NRL steps toward return as Warriors cleared to land

Sydney (AFP) –


The New Zealand Warriors have been cleared to fly into Australia as the National Rugby League moves further toward a season return.

Australian officials granted the team an exemption from a ban on international arrivals into the country on Saturday morning, taking a big step toward the planned May 28 resumption of the sport.

The NRL season was suspended on March 24 after just two rounds amid a government shutdown of all non-essential gatherings in a bid to stem the spread of coronavirus.

"It has been a challenging and often frustrating time for all parties over the last few weeks with so many issues on the table but it has finally come together as of today," Warriors chief executive Cameron George said Saturday.

The Warriors are expected to land in the rural town of Tamworth on Sunday afternoon and begin a 14-day isolation in the town, about five hours drive from Sydney, before the start of the NRL.

George said a negotiation over player pay had been resolved and the team had also been given permission to train in Australia.

Australia's Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton confirmed 36 players and staff had been granted an exemption from the travel ban, clearing the flight to arrive in the country.

"This is an excellent outcome for rugby league and another step towards the competition resuming on May 28," Australian Rugby League Commission chair Peter V'landys said.

"The club will follow the strictest biosecurity protocols and, like all clubs, will participate in an education day about the protocols on Monday morning."

On Friday, the league cleared another hurdle after the Queensland government said players would be able to play, train and travel across borders currently locked down as part of coronavirus restrictions in the country.

"I said I was as keen as anyone else to see the NRL return and I meant it," Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said.

But after several players were caught breaching social distancing requirements earlier this week, V'landys warned players would have to be responsible to assure the league's return.

"It's up to the players -- if there's a slip-up... and they do the wrong thing -- that puts the whole rugby league season in doubt," he said.

Under plans thrashed out by the league and its broadcast partners this week, the season will be cut from 25 rounds to 20 -- including the two already played -- with a four-week playoff series ending in a Grand Final on October 25.

The three-match State of Origin series between New South Wales and Queensland, normally played mid-season, will shift to November for the first time.