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COVID-19 NRL updates: Theme rounds back for revamped season

The NRL has put the finishing touches on the revised NRL Telstra Premiership, confirming the resumption of themed rounds for season 2020. 

Themed Rounds will once again deliver memorable moments, funds and talking points which can positively impact the broader community. They showcase the very best of rugby league and why it is more than just a game.

In 2020, the NRL Themed Rounds will be:

  • Round 6 (18th – 21st June) – Mark Hughes Foundation Beanie for Brain Cancer Round.  Beanies will be sold online from June 1 in support of the Foundation which raises funds for research, and supports brain cancer patients and their families; 
  • Round 12 (30th July – 2nd Aug) – Indigenous Round, to celebrate and recognise the role the Indigenous community plays in our game;
  • Round 19 (17th – 20th Sept) – Harvey Norman Women in League Round. Now in its 14th year, this round acknowledges and celebrates the role women play at all levels of the game.
  • In addition, the traditional Anzac Day Match between the Dragons and the Roosters will now be played on Thursday August 6 (in Round 13) – the anniversary of the Battle of Lone Pine.

NRL Acting CEO Andrew Abdo said each round is unique and significant, encouraging fans to show their support during the respective rounds however they can.

“Despite the new parameters we find ourselves working in, it is vital these rounds go ahead because of what they mean to the game and the community,” Abdo said.

“They make an unquestionable difference to so many people’s lives and provide the game with a wonderful platform to educate, unite and inspire both current and future generations about community, respect and equality.”

“We’re asking everyone to support these rounds, who and what they represent, in whatever way they can in 2020.”

Hoppa to wait and see on six-again rule

Canterbury centre Will Hopoate hopes his side can benefit from getting a look at how the new rule changes work by the time their Sunday night game against Manly kicks off.

With a reduction to one on-field referee and a six-again ruling to replace penalties for in-play ruck infringements at the discretion of that referee, there is a feeling dominant forwards and fast dummy-half runners will be best-placed to capitalise.

"That's a bonus for us playing on Sunday, we get to watch the games before us and have a look at what it's like," Hopoate said.

"I suppose time will tell how it works, there's always pros and cons with rule changes, teams try and do their best to get around it and deal with it so it will be exciting to see on Thursday night [when the Broncos host the Eels] how it goes.

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"If you get [a six-again call] later in the tackle count that will be a lift for the team.

"Defensively when you're tackling and give away the penalty on tackle four or five that really hurts to D it up again, especially for the boys in the middle.

"For the quicker blokes we have to get into dummy half and make the big boys work."

Playing to an empty Central Coast Stadium will be "a bit different" but the experience from round two against the Cowboys suggests the players will adapt well, Hopoate added.

"We had the one game with no crowd but going off that, when you're in the game you don't really notice there's no crowd there," he said.

"You only notice when there's a try scored or a big hit there's no big roar then it hits it's a bit different with no crowd there, but when you're in the moment you just focus on the play at hand."

Storm keen to be 'test case' for crowds

Storm chairman Matt Tripp hopes his club can be a "test case" for the return of crowds to NRL games as early as July.

Tripp told RSN's Breakfast Club on Monday morning that the club had been in talks with the Victorian government and the Melbourne Olympic Park Trust about a plan for a limited number of fans to be allowed through the gates as restrictions around the COVID-19 pandemic are eased.

"We are piecing together a scenario where even if we start with a thousand people and build to 2000, 3000 in every fifth seat, there are plans in place at the moment or plans that we are working through to try and get people to AAMI Park, to create a safe environment for bigger and better things for all codes, not just the NRL," he said.

"We would happily be the test case, it's a wonderful facility to get people in and out of.

"There are measures that we can put in place to ensure the safety of patrons when they're at the game so I can't see why, in line with Peter V'landys' comments on July 1 that we can't get the ball rolling at AAMI."

Tripp said fans were desperate to get back to games and would be bashing the door down to the stadium if given the opportunity.

