Prams, poker and unicorns: What AFL hub life is really like
On any given weekend in the July school holidays, the large Oasis pool tucked inside the lush grounds of the Mercure Resort on the Gold Coast is the place where families and tourists jostle for the sun lounges closest to the water.
But not now. Not during COVID-19.
Instead, these school holidays the Mercure pool is the domain only of Victorian footballers who have been hastily evacuated from Melbourne by the AFL, sent north in an effort to keep the season going.
Gone are the tourists, replaced with dozens of shirtless footballers working on their winter tans in their spare time.
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Players from the Western Bulldogs, North Melbourne and Carlton are all staying here and are slowly getting used to bumping into each other while getting a coffee, or as they walk around the resort's grounds.
Essendon and Richmond are in separate hotels on the Gold Coast, while St Kilda is camped at the exclusive five-star RACV in Noosa.
Further south in Sydney are Melbourne and Hawthorn, while Collingwood and Geelong flew out of Sydney on Saturday for Perth.
But with three teams all staying at the Mercure, it's become something of a melting pot, as Bulldogs defender Caleb Daniel says with a laugh: "We played North last week and got the win, and we're playing Carlton on Sunday, so whoever wins this weekend might be king of the resort".
A tour of the Gold Coast hub, brought to you by Mr. Worldwide himself. 😎#OwnTheFuture— Carlton FC (@CarltonFC) July 9, 2020
THE QUICK EXIT
The players might be able to laugh, but behind the hub concept is the very serious task of keeping the 2020 AFL season on track.
A little over a week ago, the AFL sent out urgent news to its Melbourne-based clubs that amid Victoria's worsening coronavirus tally, the 10 clubs had to hastily evacuate the state, to make it possible to play the next block of games.
With less than three days' notice, the clubs packed up their football departments as well as various pieces of gym equipment and loaded them onto semi-trailers.
Players were told to pack enough to last a few days; the rest of their belongings would later follow on trucks for the 1700km journey north.
Bulldogs football manager Chris Maple praised the teams for getting out of Melbourne as quickly as they did.
"To move an entire football department in 48 hours was an unbelievable effort from our staff … but everyone has had to go through the same thing, it's no different for any club," he says.
Bulldogs defender and new father Jason Johannisen says with the quick turnaround, the packing became a bit hectic.
"But we were able to bring pretty much as much stuff as we wanted to help us try to settle in and make it as homelike as we can," he says.
"We brought a pram, heaps of toys and little things to make it as much like home life as possible.
"As they were unpacking the truck, there was all our mattbikes and gym equipment and then you see this little unicorn teddy bear, it's pretty funny."
THE NEW WAY OF LIFE
That fusion of family and football has so far been enjoyable for the players who decided to bring their loved ones with them.
Johannisen says it was an easy decision to bring his partner Logan and their "bit of a tornado" eight-month-old daughter Lola into the hub.
"Lola just wants to crawl everywhere and stand up on things, I don't think walking's too far away," he says.
"If I was going to miss (her first steps) I would have been heartbroken.
"Fortunately, the family is up here and we can spend that time together and I won't miss a thing.
"She's pretty popular at the moment because she's such a chilled, happy baby and just smiles at everyone, so everyone's loving her at the minute."
While Maple says the kids now have newly inherited uncles, Johannisen reveals that a couple of his younger teammates have proved themselves naturals with children.
"Laitham Vandermeer and Bailey Smith are the resident babysitters," he says.
"Jackson Trengove, Easton Wood, Mitch Wallis and Josh Bruce also have their partners and little kids up here, and every afternoon we go to the big grassed area in the resort and just watch them run around … it's definitely creating a lot of happy memories."
Down in NSW, Melbourne forward Jake Melksham is sitting inside the Novotel at Manly, awaiting his turn in the Demons' competitive table tennis tournament.
From where he's seated, he can see straight out to the beach, only 60m away, where the waves are packed with surfers.
But he can't go out and join them.
Despite the recent relaxing of AFL COVID-related protocols (meaning players inside hubs can play golf, surf, walk on the beach and go fishing in their spare time), that applies only to "clean teams" like West Coast and Fremantle who have been stationed in their hubs for many weeks.
The Victorian teams are all under strict 14-day quarantine in their new states. As such, Melksham will have to continue to stare at the beach, instead of enjoying it for a few days more.
