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Road blues a major concern for NRL's New Zealand Warriors

BRISBANE, Australia (AP) — What started out as a feel-good story for the New Zealand Warriors in Australia's National Rugby League hasn’t quite turned out that way.

The Auckland-based Warriors arrived at a small regional airport in Australia on May 3 after being given permission to enter the country despite a general ban on incoming travelers amid the coronavirus pandemic. Once they arrived, they knew they would not be able to return toi New Zealand for months because of a ban on travel between the countries.

During a 14-day isolation period — without their families — they trained at Tamworth in the northwestern part of New South Wales state, then moved down to the Central Coast, north of Sydney, to play most of their matches in that area once the season resumed on May 28.

In the first few matches, opposing teams even thanked Warriors players for making a sacrifice that ultimately allowed the NRL reason to resume.

More than 21/2 months later, though, the coach who led them from New Zealand has been fired, four players are planning to return home for family reasons, and the interim coach has complained that despite assurances from rival clubs about loaning players to the Warriors, that hasn’t eventuated.

The Warriors fired coach Stephen Kearney on June 20, ending his 3 1/2-year tenure with the club, the morning after a 40-12 loss to South Sydney. It was the Warriors' fourth loss in six games since the NRL restarted the season.

The club confirmed this week that Ken Maumalo, David Fusitu’a, Agnatius Paasi and King Vuniyayawa will leave their team base on July 27 so they can be with their families. The NRL has not been able to secure an exemption for the players’ New Zealand families to join the squad in Australia, even though there are no active COVID-19 cases in New Zealand.

Warriors chief executive Cameron George said the players will leave with the full support of the club and the remaining players.

“We can’t say enough about the sacrifice they have made being away from their families so long,” George said. “We fully understand the predicament they have been in and we’re so appreciative of what they have done in committing to the cause for as long as they have.

“When we traveled to Australia we promised the players everything possible in our control would be done to secure travel exemptions for their families to join them. There hasn’t been any sign of a favorable result, which we accepted was always a possibility.”

Interim coach Todd Payten says other NRL clubs should make good on their promise to loan players to help the Warriors fill their roster for the final two months of the season.

There will be only 22 fit players in the Warriors squad once the four leave later this month, and there could still be injuries to weaken the roster even further. Each club needs at least 17 fit players for every match, and it would take time to draft in replacements from lower-tier teams because of the health, safety and isolation requirements imposed on the league.

“There are a few things to that, there are obviously a lot of clubs going through injury issues at the moment,” Peyton said. “And there are other clubs which are publicly saying that they’re willing to help us, but privately that hasn’t happened to date.“

Peyten said there were only six clubs which had been “really open and really helpful.”

Two NRL rounds were played before the season was suspended on March 23 when Australia and New Zealand went into lockdown. The Warriors could be forced to stay in Australia until late October if they make the playoffs.

The Warriors are tied for 13th place in the 16-team league but only two points from eighth place, which would give them a playoff spot. There are 11 matches left in the 20-round season.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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