"It would be wonderful if we can get people back to games this year."

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Big O owes debt of gratitude

Broncos forward Joe Ofahengaue knows he owes his teammates a debt of gratitude after missing the opening two rounds of the season due to suspension.

Ofahengaue was forced to watch on from the sidelines in March after he was sanctioned by the club over a pre-season incident when he was found asleep in his car while over the blood alcohol limit.

The 24-year-old Maroons forward was pleased Brisbane didn’t drop a game while he was out and he is now hellbent on helping them consolidate their flawless start when they host Parramatta when the NRL resumes on Thursday.

“I owed it to my teammates to stay fit and ready,” he said.

"I let them down, missing the first two rounds. To their credit they did awesome and got us two wins so now I've got to do my job and keep the energy going and keep trying to win games and do my job for the team.

"I'm not new to being in the news about little stuff like that and this one really hurt because I felt like … I was doing good and becoming a better person and growing up and then I had that little hiccup and it kind of hurt me a bit because I have a bigger following than I did when I was younger.

"A lot of people out there, I let down - I know that and I apologise for that. Now I'm just in a good mindset. It’s all about feeling good and playing good footy."

Club captains grateful to be back

Rule changes worth the risk to improve game - Annesley

NRL head of football Graham Annesley has conceded there was an element of risk about the one-referee plan and the six-again ruck rule change that will be introduced when the competition returns on Thursday.

"Every time you make a change there is an element of risk, but they are calculated risks. They are risks that have been accessed and they’ve been introduced as we think it will add to our game," Annesley said on Saturday.
"But we never really know the impact until we start because with every rule change we have to try and anticipate unexpected consequences and so we’ve turned our mind to that."

A "Q and A" session between the referees and ARLC Chairman Peter V'landys led to a resolution of the dispute regarding the return to one on-field official to allow the NRL season to restart on Thursday.

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Annesley said that following the "honest and open" meeting the referees decided to drop their action at the Fair Work Commission.  Annesley said a committee would review the one-referee system at the end of the season and report to the ARLC.

"We were preparing to go to arbitration today or tomorrow and yesterday afternoon we decided it would be a good idea for Peter V’Landys to have a chat to the referees and we organised that via video conference," Annesley said.

"It was a very friendly conversation ... Peter just wanted to explain the commission's reasons for making the decision, there was no pressure applied, it was a Q and A.

"[The referees] had a meeting following that and they decided not to proceed with the action which we’re very grateful for.

"We didn’t want that to be the focus across the weekend with industrial action leading up to the resumption of the game. [The referees] just want to get on with the job and are very happy for the situation to proceed as planned with one referee and for the whole refereeing structure to be reviewed at the end of the season."

Annesley said the NRL would put a panel together that will be a cross-section of coaches, players, referees and administrators and it would prepare a report for the commission at season's end.

The 22 full-time referees will retain their positions for the rest of this year.

"This is an excellent outcome for the game and all its stakeholders. Can I thank the individual referees for the way they conducted themselves during today’s discussion," V'landys said on Friday.

"It was heart-warming to see their desire that nothing stands in the way of the 28th May commencement of our great game and they want to be an integral part of its success.

"The new rule changes will make our game faster and more entertaining. Most importantly it will address the biggest on-field issues which are speed around the ruck, and the eradication of the wrestle."

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Super League targets comeback dates

A mid-January grand final is one of three scenarios being considered for the return of the Super League in August.

The proposals will be discussed next week, with officials hoping matches can be played in front of limited crowds from October 1.

According to a BBC report, three models for fixtures have been put forward which would mean the season ends in a grand final on November 28, December 12 or mid-January 2021.

No Super League games have been played since March 15 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The aim of each model is to restart the season on 16 August and play six rounds of matches behind closed doors, scheduling multiple games at a single venue over a day or a weekend.

The ambition is then for the majority of games to take place after 1 October in the hope of being able to play in front of crowds of limited numbers, depending on the latest social distancing rules.

