Each of the 12 NRL teams relocating to South-East Queensland will have a qualified well-being manager to help players cope with living out of a suitcase and in each other’s pockets for up to three months.
With some players reluctant to move interstate with their teams on Wednesday, a number of rival clubs reached out to Melbourne GM of football Frank Ponissi for tips about their premiership winning 2020 season while based on the Sunshine Coast. Warriors CEO Cameron George also fielded calls.
How teams handle life in the hubs on the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast and Brisbane could make or break their season.
Cronulla prop Aaron Woods, whose wife is due to give birth on Monday, confirmed that some players were yet to commit.
"We have got a couple of boys who put their hands up and said they just can't do it with their families," Woods told Triple M. "They can't have three kids or four kids sitting in a hotel room with their wife. They just control it."
The Storm and Warriors, who are on the move for the fifth time in 18 months after being told they need to leave their Central Coast-base because of Sydney’s growing COVID-19 outbreak, have ensured the experience was as positive as possible for their players.
Players and officials involved at both clubs say that the bond within their group strengthened from spending so much time together, and it was evident from the fact that Melbourne won last year’s grand final, while the Warriors also enjoyed a successful season.
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However, some AFL players and their partners have spoken about how they struggled living in hubs last season, while Sydney Swans and GWS Giants players are finding it tough being away from their families after being forced to move to Melbourne at short notice last week.
RLPA player operations managers Jamie Buhrer and Tom Symonds fielded calls from concerned NRL stars, while clubs reported that some players were worried about leaving young children or expecting partners for at least four weeks, and possibly until the end of the season.
The NRL is negotiating with the Queensland Government for the families of players to join them at the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast or Brisbane hubs but only after they have undergone 14 days isolation.
“Talking to the Storm and the Warriors, they said it was pretty hard,” NRL wellbeing and education manager Paul Heptonstall said.
“We have got a lot of good qualified people now and I think everyone is supportive of the need to have wellbeing staff with the teams.”
South Sydney CEO Blake Solly spoke with George on Monday about how the Warriors had managed their nomadic existence in Kingscliff, Tamworth, Kiama and Terrigal since March last year.
Star wingers David Fusitu’a and Ken Maumalo were among a group of Warriors players who returned to New Zealand to sit out the remainder of the 2020 season and George could not guarantee that all members of the squad would relocate again to Queensland.
“It is a difficult time, and different players and individuals are going to handle it their own way,” George said.
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“We have got players who are expecting babies in the next few weeks so their sacrifices are going to be coming thick and fast because of the quarantine and the situation we are in.
“I have spoken to the players and I have told them that if anyone wants to come and have a chat to me on the quiet to talk about their circumstances I am more than happy to listen because as a club we understand that very much.
“We have just got to make sure there is support around the team and the staff so they can continue to operate the best way they can to try and win football games and have a good life outside of footy.”
Keep positive and keep together
Warriors playmaker Kodi Nikorima and star recruit Dallin Watene-Zelezniak have partners due to give birth in coming weeks. Woods and Sharks team-mate Royce Hunt are among the players from other NRL clubs in a similar position.
"I'm trying to get an exemption from the NRL or the Queensland Government where I can drive up on the Thursday or Friday and be there for the birth of my kid. There's other guys in my situation as well."
George said relocating to Queensland would present challenges for the 10 NSW clubs – Canterbury, Cronulla, Manly, Newcastle, Parramatta, Penrith, St George Illawarra, South Sydney, Sydney Roosters and Wests Tigers - and Canberra.
“It’s a risky move that they are all embarking on,” George said. “They are leaving a state that is basically in lockdown and the borders are being shut from other states so you can’t just freely come and go.
“They would have families that have commitments to schooling and work or whatever so they are going to have their own challenges. It is not easy to do what we have been experiencing for 18 months and I am sure it won’t be easy for them either.
“All I can say to everyone is that you need to keep positive and keep together and try to find a way to use it as a motivation rather than a negative. Families come first, that is the principal we have always worked on, and that has allowed us to get through some pretty dark times.”
Long serving Warriors development coach Tony Iro, who was in Gosford with the team last year in his role as assistant coach, said the move to Queensland may help to freshen up players in the run into the finals.
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“I think there are two sides to it because you are always in each other’s pockets and you can’t sort of escape anything, but on the other hand you have seen teams grow in terms of their bond with each other,” Iro said.
“They are spending a lot of social time together, so they are having plenty of laughs and I think at the back end of last year that certainly helped us after we got used to the idea that we weren’t going home.
“We had a pretty nice resort so they used to walk into camp every day with a smile on their face and that’s pretty infectious too, so that was good for the group.”
'There was just no escaping it'
Former Storm assistant coach Jason Ryles, who is joining the Roosters next season, said the key to Melbourne’s success last year was maintaining a positive environment while they were away from home.
“We were lucky with the playing group that we had in that they all got along and if they didn’t, they didn’t spend as much time together,” Ryles said.
“I know some guys did have some periods there were they were pretty bored, especially the single guys, but it’s not forever.”
However, a number of AFL players have revealed how they struggled with life in a team hub last season, including Richmond’s Jack Riewoldt, Carlton’s Eddie Betts and former Western Bulldogs star Tom Boyd.
The AFL established hubs in Queensland and Western Australia and five clubs were fined for biosecurity breaches, including one involving the wife of Richmond captain Trent Cotchin, who recently revealed she had suicidal thoughts over the fallout from the incident.
Melbourne shared their Sunshine Coast resort with Collingwood, Essendon, North Melbourne and Geelong and Ryles said he was aware that the AFL players didn’t enjoy it as much as the Storm.
“We always had two or three teams in with us and the feedback we were getting was that they weren’t enjoying it,” Ryles said. “I am not exactly sure why but they had a few more challenges than we had.”
An AFL insider told NRL.com that some players thrived in a 24-7 environment, but others struggled with always having to be switched on.
“There was just no escaping it,” he said. “Even if you get in a lift and you are in there with one of the players inevitably you get into talking shop so the challenge for teams is trying to set up an environment where they have the ability to switch off.”
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'It's like your freedom is taken away'
Former Storm captain Cameron Smith said the conditions NRL players face for the first two weeks after their arrival in Queensland will be difficult.
“Your everyday things that you take for granted are taken away from you,” Smith told SEN radio. “It is sort of like your freedom is taken away.
“These guys who are moving up to Queensland, particularly for the next two weeks while they are serving a quarantine period, all they will be able to do is be in their hotel area or at training and that is it.
“They can’t wander down the street, they can’t do anything else. For the first few days it is all lovely and everything is getting done for you but after a period of time, you just want your normal life back.”
However, Ryles said that Ponissi and Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy ensured that their players didn’t suffer 'burn out'.
Ponissi organised Storm Hour each Monday afternoon, which set the tone for the following for the players and their families.
“I think one of the big focuses we spoke about, again led by Frank and Craig, was making sure the day off was a day off. We didn’t put stuff on just for the sake of it,” Ryles said.
“The boys looked forward to Storm Hour because it was a bit of fun but that was probably the exception and we got a fair bit covered rather than having a lot of meetings.
“There was a bit of piss take, there was serious stuff, there was house-keeping and we just got everything sorted.
“That was where the ping pong tournament started and things like that, which helped to build a deeper bond and connection among the group.”
The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARLC, NRL clubs or state associations.