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NZ rugby set to resume playing, raising doubts about Super Rugby

NZ rugby set to resume playing, raising doubts about Super Rugby
All Blacks perform the haka ahead of the 2019 Rugby Championship match between The All Blacks and the Springboks in Wellington. The All Blacks will clash with the Boks on South African soil twice in 2022 for the Rugby Championships. (Photo: Raghavan Venugopal)

The New Zealand government announced an easing of coronavirus-related lockdown restrictions on Thursday, immediately prompting New Zealand Rugby (NZR) to announce a resumption of play.

The news that New Zealand would move to level two restrictions was welcomed in the rugby world because it opens the door for a resumption of the sport. But the move raised some significant questions about the future of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament, which appears to be over, if a third of its competing teams plays in its own domestic competition.

South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina (Sanzaar) welcomed the news that New Zealand would be able to resume rugby, albeit with heavy restrictions, but provided no clarity on what this means for their flagship Super Rugby tournament.

“We have known for some time that once the green light is given to recommence playing [in any of our territories] that a revised Super Rugby competition format would have to be implemented,” Sanzaar chief executive Andy Marinos said in a statement. 

“This will mean a strong domestic focus in each territory given the travel, border and government restrictions that we will have to adhere to. Given today’s announcement by the New Zealand government, Sanzaar will now in conjunction with NZR move to the implementation of the revised Super Rugby format that has been agreed upon by all Sanzaar partners and stakeholders. We will work with NZR around the possible start date that satisfies government requirements.”

But when Daily Maverick approached Marinos for clarity on whether this spells the end of the 2020 Super Rugby tournament, he was vague.

“We will discuss this as a board in the next two weeks,” Marinos said in a text to Daily Maverick.

The defending champion Crusaders as well as the Chiefs, Blues, Highlanders and Hurricanes are set to play in a local competition called Super Rugby Aotearoa. The start date is unspecified as the New Zealand government has yet to set a date when the country will move to Level 2 restrictions. Mid-June is the most likely scenario. 

The tournament will feature home and away fixtures between the five Super Rugby franchises, further muddying the waters about what it means for teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, which are part of the same tournament.

There have already been six New Zealand derbies in Super Rugby 2020 before the tournament was suspended in mid-March.

Will those results be taken into account in the new competition and put towards an overall Super Rugby log? Or will they be scrapped and only results from the Super Rugby Aotearoa be considered? Will there be an overall champion, or just regional winners if there are no cross-border matches in 2020?

The message from Sanzaar indicates that domestic forms of the tournament are somehow linked to the overall competition, but clarity remains scarce.

“For our fans, our players and everyone involved in Super Rugby, we are thrilled that the sports minister has given the green light for professional sport to resume at level 2,” said NZR Chief Executive Mark Robinson.

“Both netball and rugby have been working closely with government agencies on what training and playing at level two could look like, and we are incredibly grateful for their support.

“As soon as the country announces what date we move to alert level 2, we will be able to confirm what date Super Rugby will kick off. Kiwi rugby fans love the local Super Rugby derbies, and they will now have 10 consecutive rounds to enjoy.” 

Super Rugby Aotearoa involves New Zealand’s five teams the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders – and has been developed by NZR in conjunction with Sanzaar, the Super Rugby clubs and the NZ Rugby Players’ Association (NZRPA). 

The five teams will play each other home and away over 10 weeks, with two matches every weekend. All matches will be played in closed stadiums.

World Rugby return-to-play guidelines

Earlier this week World Rugby released its guidelines for playing under Covid-19 restrictions, which dealt with requirements from training protocols to the maximum number of people (163) allowed at stadiums should matches be played behind closed doors.

The regulations, which were developed by the medical departments of several member nations, have been developed in line with strict World health Organisation (WHO) protocols. 

The first section provides safety information to everyone involved in the game including players, coaches, support and administrative staff. The second section provides a framework around which national unions can prepare best-practice policies and guidelines for return to activity that are appropriate to their local setting, complying with national guidelines on social distancing and travel restrictions.

The guidelines also outline three dedicated time-bound return-to-training phases – small group training, full group non-contact training and full contact training. A link to the full guidelines can be viewed here.  

World Rugby Chairman Sir Bill Beaumont said: “We are all missing the sport that we know and love, and while it is difficult not to be playing or training, advice by the respective governments and authorities must be adhered to.

“World Rugby, in full partnership with unions and players, has been busy behind the scenes ensuring that everything is in place for a safe and speedy return to the sport when it is appropriate to do so. This includes delivering best-practice coaching, refereeing and conditioning webinars, resources and Apps and, of course, a phased roadmap for the sport’s return to training and playing.” 

World Rugby Chief Medical Officer and guideline co-author Dr Éanna Falvey added: “We have been working in full collaboration with unions, regions, competitions and players in preparing a set of guidelines that are WHO compliant in a rugby context.  

“They outline all the necessary considerations and steps for players, coaches, clubs, unions and competitions and will be updated regularly as the advice and environment evolves. 

“Initial feedback has been extremely positive, and it is certainly prudent that we have a standardised and ready-to-mobilise approach when it is safe and appropriate to resume steps towards playing in the context of easing social-distancing measures.” DM

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