of returning to play. Ponissi adopts an air of
pride laced with humility when we point out that the NRL’s return to play has been a case study in adaptability and astute planning.

“Did I, back in March, think we’d be back playing on 28 May? Hand on heart, no. I thought it would be too ambitious, too fast,” he freely admits. “I applaud Peter V’landys [the new Chairman of the Australian Rugby League Commission, who took the reins in October 2019] who set out dates from the beginning.”

Over the next hour Ponissi delves into step by step guide that offers a detailed insight into the value of a league-wide, collaborative approach.

 

Frank, the competition was halted on the 23 March, a day after the completion of round two, which was played behind closed doors. You said it was a ‘whirlwind’ but what were your first steps at that stage?

FP: We got the players and staff in the next day and told them we need to be ready for the earliest possible date, which was 1 June at the time. That was important for the mentality of the players.

The connection piece was far more important than the physical side. We had trust in our players that they would do the right thing from a physical point of view; and as a team it turned out that we were right. We also knew that if a couple dropped off a little bit we could pick them up pretty quickly. We still had physical coaches ringing players on a regular basis to see how they’re doing but they were connected to each other and we knew what they were doing.

Members of our leadership group were each allocated a group of players and they stayed in regular contact with them either one on one or in their small Zoom groups; once a week in their playing
group, the squad and the staff.

We also had what we called a ‘happy hour’ every Friday afternoon where we encouraged the players to grab a beer or wine or whatever, sit in front of Zoom, and then we had our wellbeing staff do it. That connection piece was so important.

This period was also chance to develop the self-reliance skills of the playing group. We normally would not have that opportunity, certainly in-season.

 

Once you worked to establish that connection, what were some of the next steps?

FP: Once protocols were established, the 16 clubs had to nominate a group of 50 people; 32 players and 18 staff. You register those 32 players and your 18 staff. Most had more than 32 players, so you pick your best 32 players or your healthiest 32 players.

Each club had a responsibility to the deliver the protocols to the players in an education session before we started. Each club has also been assigned a ‘COVID-19 cop’ – I don’t like that term! It’s an
independent liaison officer who works with you at your training facility, from the arrival of the first player to the departure of the last; they are looking at your facilities, your processes; they give you updates from the NRL. We also have one of our 18 staff nominated as a liaison with the other 16 liaison officers in the other clubs. If certain clubs have questions then the answer was delivered to all.

There’s been confusion, and that happens because of the rapid speed in getting this up and running; there’s things that get forgotten, not done, not communicated but we have been able to rectify
those quickly. Every day for the first two weeks something either changed or was modified, but those two people have been our contacts and the communication has been outstanding.

 

You had your reservations and yet here you are on the verge of returning to play. To what do you attribute this speed and efficiency?

FP: As a game, I think we’ve all come together because we all saw this great opportunity to return to the game that we love playing and being involved in; it’s our profession and, like every other league in the world, there’s been salary cuts and positions lost. So the quicker we got back the better; we also thought we could be one of the first sports in the world to play again and what a great
opportunity to showcase our game. The game doesn’t have a history of being united and working together; everyone’s usually about looking after their own patch in terms of what’s good for their
club. Everyone has united to make sure we play.

A great example is the New Zealand Warriors, they’ve had to move from one country to another, effectively for the next few months. The teams of our league decided they weren’t going to start
official training until the New Zealand Warriors arrived in Australia, because they couldn’t train in New Zealand where restrictions were a lot stricter than in Australia. No one wanted a head start on the Warriors whereas in the past people were more worried about their own patch.

 

What has that collaboration looked like in practice?

FP: The 16 NRL clubs’ CEOs, coaches and General Managers of Football, which is my position, have met regularly via Zoom with their counterparts since a week before we returned to training. The calls also included people from the players’ association, coaches’ association, people from NRL management; and we met every afternoon for a week. It was an ongoing breakdown of what was
happening, we got handed the protocols we had to follow.

Peter V’landys also founded a working group, named ‘Project Apollo’ in honour of the NASA team who out a man on the Moon, to finalise a set of new health and biosecurity protocols in order to
ensure player and staff safety. He wanted rugby league to restart quicker than any other sport. Project Apollo met regularly to investigate the potential of starting the game as early as possible.
That was the Thursday before Easter [9 April] that Apollo made its submission that they would start the competition up by 28 May and the training would start on 4 May. They didn’t say it was definite, they just said that’s the date we’re working to, and that we’ve got a lot of hard work to do now. Other sports are getting their processes and protocols organised first, then they set a date – Project Apollo flipped it; they set a date to work to.

 

Project Apollo states that NRL measures are more stringent than government restrictions, with protocols reviewed every time federal and state governments review their own protocols. What does the result look like for players and staff, beginning at home?