But the quarantine is not the only measure in place to keep both players and hotel staff safe: strict social distancing and hygiene practices have been implemented at meal times, with the Demons players not allowed to serve their own food, and if they need salt and pepper are handed it in little sachets by hotel staff wearing masks and gloves.
Melksham also decided to bring his family - partner Stacey and their two children, daughter Frankie, 4, and son Teddy, 18 months - with him and he said the kids particularly were enjoying it despite initial reservations.
"Our eldest was getting a little bit emotional about leaving her kinder friends back home, so we had to sell it to her we were going on a holiday to Sydney and hopefully once the quarantine is over, we can do a little bit more and take her to the zoo, or the Opera House, and have some family memories created," he said.
The person responsible for running the entire operation is Darren Birch.
In non-COVID times, Birch is the AFL's general manager of digital and audience growth, but he's been diverted into a coronavirus compliance and co-ordination role that comes without a title.
"People being smart are calling me the 'GM of Hubs'," he says with a laugh.
Title or not, it's Birch's job to organise the complicated logistics of the Queensland and NSW hubs.
A couple of executives have been seconded from the AFL's events and ticketing team to help him co-ordinate the mammoth spreadsheet of who's staying where, who's playing when, and who's training with what equipment and in which gym.
It's required a hundred or more hire cars, dozens of buses and even the conversion of a rugby field into an AFL training oval complete with goalposts and nets.
To make the entire operation work, Maple explains, flexibility has been key and he cites an example from earlier this week when he headed down to breakfast and was told that the Bulldogs training venue could no longer be used that day.
"But they'd already organised another venue for us, we didn't need to change any times, or anything like that, we just had to change the venue, and that's all part of that flexibility," he said.
Birch agrees: "We might have multiple changes daily, and it is challenging, but I have to say, the clubs also understand that the health of the broader communities that we have been invited into is the No. 1 priority that we need to deal with.
"It's really a credit to all the clubs and the industry working together.
"I've been working in the AFL for 15 years and this is probably the time where we've had the best communication and relationship with our clubs in terms of solving the challenges ahead of us."
The AFL has taken advantage of the east coast's tourism free fall since the virus invaded our shores to book quality resorts for the teams.
The Mercure Gold Coast, located 5.6km from Metricon Stadium, is surrounded by a green belt of golf courses and features two outdoor pools, two floodlit tennis courts and each of the rooms has a balcony.
According to its website, the RACV in Noosa has been voted Queensland's best accommodation for the past two years and the Novotel Manly Pacific is a modern, glass-fronted four-star hotel located 15km from the Sydney CBD.
Saints defender Ben Paton has been to Noosa once before, but as a one-year-old so he remembers nothing of it.
He won't be getting too familiar with the coastal town either: they head to South Australia next Sunday once their two-weeks of quarantine out of Melbourne is up and in the meantime are permitted to leave the resort only to go to a nearby CrossFit gym.
"I'll have to come back up here - a few of the boys said it was pretty good up here," Paton says.
Unable to even use the changerooms at their adopted training ground, rooms at the RACV have been transformed into a high performance centre where players can have their strapping done.
Birch says the Saints are "living the dream" in Noosa.
"It's a very good set up for the Saints," he explains.
"We made last-minute calls to try and get another venue in Queensland, and the RACV was shut down (with COVID) and doing a whole heap of renovations, so they agreed to open up part of the facility for us, but unfortunately, the pool sits in the construction zone for another couple of weeks."
So while other teams might be enjoying the warmer weather by the pool, Paton says the St Kilda boys are keeping themselves busy playing cards - mainly poker - and there's an NBA 2K20 PlayStation competition underway.
Bulldog Daniel has been spending his spare time competing in the FIFA PlayStation competition that has started up among teammates and he's able to cheer on the golfers on the 18th green, which is adjacent the resort.
He doesn't have kids, but has instead been forced to leave behind his much-loved rottweiler, Hugo, who is now being looked after by a friend.
"It's only been a few days, but you miss them a fair bit, because a fair bit of your life is devoted around them … it's a little bit strange," he says.
Which, in reality, sums up the entire 2020 season.
Originally published as Prams, poker and unicorns: What AFL hub life is really like