Melbourne players are preparing to relocate for an indefinite period after Victoria’s recent spike in COVID-19 cases caused the NRL to shift Friday’s home clash against the Warriors to Sydney.
The Storm-Warriors game had been scheduled to be played at Melbourne’s regular home ground of AAMI Park, but will now be played at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium after consultation with the club and biosecurity experts on Monday.
Storm players and staff will fly out of Melbourne on Wednesday, with prop Christian Welch declaring players are ready for an indefinite relocation if Victoria’s COVID-19 situation continues to worsen.
"We've braced for the potential that we might need to relocate and potentially play some of our home games in Queensland or NSW," Welch said.
"It's still developing at the moment, we're just waiting to see what happens."
ARL Commission chairman Peter V'landys confirmed on Monday night on 100% Footy on Channel Nine that the Storm may be based in Sydney or Queensland for longer than this week.
Match Highlights: Panthers v Storm
"We've based every decision on risk analysis, and the risk is too high to leave them in Melbourne," V'landys said.
"Where the players are actually living is a high infection rate area, so when we looked at it with the biosecurity expert today, his strong recommendation was to bring them to Sydney or possibly Queensland and minimise that risk.
"We appreciate the support from the Melbourne Storm because they're going to have to sacrifice a little bit because they'll be up here till further notice.
Episode 8 - Where to now for Warriors?
"We hope to get them back as quickly as we can, but it's all on the risk analysis."
Storm players and staff will all undergo COVID-19 testing to ensure there is no added risk of infection prior to kick-off in Friday’s game.
The decision to move the round-seven match came after Victoria recorded 16 new cases overnight, making for 125 active cases, while NSW and Queensland governments are urging residents to reconsider travel to the southern state.
The potential for the situation to deteriorate further has the Storm looking at longer term relocation options, with their round-eight blockbuster against the Roosters, also scheduled for AAMI Park, up in the air as well.
The club has already shifted its training base once this season due to COVID-19 restrictions, encountering drama in Albury when councillors opposed the Storm using public facilities in the NSW border town.
If Melbourne are forced to relocate beyond this week they would join the Warriors as the NRL’s temporary nomads, with the Auckland-based side setting up on the NSW Central Coast after a two-week stint in Tamworth since the start of May.
Storm skipper Cameron Smith raised concerns over the prospect of NRL sides operating out of bubbles before the competition resumed, and Welch conceded relocation created more issues for senior players with families.
"It’s really hard, I’m reasonably young and single, I don’t have really any family here in Melbourne," he said.
"It’s pretty easy for me to pack my bags up and move wherever but I do feel for the guys with families and young kids going to schools and obviously their partners and wives, that’s a big task on them.
"I’m pretty sure all of our players would be more than happy to pack their bags for the greater good of the competition and to maintain the health of our communities."
The Queensland Origin prop also put any temporary move in perspective as he considered the wider impact of the pandemic.
Match Highlights: Rabbitohs v Warriors
"I think the problems in Australia, whether economically and people out of jobs and heading into recession, and health issues, this is a serious thing and if we need to relocate and play some games in another state we’re more than happy to do that, I think every player here is happy to do that," Welch said.
"Looking at the issue, it pales in significance compared to some of the real issues Australians are going through every day at the moment."
NRL acting CEO Andrew Abdo thanked the Storm club, players and staff for committing to the late upheaval.
"I want to thank the Melbourne Storm players for putting the game ahead of their personal circumstances," Abdo said.
"What I’m most proud about this year is that every obstacle we have faced the game has banded together to reach an outcome in the best interests of the overall competition.
"It was important to take decisive action not only in the best interest of our players and staff, but the broader community. We have shown that if there is even the slightest risk of infection we won’t hesitate to reschedule or relocate games."