FP: When I wake up in the morning I have to temperature test myself; everyone has been given an aural thermometer. Every member of staff and player has to download an app on their phone and must complete a check-up each morning before 9am. I have to say which club; so I go to Storm and then from there it asked ‘what is your temperature?’ It asks if anyone in your household has had a high temperature; there’s a series of health questions; are you displaying any symptoms? There’s also a section about your wellbeing. Then you hit ‘submit’. If you say yes to any of those symptoms or high temperature, you automatically get told that you must stay at home and isolate; you can’t go to training. There’s a central message that goes to the NRL body and the NRL body contacts each club’s chief medical officer.

We had one yesterday; a player woke up with symptoms, he had a blocked nose and a sore throat; he was told he was not to go to training he was to stay at home. The message went directly to our
doctor and then the doctor spoke to the player. And given the symptoms, today he had to undergo a COVID-19 test and he can’t return to training until he gets a negative result. No one wants to be the one who passes on this disease.

We also have a couple of players who live together, but unless you live together you have to travel to training on your own. You can’t carpool or use any forms of public transport.

We’re also not allowed out except to buy essential items, such as food or a takeaway – and even then we’re encouraged to let someone else in the house do that – or to walk your dog. You can also drop off your kids at school or leave the house for a medical reason with prior approval. Melbourne is very European and cosmopolitan; we love our coffee but we cannot go on our way to training to get a coffee. We’re also not allowed any visitors inside our house, except for the people that live there. If my wife has any visitors, as she did last night, I have to come upstairs.

Every player and staff inside that 50 has to complete a whereabouts form. For example, if I stopped at the petrol station on the way home from training this evening, that’s an essential, I have to put that I was at the petrol station on Friday 15 May at 3:30pm, I have to put that on the app.

 

What about once you arrive at the training facility?

FP: You get asked all those questions and are temperature tested again before you’re allowed to come and, when you enter, you must take off what’s called your ‘dirty shoes’ and you leave those at
the assessment point, then you put on your ‘clean shoes’. Your clean shoes are only used for the training facility; you can’t bring outside germs into your clean area because the training facility has
been totally sanitised and cleaned before starting. That’s what they’re called: clean zone and dirty zones.

Inside the facility, a lot of things have changed. We’ve got a few entrances and exits; the first thing you’ve got to do is have only one entry and one exit every day; all the others have been blocked off. We’ve had to split the players into two lockers because we’ve got to keep our social distancing. Even though 1.5 metres is the government guideline, the NRL have got 2m distancing.

Our meeting rooms; we’ve had to go bigger so that every player can only sit on every second chair. In our dining room, players can only sit on every second chair; usually we have buffet-style meals but clubs can only have pre-packed meals or we have servers there with gloves and face masks and they serve you the meal.

There’s a bubble created at your facility and you stay there all day and then you leave and you get on your dirty shoes. There’s a certain number of players allowed in the gym at any one time; we
started with training in only groups of 10 last week and no contact. We started contact this week, although we still must sit separately. We’re not too sure on that one.

 

Can you give us an insight into the match day protocols?

FP: On a game day only 32 can travel – that’s 20 players [17 named in the squad with three emergencies] and 12 staff. The other 12 players can’t come to the game; they’re not allowed in the
stadium.
There’s also no more staying the night in a hotel after the game; all flights are chartered and you arrive on the day of the game. You land in the city, you go straight to the stadium, where all players
and staff get temperature tested again. You have to provide the opposition with one of the corporate lounges to allow them to relax and have something to eat; you go downstairs to the
changing rooms, go out to play, and then straight out on the plane back home. We’ll be going to Sydney and Brisbane, up and back the same day again, which is unheard of for a professional team.

 

What do you think will be the impact of playing behind closed doors?

FP: How do you make that an advantage for you because you’ve lost the crowd? That’s something we’re going to speak about and we’ve got no answers at the moment; the discussion we’re going to ask the players is how do we make this still our home and an advantage for us when teams come? That’s something we’re going to have to get used to and there’s pressure on the home team as a lot of advantage has gone.

 

What advice do you have for organisations who find themselves further back?

FP: We probably over-communicated with our players and staff but make no apologies for that. Some people have a philosophy of ‘we’ve got nothing to tell them so we’re just going to not bother’.
When people don’t hear they start assuming things, which is dangerous, and they start believing rumours and what’s in the media. We told our staff and players early on that we’ll continue to
communicate with you, unless you hear from us don’t believe what’s in the media.

Another thing would be to have a plan A, a plan B and a plan C because you’ll need them all. That was like with our training; our first choice was to train at AAMI Park, then we had another one at another venue, and then we ended up training at plan C; and even plan C nearly fell through. Know that most of the planning you do isn’t going to come to fruition. Planning for different scenarios is important and adaptability is the greatest quality you can have because things change regularly and you’ve got to go with it.


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Posted by: D Slemen
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