The ‘elephant in the room’: AFL clubs on high alert after Lions’ COVID plight

At least two more finals contenders have gone on the front foot to combat the threat of COVID, as Geelong champion Patrick Dangerfield warned the virus is a “sleeping giant” that can disrupt the premiership aspirations of clubs.

One team currently in the eight has used Brisbane’s plight to reinforce the importance of adhering to COVID procedures, reminding players of the importance of mask-wearing and avoiding big groups away from the football club.

Gold Coast have tightened their procedures amid rising case numbers in Queensland, including the splitting of players for team meetings and mask-wearing indoors. The club has not banned players from attending pubs and clubs, but has advised them to make good decisions on such matters.

Clubs are bracing for more player unavailability with case numbers up about 50 per cent nationally from a month ago as part of a third Omicron wave.

Brisbane’s COVID situation has heightened awareness at other clubs of the threat of the virus in 2022.Credit:Getty Images

There is a preference among some clubs for the reintroduction of chartered flights for travel during the finals to further minimise the risk of players and staff contracting COVID. One issue the AFL could face is the availability of pilots and planes – unlike last year when interstate travel was restricted due to lockdowns in Melbourne and NSW.

The AFL is currently operating on a hybrid flight model. Clubs have generally flown to and from Perth on chartered flights, with commercial flights being used on other routes. Richmond and Essendon both travelled on commercial flights last week for their games in Queensland.

A senior official from one club has said there is now “heightened awareness” of the ramifications of a COVID outbreak within teams after the Lions were rocked by the sidelining of five players due to the AFL’s health and safety protocols for their shock loss to Essendon.

A further six players at the Bombers, Gold Coast, West Coast and Adelaide were also unavailable last week.

The Swans’ football department was hit late last month, forcing football manager Charlie Gardiner to perform runners’ duties, club chief Tom Harley into a match-day role on the bench and injured veteran Josh Kennedy into the coaches’ box.

Dangerfield, the president of the AFL Players Association, said players were aware of the threat posed by COVID for the remainder of the season.

“Quite clearly, with the way the season is panning out, it is incredibly tight,” Dangerfield said on SEN.

“As players you have to be hyper aware in the next eight to 10 weeks with what you’re doing, where you’re going. It’s almost been the sleeping giant that, just because we’ve had enough of talking about it, [it] doesn’t mean it doesn’t have the possibility of really shaping the next eight to 10 weeks.

“There is this elephant in the room that is COVID that is a real challenge. We all get that, [and] understand that, but it doesn’t make it any easier, does it?”

Carlton spearhead Harry McKay, whose club has urged players to take a commonsense approach, said players were aware of potential risks.

“I personally believe that there’s an expectation to take care of your health and do the best possible thing for yourself [and] for the football club,” McKay said. “So guys are going to be smart these days. They know the risks when you go out, not just for COVID but everything else. The blokes are pretty smart.”

The AFL has said games will go ahead as scheduled regardless of the number of cases and will leave it to individual clubs to administer any protocols.

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