Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL) has announced that the first game of this year’s State of Origin series will be played at Queensland Country Bank Stadium in Townsville following a COVID-19 outbreak in Melbourne.

The Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) had been due to stage the game on June 9 but the fixture will now be held at the 25,000-seat Queensland Country Bank Stadium, which opened last year and serves as the home of the NRL’s Cowboys.

The Australian Rugby League Commission and the Victorian government have approved the relocation, and Melbourne will now host games in 2024 and 2026 instead. This year would have been the first time the MCG had hosted a game since 2018.

The State of Origin is contested by representative teams from New South Wales and Queensland, with games traditionally held in these two states. The NRL also takes the series to other markets, with the Adelaide Oval staging a game last year and Perth’s Optus Stadium hosting a clash in 2019.

The second game of this year’s State of Origin will still take place at Brisbane’s Suncorp Stadium on June 27 before the series concludes at Sydney’s Stadium Australia (formerly ANZ Stadium) on July 14.

NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said: “We’re operating in a pandemic and our absolute priority is ensuring the continuity of the competition and our major events. Townsville has the lowest risk of a COVID outbreak impacting the game and the least financial fallout of the available venues.

“Townsville is also a new, state-of-the-art venue, with the capabilities to host an event with a global audience like Origin, placing it ahead of alternate regional locations.”

The decision to take the series to Queensland Country Bank Stadium will hand Queensland a home advantage in games one and two. Sydney’s Bankwest Stadium had also expressed an interest in hosting the MCG’s reallocated game.

Abdo added: “I understand some fans will have wanted a neutral venue but the reality is we are working within a pandemic and we have to make decisions that ensure Origin proceeds as scheduled and with the lowest financial impact on the game.

“I want to thank the Queensland government, in particular Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, for her ongoing support of rugby league. We partnered together to have 130,000 fans at Magic Round and we are looking forward creating a special Origin next Wednesday.”

The MCG was awarded hosting rights to the series opener back in February. Melbourne has hosted a State of Origin game on nine previous occasions.

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