Results from before the shutdown will stand and any postponed games would have to be played, probably in early August, before a general restart date for all clubs.

It means Catalans’ games with Leeds and St Helens, postponed before the lockdown, will be among the games played in the first two weeks of August.

The proposal for the November 28 end date features a 22-round Super League. The December 12 finish would mean 24 games have taken place while a January 16 grand final would accommodate a 28-game competition, with the Challenge Cup to be completed in all three models.

The number of teams reaching the playoffs has been reduced to four, with the series going straight to a semi-final before a grand final a week later.

Last time they met: Knights v Sharks - Round 1, 2019

O'Brien centres in on selection dilemma

Bradman Best and Tautau Moga are giving Knights coach Adam O'Brien a welcome selection headache in the lead-up to the restart of the NRL season next week.

Newcastle travel to Campbelltown next Sunday to face Penrith and Best has overcome a foot injury and Moga is fit again after overcoming yet another knee injury to put pressure on starting centres Gehamat Shibasaki and Enari Tuala.

The incumbent duo did nothing wrong for the Knights in their back-to-back wins over the Warriors and Wests Tigers to start the season in March.

"I'm happy with the two centres who started the year but I can't not think about Bradman and what he's done since he's been back. And Tau is the same," O'Brien said on Thursday.

"We've got four centres there who are like four pit-bulls at the moment. They're all going after it."

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Cook goes into bat for Cody

Souths international Damien Cook has praised Cody Walker for owning up to his actions after his Rabbitohs teammate has shown genuine remorse for his involvement in a fight in December.

Footage of the incident emerged on social media earlier in the week of Walker kicking a man in Casino last December.

The NRL Integrity Unit has launched an investigation into the incident and Walker has stated that although he was protecting a family member, he would accept whatever sanction was handed down.

Cook told The Big Sports Breakfast on Wednesday that Walker had been keeping his teammates up to date with his situation.

"He has been really good, Cody. He let the boys know before anything came out in the media, just gave them a heads up and he understands what he has done wrong and understands it's not good timing either," he said.

"He understands there's probably going to be a penalty handed down to him and we will go from there.

"Even though his actions weren't right, he has done all the right things since that in letting the club know and stuff like that."

It's game on

Pearce tells critics to give one-ref plan a chance

Head of the NRL’s Project Apollo, Wayne Pearce, is prepared to cop some flak from commentators and fans once the one-referee rule is put into practice when round three of the competition starts on May 28.

"Absolutely. I mean there’s errors at the moment with two referees anyway," Pearce told Triple M.

But he urged detractors to hold their fire until they’ve seen a few rounds because he believes the new refereeing situation – and the six-again rule – will create more tries and a more exciting game.

"People talk about ‘Oh there will be mistakes here too’ but  it’s already happening at the moment. The NRL is the only competition in the world with two referees and basically the pocket guy, who is there specifically to monitor the ruck, just ain’t working because we’re still getting slow play-the-balls and wrestling.

"And that’s because referees are reluctant to give as many referees as they should because it dampens the spectacle.

NRL Classic: Broncos v Dragons - Semi-final, 2011

"So I think those people who are complaining about the new rules should just hold their breath and just wait and see what transpires in the early games. I think they’re going to be really excited about what they see."

Pearce also refuted suggestions by Professional Rugby League Match Officials chairman Silvio Del Vecchio that the referees' union had not be consulted fully before the changes to officiating were announced.

"I think there has. As soon as a recommendation was made to the Commission, there was consultation with the union. That, in my opinion, is what needed to happen so I don’t know where the problems lie. But I’m sure that will come to the fore as negotiations go forward," he said.

Pearce said none of 22 full-time referees were losing their jobs, and the same number would be there in 2021. He said the ruck would be cleaner.

"There referees who are not doing the centre-field job are on the sidelines. So effectively we’ve gone from one ref to three refs in the matches when you add the two touch judges – and there’s going to be an official in the Bunker watching the play-the-balls."

