The gravity of the coronavirus pandemic may have crept up on the AFL, but it didn’t creep up on new Greater Western Sydney captain Stephen Coniglio.
The 26-year-old has Italian heritage and has family and friends in a country that has been in a nationwide lockdown for weeks after becoming one of the most affected countries by the COVID-19 outbreak.
Coniglio played his first game on Saturday night since suffering a season-ending knee injury last July and his first since turning his back on godfather offers to sign a seven-year extension in September, after replacing Callan Ward and Phil Davis as skipper in December.
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But now, Coniglio – like the rest of the competition – will have to wait at least 10 weeks, and most likely, a lot longer before he plays again.
“When the coronavirus was first mentioned here a month or so ago it was something we didn’t really think was going to impact us. But even from a few weeks ago I knew we were in trouble seeing what was happening in the Serie A and across Europe,” Coniglio told foxsports.com.au on Thursday.
“I’ve got friends and family in Italy and they were telling us how serious it was over there weeks ago. One friend in particular in Milan was telling me three weeks ago that the AFL had to act now.
“And then with the basketball I knew it was coming it was just a matter of when. We are so far away but it was inevitable.
“Seeing some of the stuff that was happening with Juventus and some of their players and staff made me think it was just a question of when before it got to a stage when we had no fans at games and then no games at all.”
Hours after AFL CEO Gillon McLachlan announced a decision the football world knew was coming on Sunday afternoon, Coniglio left a message on Instagram that paid tribute to those back in Italy who have been forced to remain indoors for weeks.
“I was talking to my Nona, both my aunties and my dad and they were talking to our family back home. It was just a shout out to them about how hard it is for them in to stay so long behind their doors,” he said.
“I had an Italian flag at home and I just wanted to make a note if we won to get a photo at GIANTS Stadium to acknowledge everyone who is doing it tough out there.
“Even though we are so far away, it was just a message to show we care. This is going to cause a lot of harm to society, but it is an opportunity to come together as one, regardless of different beliefs, religions or socio-economic circumstances.”
When Coniglio was rushing back to play in the Giants’ finals campaign last year, he never pictured making his return in front of no one. But that was the solemn reality last weekend.
“It was so exciting to play Round 1, but not having fans there was just a real sombre feeling. To be brutally honest, it was the most boring game,” he said.
“To get a good win was important for us, but when close friends, family and fans can’t be there it was different.
“The breaks where longer, the quarters were shorter, and I get they had to do it, but it was just a boring game to play and it was just bizarre.
“A lot of preparation went into that for me personally. Having two games, and two quite different games with the practice match against Richmond and the State of Origin which was so memorable, it was great to be back in a proper game.”
The star midfielder is now three from three as captain, after standing in for Ward and Davis twice in 2019, but had to worry about a lot more things last week than most others in the role for the first time officially.
Now he is back in Perth with his family for the foreseeable future and making sure his teammates are focusing on their families and being good citizens first, before ensuring they get the work done at home so when they return to the club they are ready to roll.
While the Giants aren’t Liverpool – who are 25 points clear of second-placed Manchester City and need just two more wins to secure its first English Premier League title and first crown since 1990 – they are one of the one of the favourites for this year’s premiership and won’t want to waste a golden opportunity when the season finally resumes later this year.
With Coniglio at the helm, expect them to hit the ground running when the time comes.