This has been the craziest season on record, eclipsing even the madhouse that was Super League in 1997, and that’s saying something.
Both the Super League and the COVID-impacted 2020 seasons were bizarre for different reasons.
Super League was destructive and divisive, with the club’s players and supporters often at odds over the direction the Raiders opted to take as they sided with News Limited against the ARL in a bitter war.
For me it was stark and soulless, heading out to Bruce Stadium to commentate games in the 10-team competition which included Adelaide and the Hunter Mariners. Thankfully, it lasted just one season before common sense prevailed.
The winners were the players with bulging bank balances. The losers were the fans who struggled to understand what it was all about and became disenfranchised.
It took a generation of new supporters to see fan engagement return, but not before some dark days.
Fast forward to 2020 and the game is united against a pandemic that exposed the fragile nature of professional sport while at the same time bringing players together for a common cause.
What eventuated was a season like no other. Home games for the Raiders for the majority of the season were at Campbelltown. Players were in lockdown to reduce the possibility of COVID-19 exposure. Crowd numbers were limited and when crowds were allowed back, no contact was permitted between the players and the fans.
Daily press conferences were initially via zoom, then extended to be face-to-face but with social distancing measures in place.
The Raiders had an independent COVID-19 officer to ensure adherence to the strict guidelines.
CEO Don Furner thought he had seen it all, having been at the club since 1996 when he was the marketing manager. In 1997 his job was to sell sponsorship in the Super League season. This was close to impossible in Canberra.
“This year was the toughest since Super League,” says Don, “In many aspects, this was harder for other reasons, because of the uncertainty and the impact on jobs and revenue.”
Adherence to the COVID-19 guidelines was crucial to the season continuing. All it would have taken for the season to go pear-shaped was a positive test.
According to Don, “We were lucky there wasn’t a positive amongst the playing group.”
And there was an emphasis on survival and keeping up with the shifting requirements to keep pace with COVID-19’s impact.
“It was constantly changing. We had a lot of compliance work. There were strict protocols for the players and the coaching staff.”
Financially the club was stretched as well, with no crowds to start with and then limited numbers when the team returned to Canberra Stadium late in the season.
“Our sponsors were great, as was the ACT Government and our supporters who stuck by us,” says Don.
“JobKeeper was important as well.”
With the 2020 season done and dusted, you could be under the impression that it’s time to relax. That couldn’t be further from the truth as the club works through its annual end of season wish list, including the need for more Sunday afternoon games at Canberra Stadium in winter.
The players will be returning shortly as well in preparation for next season.
As Don explains, “We have the under 21s coming back in a couple of weeks for training, and we have new protocols for them”.
And so it starts again. But surely nothing could top 2020.