Pearce  said he realised some coaches might not be happy with the changes, but they were the least of the concerns.

Manly coach Des Hasler is a fan of the two-referee model but is keeping an open mind.

"I don’t think anyone is going to know the reaction to the rule changes until we see it … there’s going to have to be some tweaks on the run," Hasler said on Saturday.

"The one referee, I’m not against it … me personally I’d prefer the two, but now we’ve just to all get on board and get on the field and start playing.

"I think the six-again will help the referee definitely – we’ll just work through it, see where it lands, and make adjustments. As long as they’re open to feedback."

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NRLW part of TV deal for first time - Abdo

Interim NRL CEO Andrew Abdo has confirmed women's rugby league remains a priority for the code and will be included in ongoing discussions as part of a new broadcast deal, which could be announced as early as next week.

The future of the NRLW and women's State of Origin fixture, which was scheduled for June 19, has been under a cloud since the NRL season came to a halt in March.

However, Abdo was confident of announcing a schedule for the women's game in the coming weeks when answering questions at a media conference on Friday.

"The women's game is a priority and something we're all very passionate about," Abdo said.

"It has been part of the discussions and remains a priority for us but we haven't finalised what their schedule looks like this year and that will be something we will finalise in the coming weeks."

Previously, the NRLW and Origin fixture was not part of the current broadcast rights cycle until a makeshift agreement was reached before the inaugural season in 2018.

The movements bode well for the game's elite women despite comments from Warriors CEO Cameron George last week surrounding their club's future in the competition.

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Cartwright granted medical exemption

Titans forward Bryce Cartwright has been granted a medical exemption from receiving a flu shot by Queensland's Chief Medical Officer Jeannette Young.

After Cartwright presented medical documentation seeking an exemption from the influenza vaccine protocol, Dr Young granted that request on Thursday.

The Titans announced the news regarding Cartwright hours after teammate Brian Kelly received both the influenza vaccine and pneumococcal vaccinations and returned to training. 

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The 23-year-old Titan had initially refused to have the injection but agreed to do so after consulting with club officials and healthcare professionals.

The Queensland Government has made it mandatory for all players based in the state to have the vaccinations to participate in the NRL. Every player and staff member from the Broncos and Cowboys has been vaccinated.

He was back at Titans training on Friday but faces a difficult assignment to force his way into the game-day 17 for the round-three clash with North Queensland following the return of Keegan Hipgrave from a series of concussions and the strong form of some of the other contenders for the forward pack.

One ref 'worked beautifully for 100 years' - Walters

Queensland coach Kevin Walters has backed the ARL Commission's decision to bring back one referee, saying the system "worked beautifully for 100 years".

A Commission meeting on Wednesday night rubber-stamped the proposal put forward by Project Apollo as a way of saving the game money and letting Telstra Premiership matches flow by cutting down stoppages.

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"Let's just go with it, let's just get our game on. It worked beautifully for 100 years with having just the one referee and we changed it," Walters told Fox League on Wednesday night.

"Did we get better decisions? We got some better decisions at different stages but it didn't dramatically change the way the game was played.

"Now the coaches will come in and say we want two referees because of this and that but look, let's just get our game on. Let's get our one ref."

Walters said he had noticed little to no difference between two referees in the NRL and one whistleblower in the international arena in recent years.

Coaches, players react to one-ref and six-again rule changes

Players will get rid of rust quickly - Taufua

Manly winger Jorge Taufua believes it will only take a week of matches for the NRL teams to get back to their usual elite standard.

He is not worrying about what the rescheduled draw will be, whether there will be one referee or two or off-field issues like a small group of players refusing to get flu vaccinations.

His main concern this week has been getting used to contact training again at coach Des Hasler's sessions after eight weeks of being restricted to fitness-based activities.

"I don't think it will be trial [standard], it'll be a level up from that but there will definitely be a little bit of rust. It won't take long for the whole competition to get that game conditioning back," he said.

