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Full contact: Aussie rugby league back after 2-month break

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — With the sound of skin slapping skin and an echoing oomph of air from lungs as players collided at pace, the National Rugby League led the charge for elite sports returning to action in Australia.

Home advantage didn't help the Brisbane Broncos in losing to the Parramatta Eels 34-6 on Thursday night in an empty Suncorp Stadium, the lack of spectators being a trade-off for the NRL being allowed to resume following a two-month hiatus during the coronavirus pandemic.

While a TV audience heard artificial crowd noise piped into the broadcast, in real time it was a vastly different experience.

Clear and distinct were on-field exchanges usually drowned out by crowd noise, such as players calling moves and directing each other in defense, and the referee laying down the law.

The sound of a ring to signify the new “six again” rule, designed to speed up play, was like the bell at the end of a round in boxing.

While social distancing rules are in place across the country, and kids are urged to avoid cuddling their grandparents, the opening bone-jarring collision between Parramatta forward Regan Campbell-Gillard and Broncos tacklers signaled a genuine easing of the lockdown when it was broadcast on TVs across Australia in prime time.

It was the first live action in any elite sport here since March 22.

The 52,500-seat Suncorp Stadium is locally known as The Cauldron, for its infamously unfriendly welcome to visiting teams — mostly those from the neighboring state of New South Wales.

There was no hostile reception for the Eels, though. Only 250 people were allowed in the stadium, mainly the players, team staffs, medical personnel and media.

Caxton Street, which runs toward the stadium and is usually swarming with fans on a game night, was quiet. A scattering of people watched the game on TVs in bars which were restricted to 10 guests or fewer.

Some people tried to get a look through the gates but no crowds gathered outside the venue.

Mike Simpson and Peter Rowe were two exceptions. The pair, self-described “rugby league tragics,” drove for an hour, and parked the car on a street beside the stadium that is usually off limits at game time. They set up two chairs, backs to the stadium, shared a pizza and watched the game — from across the road and through a window — on a big TV in a bar.

“This is the next best thing. We thought we’d show our support," Simpson said. “Big screen TV, outside Suncorp Stadium. You can’t get much better than that.

“We live and breathe it."

Suncorp is one of six stadiums that will be in use during what the NRL is calling Phase 1 of the resumption. The next phase, a proposal to have fans back in the stadiums by July 1, has been described as “absurd and dangerous” by the Australian Medical Association.

New South Wales state Premier Gladys Berejiklian said while having the game being back on TV “gives some normality back,” she doesn't expect to see crowds returning to matches on July 1.

Two rounds of matches were played in the NRL in March before Australia and New Zealand went into lockdown and closed borders in a bid to slow the spread of COVID-19. Australia has recorded 7,150 infections and 103 known deaths from COVID-19.

Players and all staff and officials had to undergo heat checks before entering the stadium, and strict health protocols were put in place on the field. There was one on-field referee instead of two, and the ball was cleaned with sanitizer every time it went out of bounds.

There’ll be 18 more rounds, taking the regular season to 20 games for each team, before the playoffs. The season-ending grand final is scheduled for Oct. 25.

Before kickoff, Broncos captain Alex Glenn said there'd still be “a lot of eyes watching the footy” despite the lack of a crowd.

“We are the first sport that is going to be back (in Australia) and televised," he said. “I think the whole nation, (and) New Zealand and England are going to be watching so it’s still a huge occasion.”

Glenn was taken to a medical center to have stitches inserted to a cut on his calf muscle after halftime. when his team was down 12-6.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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