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Games off: Regional sport in limbo in Victoria

FlowFM sports reporter Jason Regan searched, to no avail, for clarity about this weekend's country footy and netball within the Victorian government's announcements on Wednesday

Stand in Premier James Merlino described yesterday as a "Great Day for Victoria" boldly declaring the Melbourne lockdown would end at 11.59 pm on Thursday. One could argue Friday will simply see a less restrictive form of lockdown replacing the current set of arrangements.

Restrictions will also be relaxed further in Regional Victoria with the government sprouting senior sporting competitions can return to play, under certain conditions. Herein lies the problem. What are those conditions?

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton was asked this question at yesterday's press conference. After fumbling over a few pointless sentences he admitted he would need to go and check the detail. As of late Wednesday evening, the question remained unanswered. This is the latest example of the horrible truth both the Victorian government and its bureaucrats can no longer hide from.

The Victorian Government does not care about Country Sport.

A bold statement I know, but this government has proven it to be accurate with every passing press conference. Let's look at the raft of departmental announcements from the Victorian Office of Sport in relation to the road out of lockdown.

HINT: It won't take long.

The last press release from the Victorian office or recreation and sport was issued on June 4th. That press release provides information regarding the easing of restrictions on June 3rd that enabled junior sport to return to action. My search for up to date information continues.

Has the Victorian Sports Minister Martin Pakula said something about the arrangements for regional sport this week?

Victorian Minister for Tourism, Major Events and Sport Martin Pakula

A quick check of Minister Pakula's website shows sadly the answer is a categorical no. In fact, Minister Pakula's last press release posted to his website regarding sport was issued back in January 2019. Perhaps the Minister for Community Sport Ros Spense has commented on the situation. Again a quick check of her recent media releases came up dry.

No help from the Department or the Ministers to be found.

That leaves the only comments from Acting Premier James Merlino and Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton. As I mentioned earlier, Mr Sutton couldn't answer a direct question regarding crowd allowances for local sport. But, both he and Mr Merlino did outline the changes to restrictions for both Greater Melbourne and Regional Victoria.

In reference to country sport, one of the restrictions states "Community facilities can open for up to 150 people, 75 indoors". With this as my only lead so far, I decided to contact AFL Wimmera Mallee and AFL Central to see if they had been given any information.

Thank you to both Jason Muldoon from AFL Wimmera Mallee and Carol Cathcart from AFL Central for returning my calls. Sadly, both were as much in the dark about the situation as I was. They were both working on trying to get clarity on what the restrictions meant for their member leagues. Both were under the impression that crowds of only 150 people would be allowed at matches at the time I contacted them.

Meanwhile, football and netball leagues were making their own arrangements. North Central Football and Netball had already decided to not return to play this weekend. Horsham and Districts Football and Netball reversed their earlier decision to play this weekend and have another week off. Wimmera Football and Netball have decided to play this weekend, despite not knowing what the crowd numbers will be for Saturday, and how the COVIDsafe arrangements will affect them, on the Wednesday before their next fixture.

Most concerning though is the incredible arrangements made by Sunraysia Football and Netball. In an effort to return to play the Sunraysia competition have made the extraordinary decision to play all of their matches at NSW grounds this weekend to avoid Victorian COVIDsafe rules.

Just think about the message that decision sends.

The NSW government is OK with Victorians playing in front of large crowds on their turf, the Victorian government is not. This is as outrageous as it is unfathomable.

Another restriction that is biting country football and netball competitions is the travel restrictions imposed on Melbourians into Country Victoria. Effectively, people from Melbourne can not travel to Regional Victoria. No official timeline has been announced as to when this restriction might be eased. Those who understand country football would know many clubs recruit players from Melbourne every season who travel to competitions all over the state.

In the North Central Football League, at least two clubs have more than 10 Melbourne based players. This has lead North Central to make the extraordinary decision to play for 2 premiership points instead of 4 whilst this restriction remains in place. Surely this will lead to many forfeits in reserves competitions across regional areas and seriously impact the integrity of the competitions most affected.

Investigating the ramifications of the government's restrictions has led me to the following conclusions.

The Victorian Government does not understand how Country Sport operates. It does not care how its restrictions affect country sport. It does not care about the impact country sport has on the lives of regional Victorians. It does not care about the volunteers who pour thousands of hours into keeping clubs and leagues afloat every year. As I said earlier,

The Victorian Government does not care about country sport.

Acting Premier James Merlino, Minister for Sport Martin Pakula and Minister for Community Sport Ros Spense, I challenge you to prove me wrong.


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