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The power of seven: COVID spike forcing coaches back to basics

Assistant coaches David Furner and Craig Sandercock stayed at Canterbury's hotel while players and a small contingent of staff travelled with Trent Barrett to Suncorp Stadium for Monday night’s match against the Titans.

With each club limited to seven of their own staff, including the head coach, under the NRL’s agreement with the Queensland Government for the Telstra Premiership to continue, teams have been forced to adopt a back-to-basics approach to matches.

Some, like the Bulldogs and Melbourne Storm, decided their assistant coaches should work remotely from the team hotel, while other clubs opted to give them extra duties, such as organising playing gear and setting up the dressing sheds.

Newcastle GM of football Danny Buderus acted as gear steward, media manager, team manager and wore the headphones on the sidelines as the point of communication between the coach’s box and bench during Sunday’s 34-24 defeat of Canberra.

Buderus and other Knights staff members, which included coach Adam O’Brien, assistants Willie Peters and Eric Smith, head of physical performance Balin Cupples and physio Louisa Cutler, unloaded the team bus while the players got strapped.

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Teams were only permitted to arrive at Suncorp Stadium 90 minutes before kick-off and had to be gone within 60 minutes of fulltime, whereas usually the gear stewards will set up the dressing rooms four hours before kick-off and pack up after the players have left.

"It was different," Newcastle centre Bradman Best said. "When we got there the staff set up the sheds for us. That's usually all done for us.

Trent Barrett arrives for Monday's clash with the Titans.
Trent Barrett arrives for Monday's clash with the Titans. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"They jumped off the bus first and set up everything up. They got everything sorted so when we walked in it was basically normal.

"We got strapped at the stadium like normal, but it was a lot more rushed. We had to be a bit more precise and switched on with what we were doing with our times.

"We had a time limit after the game, it was about 25-30 minutes. We could only jump in the shower and have an ice bath. Then it was pack up the sheds and off we went."

Cronulla players got strapped at their hotel before travelling to Suncorp Stadium for Monday night’s match against Manly in a bid to give them more time to prepare after their arrival.

Sharks coach Josh Hannay organised for performance analyst Marc Leabres to send video footage from the team’s Brisbane hotel to him during the game as Leabres would if he was in the coach’s box.

However, as he was on his own, Hannay had to access the footage himself while watching the game and communicating with assistant coach Dave Howlett on the sideline.

Fellow assistant coach Daniel Holdsworth, performance operations manager Mark Noakes and head of performance Nathan Pickworth were Cronulla's accredited on-field trainers.

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Melbourne coach Craig Bellamy had overseen Sunday’s 37-10 defeat of Penrith with only Marc Brentnall beside him in the coach’s box after the Storm decided assistants Stephen Kearney and Aaron Bellamy should remain at the team hotel.

Storm GM of football Frank Ponissi also missed his first match since the 18-16 loss to Parramatta on July 20, 2009, when he was on a scouting trip to South Africa.

"It would certainly be a long time since Craig has only had one person sitting next to him in the box, if ever," Ponissi said.

"Of the seven staff, three of those had to be the accredited on-field trainers and you are not going to leave your head coach behind, or your physio, so there was only room for two more.

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"We made a decision that only one coach [Brentnall] and our performance director [Lachlan Penfold], who oversees our warm-up and does the sideline, would be the next best so that meant Aaron, Stephen Kearney and myself stayed behind.

"Stephen and Aaron were in their room taking stats and passing on key information so we had communication with the guys at the ground, but they had enough on their plate without us overloading them."

Former Melbourne forward Ryan Hinchcliffe, who is the club's football operations co-ordinator, strength and conditioning coach Daniel Di Pasqua and training and logistics manager Matt Barradeen were the other Storm staff at the game.

"It was all hands on deck," Ponissi said. "Usually the gear steward gets there early but he had to travel with the team so when everyone arrived in the dressing room it was empty.

"Everyone had to get everything off the bus, and then you had coaches helping with handing out the jerseys and players trying to get strapped in 90 minutes so it was a mad rush."

'Bare bones' policy in place

Gold Coast performance analyst Innes Strydom was even tasked with hanging a sponsor’s banner in the coach’s box before taking his seat alongside head coach Justin Holbrook for Monday night’s game.

The Titans opted to take Strydom, as well as assistant coaches Jim Dymock and Jim Lenihan, along with transition coach Brad Davis, high performance manager Klint Hoard and physio Sam Madden, as their staff delegation for the match against Canterbury.

In contrast, the Bulldogs had Furner and Sandercock working remotely from the Gold Coast, with NRL transition coach David Tangata-Toa, strength and conditioning coach Luke Portese and physiotherapist Adrian Low joining Barrett at the game.

Other clubs who played on Sunday or Monday following the lockdown in South-East Queensland had to make tough decisions about which staff to take to the ground after being advised of the limits at 11pm on Saturday.

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Each club was allowed 10 staff but that included two doctors supplied by the NRL and an NRL-appointed COVID officer.

Players were required to wear masks while sitting on the bench and in the dressing room, while the 19th man for each team acted as the ball boys in their game.

There were also restrictions on the number of NRL staff and media allowed at the ground, as the game was forced to adopt a "bare bones" approach after initially being unable to play when Queensland announced the lockdown on Saturday.

The number of people permitted to work at the game was less than when the 2020 competition resumed on May 28 last year after being suspended for 10 weeks due to Australia’s initial COVID-19 outbreak.

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All staff in the clean zone, including broadcast staff, event staff and the NRL interchange officials, had to provide evidence of a negative COVID test before they could enter Suncorp Stadium.

No player interviews outside the official post-match media conferences were permitted, and there were no cameras in the dressing room.

Fox Sports, the NRL and NEP also had reduced staffing levels at the matches.

 

The views in this article do not necessarily express the opinions of the NRL, ARL Commission, NRL clubs or state associations.