How hosting the Rugby Championship could lead to New Zealand becoming the world's 'sporting hub'
New Zealand been a leading light in the worldwide COVID-19 recovery effort from a sporting perspective, with Super Rugby Aotearoa among the first professional sporting competitions on the planet to kick-off in front of unrestricted live crowds.
Other domestic leagues, such as the national basketball and netball competitions, are also well underway in front of live audiences, but things could be taken a step further later on this year.
Reports have emerged in recent weeks about the prospect of staging SANZAAR’s Rugby Championship – featuring the All Blacks, Wallabies, Springboks and Pumas – solely in New Zealand between November and December.
International travel restrictions and ongoing coronavirus outbreaks in Australia, South Africa and Argentina have made it implausible for the annual tournament to be held in its regular form across the Southern Hemisphere.
SANZAAR has, however, announced plans for the competition to be held in New Zealand, where there are currently just 27 active case of COVID-19, all of which are being managed in isolation facilities.
The governing body stills requires Government approval for travel exemptions and quarantine measures, but hopes remain high for those plans to come to fruition.
Speaking on RugbyPass’ Aotearoa Rugby Pod, Crusaders halfback Bryn Hall said allowing New Zealand to host an international event like the Rugby Championship could lead to other sporting fixtures to be held in the country.
“It’s been great with how New Zealand’s gone through this whole COVID situation,” he said.
“Other sports coming here, whether it be UFC, there have been a few talks about that, or whether it be boxing or some other form of sports… I think it’s a great idea, if we could get them in here in a bubble where it’s going to be safe.
“I know as consumers, it’s going to be great to have some international fixtures this year as well.”
“From our spectators point of view, [it’s] an opportunity for boosting the economy in a tough year, it’s great,” the two-test All Black told the Aotearoa Rugby Pod.
“It sort of gives us an opportunity to be that place to come to play, not just footy, maybe other sports or other comps can come down here as well.”
Whispers of the UFC, international boxing bouts and even the NFL coming to New Zealand have been touted in recent weeks.
UFC boss Dana White last week said “it’s possible” the sporting franchise could return to Kiwi shores this year after hearing of sport being played in front of live crowds in New Zealand.
There were also reports last month suggesting New Zealand stood as a primary contender to host the third title fight between heavyweight boxing stars Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.
Senior ESPN writer Mina Kimes also brought up the idea of New Zealand hosting NFL games on The Bill Simmons Podcast last week, but retracted that suggestion as “incredibly irresponsible speculation by me” when pressed on the concept.
However, podcast host Simmons labelled the outlandish idea as “great”, stating: “I feel like New Zealand would reject us, though it’d be the greatest advertisement for New Zealand, which is gorgeous.”
While rugby players from New Zealand and Australia are back in action via Super Rugby Aotearoa and Super Rugby AU, players from South Africa and Argentina still haven’t played since Super Rugby’s suspension in March.
Latest figures show there are nearly 170,000 active coronavirus cases in South Africa, and over 75,000 in Argentina.
Players in South Africa have only now been granted permission to return to training in groups of five, leading to questions regarding the possibility of warm-up games against local Kiwi sides to help bring the Springboks and Pumas up to speed ahead of the Rugby Championship.
Hall endorsed the idea of the international teams playing in regional centres such as Napier, Invercargill and Palmerston North, while Parsons said provincial teams and Super Rugby sides would relish the chance to play the Wallabies, Springboks or Pumas.
“I know teams would jump at warm-up games,” Parsons said.
“When we played France for the Blues, when we played the Lions, those are massive fixtures for those sorts of teams and guys who don’t get those opportunities, so I don’t think there’d be too much hassle there.”
Parsons added that while some might perceive South Africa and Argentina to be at a disadvantage going into the Rugby Championship due to their lack of game time, he believed the attrition of Super Rugby Aotearoa could even the playing field.
“After 10 weeks of derbies – I think two Crusaders got ruled out for the rest of the year, there’s myself and a number of other guys at the Blues and obviously every other team – it’s starting to wear on certain teams,” he said.
“Where the bodies are at come that [the Rugby Championship], if you looked at Argy and South Africa, [they] could be really fresh, so you don’t know.
“It’s sort of like a six of one, half a dozen [another]. Yeah, the skills might be a bit off, but the energy levels will be through the roof.”
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