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Expanded player pool to help clubs cover for COVID cases

NRL clubs will be able to access development players or draft in talent from their State Cup feeder teams to ensure they can field a competitive side if there is a COVID-19 outbreak during the upcoming season.

NRL CEO Andrew Abdo outlined the measures the game was taking to minimise the risk of matches being postponed or cancelled during a press conference on Thursday to announce a three-year partnership with cryptocurrency exchange Swyftx.

Swyftx CEO Ryan Parsons said one of the attractions for his company choosing to sponsor the NRL over other sports was the way the game had managed its way through the COVID pandemic and Abdo confirmed further innovations would be introduced this season.

Swyftx CEO Ryan Parsons and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo
Swyftx CEO Ryan Parsons and NRL CEO Andrew Abdo ©Salty Dingo

With COVID-19 cases now widespread throughout the community, most clubs have had off-season training disrupted by players contracting the coronavirus but NRL officials are determined that the Telstra Premiership will not be impacted.

To minimise COVID-19 spreading among teams, players undergo rapid antigen tests each day before training or games but NRL salary cap auditor Richard Gardham has advised clubs of the options open to them if players test positive.

“We are working with the clubs on the rapid testing but also the movement of players from the State Cup competitions or outside of the NRL squad into the NRL squad to ensure there is sufficient depth if there were to be some positives during the season,” Abdo said.

“We have communicated to the clubs that there is an opportunity for them to access players outside the top 30 before round 11, on the basis of the impact of a COVID positive case.

“Provided that the salary cap auditor has been provided evidence that there has been a positive COVID case for a player, then clubs are able to access players from outside their top 30 list in a controlled manner.”

Preparing the Panthers: COVID Challenges

There will be no change to the size of NRL squads, but each club is allowed up to six development players they can now call on from round one and will also be allowed to call on talent with feeder teams in the NSWRL Knock On Effect Cup or Queensland’s Hostplus Cup.

“Our salary cap auditor has been in contact with the clubs on how that will work, and the clubs are very well aware of that, so that is going to allow us hopefully sufficient protections should there be an outbreak,” Abdo said.

“We are increasing the squad size in terms of travel day, particularly for clubs that travel interstate, and we have provided flexibility for clubs to be able to draft in players from outside their top 30 squad. All of this is geared up to ensure that there is sufficient depth and competitiveness of the team to get on the field.

“The rapid testing and rapid testing every day means it is very unlikely that we will see a mass breakout at a club.

“However, in the unlikely event that we have that we have contingencies in place to access broader players so at this stage we don’t believe that we will be a place where we have to postpone or cancel games.”

Parsons said the fact that the NRL was one of the first major sporting competitions in the world to resume after the initial COVID-19 outbreak in 2020 forced the suspension of the Telstra Premiership was inspiring.

"At Swyftx we’re a customer first business at the forefront of an innovative industry," Parsons said.

"The NRL has continued to evolve and taken the game to new levels with their innovative rule changes to improve gameplay over the past couple of years.  

“Beyond that, I couldn’t have been more impressed by the way [ARLC chairman] Peter V’landys, Andrew Abdo and the entire NRL got the game back up and running, the first sport to do so, during the early days of COVID.

"That commitment to the game and the rugby league community was inspiring.” 

Swyftx's three-year deal with the NRL includes naming rights for the Bunker from 2023.

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