Rugby league clubs in outback Queensland are widely anticipating a relaxation to crowd numbers that will let their 2020 competitions finally get underway.
Their hopes follow Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk's announcement last Sunday that from this Saturday, June 27 up to 10,000 spectators will be permitted into Queensland stadiums, following a successful trialling of crowds of 2000 at large venues in Brisbane and at the Gold Coast.
The safe return of crowds at a professional level meant that talks on greater flexibility for community sport could be progressed, keeping player, staff and spectator safety in mind.
Non-contact training for groups of 20 has been allowed for the last fortnight but western Queensland rugby league officials believe that it will take the return of spectators in numbers greater than 100 for the sport to resume at a community level.
Central division outback Queensland operations manager Peter Rafter said 70 to 80 per cent of the competitions he oversaw were keen to restart, excepting Roma's senior competition and both the senior and junior competitions in the Central Highlands.
"Most places are hanging out for more changes to the number of spectators allowed," he said. "I think everyone out west would be happy with a limit of 500."
Central West Rugby League chairman Dave Kerrigan said clubs had a number of considerations to work through - insurance, sourcing sponsorship, and player motivation among them - but now that NRL was back on television the spirit was returning.
Discussing the options with Alpha Rugby League Football Club president Sean Dillon and Gladstone MP and Regional Development Minister Glenn Butcher, they all agreed that flexibility would be needed as they approached the months ahead.
"I think it's fair to say it may not be a traditional season potentially, it may not be a full home and away that was originally scheduled," Mr Dillon said.
"We're looking at whether there might be a bit of a mixture of a round robin or a reduced per side, still full contact football.
"There's still a lot of options that could be considered if we can't get the support from either a financial point of view or a player point of view for a full home and away season.
"The ideal, if you're going to run any season, would be to have a full home and away season because it's proper rugby league, let's face it.
"But if it's going to leave players in a position of having to do three full pre-seasons within 12 months, for two seasons, or sponsors potentially not being able to back up twice in a six or eight month period to provide the same level of support, then we may have to see a scaled-back version."
Over the past couple of seasons the central west competition has adopted a shorter season and an early start, which Mr Kerrigan said illustrated the adaptability that might be needed.
"It might be that we have a western rep side against an eastern side, just to give those younger players some form of football, and to keep interest up for 2021."
Mr Butcher, a life member of the Wallabies Rugby League club at Gladstone, a past president of the Gladstone Rugby League and the driving force behind establishing Women's Rugby League in Gladstone, said people may find at the end of the month there would be more relaxation that will potentially allow more people to get together.
"The Premier has always said, at the end of the month she'll be looking at the COVID response and whether we can relax some more of those restrictions in place.
"Then you may see a competition start and finish a little later.
"Obviously it gets harder out here, the further west you go by delaying the season into spring and summer, certainly for player welfare.
"You need to identify if there's issues with that but we know they build 'em tough out here in western Queensland.
"If anyone can do it the central west can and make the best out of a bad situation."
Under the government's staged return schedule, non-contact training resumed on June 11 and full contact training is scheduled to begin on July 10, with a return to the footy fields set for July 24.
Mr Rafter said that although the central highlands had decided not to have a 2020 season, registered players could apply for a permit to play in the central west competition.
"I understand there is no limit to the number of players a club can have from elsewhere," he said.
The central west competition was shaping up to have a lot of fresh interest with news at the beginning of the year of the merging of Longreach and Ilfracombe first grade sides, plus the reformation of a team at Alpha for the first time in 15 years.
Mr Dillon said a large old boys reunion had been scheduled and the hype had been building in the community when the competition was shut down before it started.
"Whether we can do that will be in the hands of the restrictions easing, but I can only commend the Premier for taking the point of view she has because it's kept our players safe, (and) it's kept our families and communities safe," he said.