The NRL's biosecurity expert says there is no need for a pre-season training bubble before players return to their clubs next week, with the game adopting an "Apollo Standby" model for the 2021 campaign.
Associate professor David Heslop, who sits on the NRL’s Project Apollo committee and has helped steer the game through the pandemic, said he had advised the game's leaders this month that a return to bubble protocols would not be required for 2021 – despite a spike of COVID-19 cases on Sydney's northern beaches.
Of all the NRL sides, the Sea Eagles have been most affected by the coronavirus outbreak on the northern beaches.Credit:Getty Images
"The lockdown orders do permit certain activities to occur, so necessary training activities in preparation for an elite sportsperson, which the NRL players are, are permitted," Heslop said. "But that has to be done acknowledging the risks."
The Sea Eagles have been most affected by the restrictions. A handful of players at other Sydney clubs are based on the northern beaches.
Manly have been told they are allowed to continue training with their full squad given the exemptions for work. Every Sea Eagles player will be required to be screened at training and must document their daily movements. Staff have been asked to work from home where possible.
Heslop said the only reason he would advise the NRL to move back to full Apollo protocols was if there was another wave before the start of the season.
"My view is that the current outbreak looks to be a spike," he said. "There's no requirement to move the entire competition and all clubs back into a strict protocol, that's unnecessary."
Instead, Heslop will advise the NRL to move to a more relaxed Apollo bubble before the season start in March.
"If we've got very little cases going through the community, then a modified version of the protocols, which were toned down, much like the end of the season, is what we will probably look at," he said. "We'll have some of the protocols back but not as strict as what they were last season."
Heslop also believes the NRL will be able to welcome full-capacity crowds for the entire season.
"There's no difference in fundamental terms to what's happening now, compared to the grand final," he said. "So, no, I don't see any barriers to having crowds."
Originally, the NRL hoped its players would be able to receive the COVID-19 vaccination ahead of the season's start. But the game has since been told players will be low on NSW Health's priority list, meaning modified COVID protocols will be needed.
"What we're going to have is gradually lowering the risk in the general population to the NRL and, hopefully, no outbreaks," he said.
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