MELBOURNE: Separated from their families and holed up in a hotel in rural eastern Australia, the New Zealand Warriors team face a stiff test of character in coming weeks as the National Rugby League looks to restart its season during the coronavirus.
The Warriors boarded a charter plane in Auckland on Sunday and touched down in Tamworth, a town of 43,000 people in New South Wales state, where they will spend two weeks in quarantine before the NRL's planned resumption on May 28.
Strict travel curbs remain in both Australia and New Zealand, as the countries edge closer to stamping out COVID-19.
But the Warriors, the only non-Australian team in the NRL, were granted special dispensation to travel to NSW, where authorities are keen for sport to resume and ease frustrations after more than a month of self-isolation.
The Warriors are seen as trailblazers for an eventual trans-Tasman link-up in which Australia and New Zealand might resume travel between each other, providing a boost to their economies.
"Congratulations to the NRL and the Warriors for being the first to participate in what we hope will become, further down the track, a COVID-19 trans-Tasman bubble," New Zealand foreign affairs minister Winston Peters said on Monday.
Like sports across the globe, the NRL was halted in March as governments scrambled to tighten borders as the COVD-19 pandemic took hold.
The competition's governing body warned of "catastrophic" consequences if unable to generate revenue by playing games.
Warriors coach Stephen Kearney said his team were grateful to be given a chance to play again while mindful of the bigger picture as a safe resumption of sport is put under the microscope.
"We do feel that, with that, comes certainly a huge responsibility on our part, too," he told reporters in a video call on Monday. "The boys were made pretty clear about that responsibility earlier this morning."
Elite athletes spend weeks and months away while touring and competing on foreign shores.
The Warriors, however, have no idea when they will be able to return to their homes, due to uncertainty over the revamped season's fixtures and border controls in New Zealand.
The impact on their families was captured poignantly in a picture of veteran forward Adam Blair hugging his inconsolable son before boarding the plane to Tamworth.
"It was a pretty challenging time, to be honest, for a lot of them. Obviously they were leaving families, wives, children, girlfriends," said Kearney.
"So, I could see it being a bit of a challenge for them, obviously not knowing when we might see them next."
The 50 players and staff will live with strict biosecurity protocols over the next two weeks.
Players will sit alone at separated tables during meal-times and can only train in groups of 10 or less at the adjacent rugby field due to social distancing rules.
The NRL fined four players last week for breaching self-isolation orders and has threatened stiffer penalties for future transgressions.
With the Warriors in the spotlight, Kearney said he had warned his players to stick to the rules.
"I made it pretty clear to our group this morning, there's a lot at stake here, we're not talking about one footy club, we're talking about the competition," he said.
"You've just got to be smart, do the right thing and get our game back up and running."
(Reporting by Ian Ransom; editing by Richard Pullin)