IT was supposed to have been a chance for the Newcastle Knights to get away from all distractions and "live and breathe rugby league" for three weeks.
Instead their training camp in north-western NSW was cut short on Thursday when a mounting COVID-19 toll left them with no option other than to pack up and head home after only 10 days.
The Newcastle Herald understands that a player tested positive to the coronavirus in the early days of the camp, and after that numbers started escalating.
Players and staff undergo rapid antigen testing every morning and those who tested positive were sent back to Newcastle to isolate at home.
After a number of positives on Thursday morning, including key staff members, it was decided it was no longer feasible to continue.
"We were all disappointed, but when your support staff start going down with COVID, there's nothing you can do," Knights chief executive Phil Gardner told the Newcastle Herald.
"We could manage the player issues, but once the staff started coming down with COVID, there was nobody who could step in and do their jobs. That was the challenge."
Gardner said the "majority of players" have now contracted coronavirus.
More than half the squad had to postpone their return to training when they tested positive after the Christmas-New Year break, and most of their remaining teammates fell ill during the camp, held at University of New England in Armidale and Lake Keepit Sport and Recreation Centre, between Tamworth and Gunnedah.
It was the third time COVID has crash-tackled Newcastle's pre-season plans.
The club had already cancelled an army-style boot camp in Brisbane in December, and then called off a training camp at Tamworth's Farrer Agicultural High School earlier this month.
Newcastle's new physical-performance manager Hayden Knowles believes such camps are "priceless" because they ensure players "live and breathe" football 24 hours a day, allowing them to train intensively while developing closer connections with teammates and staff.
Gardner said the camp was still a worthwhile exercise, even though it was truncated.
Players who were not already in isolation returned to Newcastle to resume training on Thursday afternoon.
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