"I think we've all held ourselves to a high standard in that five or six week break to stay in shape. There is no conditioning like games so maybe one game."

When asked about teammates Dylan Walker and Addin Fonua-Blake, who have refused flu shots despite the NRL wanting all players to be vaccinated as part of the COVID-19 protocols, Taufua said it was not an issue among the Manly camp.  

"It's not really a thing, it's hardly spoken about. I don't really know too much about it anyway," he said.

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"The lads have been cool, they're still training at a high level, still energetic and still just doing their job each day. As long as they're happy and doing their thing, that's alright."

Manly forward Sean Keppie loves the rough and tumble of mixing it with his fellow big boppers in the middle but he said it had been hard adjusting to the bumps and bruises this week.

"It's been tough, we've been smashing each other so I think we'll be ready for round three," he said.

"You're running against 120-kilo props like Addin every day. It takes a bit used to but it's worth it."

Titans formally request duo to have flu shots

Gold Coast players Bryce Cartwright and Brian Kelly have been formally requested by the club to have a flu shot so they can return to training with team-mates and be eligible for selection.

The Titans have asked Cartwright and Kelly to confirm their intention to have the flu shot by Thursday after the pair previously objected to doing so.

The move follows Queensland's Chief Health Officer Jeannette Young's rejection of an application from the NRL for players who sign a waiver to be exempt from the state government's requirement for all players to have a flu shot.

As a result, Cartwright and Kelly are unable to train, while Canberra trio Josh Papalii, Sia Soliola and Joseph Tapine, Canterbury's Sione Katoa and Manly duo Dylan Walker and Addin Fonua-Blake face not being able to play in Queensland.

The NSW-based players are allowed to train with team-mates after signing waivers but Cartwright and Kelly have been stood down, leaving the Titans with two less players in their squad.

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The Titans issued a statement on Tuesday night confirming that the club now expected Cartwright and Kelly to comply with the Queensland Government ruling.

"The Gold Coast Titans have made formal requests to Bryce Cartwright and Brian Kelly to obtain up-to-date influenza and, as required, pneumococcal vaccinations," a club statement said.

"Doing so will enable each player to meet the requirements of the Queensland State Government's protocols allowing Queensland-based NRL Clubs to train and play.

"In turn, this will allow both players to resume training and to play with the Titans when the NRL Telstra Premiership resumes on May 28.

"Both players have been asked to notify the Club of their agreement with this direction by Thursday, 14 May."

Young said players who refuse a flu shot for ethical or religious reasons will not be allowed to play in the state.

"I sent a letter to the NRL yesterday in which I did exempt them for medical contrary indications," Young said.

"If they have had an anaphylactic reaction to previous flu vaccine or any component of a flu vaccine, you do not need to be vaccinated so I have provided that exemption."

Asked if players could receive an exemption on any other grounds, Young said: "That's not covered.

"Although the NRL did not put that in their initial submission to me I thought it was reasonable that the NRL players, support staff, coaches and officials have that same exemption that I provide for visitors going into aged-care facilities or for children."

Manly hooker Danny Levi on Tuesday said he respected the rights of individual players to make their own decision but admitted it would be a blow if Walker and Fonua-Blake were not allowed to play in Queensland.

"Obviously it would be pretty disappointing," he said. "But at the same time the game is trying to make sure everyone is healthy, and as long as I am keeping myself fit and healthy that's all I can worry about. We haven't focused on it. It's not really my business.”

Storm given green light to return to AAMI Park

Storm to return to Melbourne

The Storm will return to Melbourne following Monday's decision by the Victorian Government to allow professional team to resume training in the state.

The club will wind up its Albury camp on Tuesday and hold its first AAMI Park session on Thursday.

In a statement on the club website, the Storm thanked those who had helped make their time just north of the NSW-Victoria border an enjoyable one.

Once back in Melbourne, the Storm "will continue to follow the strict health and biosecurity protocols put in place by the NRL, in accordance with National Principles for the resumption of Sport".

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Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.