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ARLC to make 'very real' NRL relocation call on Sunday night

The ARL Commission will advise clubs on Sunday evening whether they need to relocate to ensure the NRL competition continues in the face of a surging COVID-19 outbreak in NSW.

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo has conceded shifting clubs ahead of round 18's kick-off on Friday is "very much on the cards" having already made a last-minute move of Wednesday's Origin from Newcastle to the Gold Coast to ensure fans can attend the series finale.

The ARL Commission has continued critical discussions throughout the day with club CEOs to be informed of their immediate locations on Sunday evening.

NRL.com understands the majority of the nine Sydney-based outfits, as well as the Warriors, Canberra and Newcastle are already preparing players and staff to relocate for at least a month in south-east Queensland.

"We've been preparing for multiple scenarios and one of them is relocation," Abdo said on The Sunday Footy Show.

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"In this particular case we have nine Sydney-based teams and so it's very much on the cards that we may need to for a short period of time relocate them to somewhere where there's a much lower risk of infection.

"It's real time. We've been working on it for a number of weeks in terms of preparation, now it becomes the practical elements that ... we'll have a discussion with our board this evening and then we'll start communicating plans through to our different stakeholders."

Abdo indicated significant expenditure cuts at head office across 2020 had ensured the NRL could provide financial support to any clubs forced into relocation.

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State government travel exemptions will dictate the code's short-term future with four NSW teams – the Eels, Roosters, Knights and Tigers – already due to travel to Queensland and Melbourne under the current round 18 scheduling.

"It's obviously a risk for us because at the moment we're operating on exemptions which allow teams to travel in and out on chartered [flights] under strict conditions," Abdo said.

"We can only operate and play games across borders if we have that exemption. We're in ongoing dialogue with all the state governments.

"Whether or not we get an exemption from the Queensland government to travel for round 18 is one factor. But another factor is just us proactively making the call to stay ahead of this, reduce the risk and make sure that we keep everyone safe and keep playing."

The Victorian government's decision on Sunday afternoon to impose a hard border on all of NSW and ACT would require travel exemptions for Newcastle to play Melbourne, as originally scheduled, at AAMI Park on Saturday night.

Officials at the Storm and Raiders are hopeful the absence of active COVID-19 cases in their respective cities will allow the clubs to continue game-day fly-in, fly-out arrangements in round 18 rather than shifting camp.

We've been preparing for multiple scenarios and one of them is relocation.

Andrew Abdo

The Storm only returned to the Victorian capital late last month after a six-week stint on the Sunshine Coast when Melbourne went into lockdown, with veteran back-rower and Queensland regular Felise Kaufusi saying he has grown accustomed to a nomadic life over the course of the pandemic. 

"I am starting to get used to it, to be honest. I think I have spent six months of the last 18 months back home, it was nice to get back home and sleep in my own bed before coming back into camp," he said.

"We will see what happens but we have to roll with whatever they decide."

If the relocation option is taken, each club's 50-strong Apollo bubble contingent would shift to new training and accommodation venues.

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Depending on how long teams are forced to relocate, plans would be considered for the "staged" process of family members joining players and staff.

Speaking from Maroons camp, Josh Papalii said he would almost prefer a temporary shift to Queensland if family movements could also be catered for.

"The missus is pregnant at the moment and I have got two young kids that I have to worry about, but Queensland is home for me. It wouldn't be difficult to move here at all, I would prefer that at this stage, to be honest," he said.

"The clubs are going to do anything they can to make sure the game is still going."

Pre-season training for each of the six NRLW teams in the expanded competition had been due to start on Monday, but Project Apollo has now pushed that date back a week with contingencies for the competition to be worked out this week.

Breaches of the NRL's strict level-four Apollo protocols by Dragons players and Queensland star Jai Arrow in the past week have put the NRL's travel exemptions at risk, with 12 St George Illawarra players still yet to return to training ahead of Friday's clash with Manly.

Abdo reiterated those breaches threatened both the game's travel exemptions, and in turn its short-term future, as negotiations continue regarding sworn statements from Dragons players that would ensure no one other than players were at Paul Vaughan's party last weekend.

NRL.com understands 10 of the 12 players involved in the breach have signed the statements as of early Sunday afternoon, with Abdo "fairly confident we'll get a resolution of that in the next 24 hours".

Greater Sydney's worsening COVID-19 situation has also made the Warriors' long-awaited return to Auckland's Mt Smart Stadium – scheduled for August 15 in round 22 – unlikely given the travel exemptions required, though Abdo said the late of that fixture would be decided in conjunction with the club.

Friday night's Rabbitohs v Cowboys game was relocated from Stadium Australia to Newcastle due to the Greater Sydney lockdown.