‘They have been tremendous’: Coach pays tribute as Warriors head home

The New Zealand Warriors are free at last. The poster boys for the NRL's attempt to keep the competition running amid the COVID-19 pandemic are on their way home on Tuesday morning after two anxious weeks away from family and friends amid the escalating health crisis.

After getting news last night that the NRL was unable to continue after two rounds, the Warriors left their Kingscliff base early to fly out of the Gold Coast airport, where coach Stephen Kearney paid tribute to a group of players that had done all they could to squeeze every last drop of rugby league out of the competition.

New Zealand Warriors players arrive at Gold Coast Airport as they prepare to fly home.Credit:Phil Lutton

Should the season be done for good in 2020, their record will read 0-2. Off the field, they were the ones bearing the brunt of the disruption after leaving New Zealand for one game and facing the prospect of being marooned for the entire season.

That it didn't come to that was a relief to Kearney and his players, who were stoic throughout and said they were just doing their jobs. They would have to bring in players not in their top 36 to even get on the field but refused to even suggest it was an excuse.

"There's a touch of sadness that the competition is off but, yeah, I know there was an element of relief when the boys got the news," Kearney said.

"It was a bit of a challenge but we wanted to get on with the job. That's what the situation demanded. You look around and watch the news, it's tough for everyone."

The pace of the pandemic's spread and the increasingly draconian measures being put in place to halt it has been rapid. The Warriors face a 14-day isolation when they return home and New Zealand, like many parts of the world, could well be moving to a complete lockdown.

That wasn't the kind of scenario players and staff wanted to be in when they were out of reach of loved ones. Kearney said a beach walk on Sunday morning, after Saturday's loss to the Raiders, presented some sobering realities.

"That's was when a lot of stuff began to hit home. We went for a walk after the match on Sunday morning and were listening to some podcasts and you quickly realise how severe and dire the situation is worldwide.

"It's going to take some time, no doubt. And that's what was going to be the challenging part over coming weeks, if we were to keep going, how all that was going to transpire. Given they wouldn't have been able to get into the country, it was a big challenge."

Some players went home once the travel bans were put in place, including Peta Hiku, whose partner was expecting a child. Kearney said an emotional Hiku had been on the phone feeling as if he had let the team down. Senior players quickly assured him he was in the right place.

"They have been tremendous. I knew that from the beginning. Guys back home, Peta Hiku, he was in tears on the phone wanting to come and help out. His partner hadn't had a baby yet but the leadership group was telling him 'it will be all right'.

"It's a real testament to them and the character they showed. I'm very proud of them."

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