Do NZR and RA have back-up plans if Super Rugby Trans-Tasman is put on ice due to travel restrictions?
When the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman competition was first announced in November, six months probably felt like a long time to have to wait for New Zealand’s and Australia’s Super Rugby sides to go to battle once more. As it turns out, May could end up being too early for the cross-country tournament to kick off.
The most recent Super Rugby match to take place between an NZ and an Australia team was played between the Waratahs and Chiefs in Wollongong on March 6 last year before COVID-19 curtailed the competition and in some ways, it feels like we’re now living in a completely different world.
Rugby Australia have a new CEO and a new broadcast deal which should make the sport considerably more accessible to the people of Australia. The Western Force have also risen from the ashes (let’s face it, Global Rapid Rugby was never going to be the competition that Andrew Forrest envisaged) and while they weren’t able to notch any wins in 2020, their recruitment for the coming season has been second to none.
In New Zealand, meanwhile, a somewhat disappointing test season (both in terms of variability and results) has left fans hungry for another bout of the competition that had everyone talking last year – Super Rugby Aotearoa.
Both the Aotearoa and AU competitions are set to kick off in late February and, after 10 rounds of regular season action plus a grand final (and an extra elimination final, in Australia’s case), the competition’s are set to merge for Super Rugby Trans-Tasman.
The Trans-Tasman tournament will simply see every New Zealand team play every Australian team, with a final played between the two highest-ranked sides upon the initial round’s completion.
It’s not the ideal competition. After all, if we learnt anything last year it was that fans love to see local derbies. The matches are more even and the rugby is arguably of a better quality, which is why it could be mildly disappointing when the local matches come to an end when there’s still six rounds of rugby to play in the competition.
Still, some trans-Tasman rivalry is needed to keep things interesting – it’s just a pity that the five cross-over matches couldn’t be played halfway through the local competitions.
Given the current state of the world, however, there must be serious concerns that the May 14 kick-off date might not be achievable.
In New Zealand at present, any person returning from overseas must quarantine for two weeks. That wouldn’t fit in with the Super Rugby Trans-Tasman schedule, which, for example, sees the Chiefs travel to Perth for the opening weekend then playing back home in Hamilton the following week.
The only way the competition can be completed as scheduled is if no quarantining – in both New Zealand and Australia – is required at any stage.
Until recently, travellers arriving in Australia from New Zealand weren’t required to go into isolation but after a single community case of COVID reared its head in Northland this week, Australia immediately suspended all entries from NZ. Anyone who’d already made the trip over has also been asked to self-isolate.
Every year, at least one Super Rugby rookie earns All Blacks honours at the first time of asking – but who exactly could make that step up this time round? #AllBlacks #SuperRugby https://t.co/oOgi9orwqL
— RugbyPass (@RugbyPass) January 9, 2021
If the Blues had been scheduled to play in Australia on Saturday and hadn’t yet touched down across the ditch, there’d be no way of making the trip over. If they had already travelled, they’d now be isolating. Either way, they wouldn’t be able to play this weekend.
Of course, we’re still four months away from the Trans-Tasman tournament kicking off, but we’re yet to see any significant evidence that freedom of movement between New Zealand and Australia is likely to eventuate anytime soon. Until a vaccine is widespread in both nations, we’ll continue to see little blips cause quick and major reactions from the two countries’ borders – which would have massive ramifications on any competition.
On the positive side, intra-Australia border restrictions are lessening by the day, which bodes well for the Australian teams at least being able to host their matches at their actual home stadiums, which wasn’t the case for much of Super Rugby AU in 2020.
If the competition can’t go ahead in its current iteration then there’s the possibility that the Trans-Tasman portion of Super Rugby is hosted out of one country or city.
With similar travel restrictions in place last year, Australia hosted the entirety of the Rugby Championship – primarily from New South Wales.
Stadium attendance was restricted, however – though the impact on Super Rugby games wouldn’t be quite as severe as on test matches. The bigger cost was that the travelling All Blacks and Pumas players had to spend almost two months away from their families, including quarantine periods either side of travelling.
International rugby is clearly the pinnacle of the game and even experienced All Blacks know that their spot in the team is never a given, so it was likely relatively straightforward for players to stay motivated and make the sacrifice of being away from home for so long.
Would the same sacrifices be made for the Super Rugby sides? And would New Zealand Rugby be willing to foot the bill for quarantining 200-odd players? In both instances, the answer is likely no – which means that the competition is entirely dependant on free travel between New Zealand and Australia (or special allowances being made for the players).
If the competition can’t proceed as planned, then both nations will have no rugby on their calendars between their respective Super Rugby finals on May 8, and their opening international matches of the year on July 3.
Like last year, other arrangements could always be made to fill the void. New Zealand hosted a North v South inter-island match for the first time in almost a decade and could do the same again in 2021 – especially given the positive response to the match. Australia, meanwhile, has mooted a State of Origin style Queensland v New South Wales match and 2021 could be the perfect year to introduce it to the calendar.
Of course, in an ideal world, the Super Rugby matches between the Kiwi and Australian sides could take place as planned.
When Super Rugby Trans-Tasman was initially announced, new cases of COVID-19 were at a minimum for both New Zealand and Australia. Given the lack of change in travel restrictions between the neighbouring countries since the announcement, it’s not unreasonable to assume that until both countries have vaccines widely available, the restrictions will remain in place as they currently stand.
If that’s the case, then it’s hard to imagine trans-Tasman Super Rugby matches proceeding in 2021 under the current schedule.
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