New Zealand Rugby have confirmed the possibility of creating a North vs South State of Origin-style clash is being seriously considered as the organisation plans for the return of rugby later in the year.
What shape or form the game will take once proceedings are back underway is yet to be determined, with the current Super Rugby campaign suspended indefinitely and the July tests looking increasingly likely to get cancelled.
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With severe travel limitations being enforced worldwide, any form of cross-border competitions or fixtures seem off the table for the time being, which has forced NZR to look at domestic options in order to get itself back up and running.
According to a report from the New Zealand Herald, the 10-week Super Rugby derby competition involving all five Kiwi clubs, which was due to get underway prior to the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown was announced, is among the touted options for a restart.
An extended Mitre 10 Cup campaign featuring with All Blacks representing their provinces is another compelling option that has been discussed.
NZR chief executive Mark Robinson told the Herald that the revival of the North Island vs South Island fixture, which could double as an All Blacks trial, is also being taken into serious consideration.
“Those things you’ve mentioned are on the table and there’s probably others as well. Our team is excited about some of the opportunities and we think fans could be too,” he said.
“If we’re able to play domestic rugby without any international touring then we could play for much longer than a traditional season and that opens up all sorts of opportunities for what rugby might look like in New Zealand.
“If we have a limited window to play in – from the middle of the year or whenever the time is, there’s a whole range of opportunities. Some of the options could really capture the imagination of the rugby public, players and our partners.”
Those prospects don’t come without their challenges, though, with Robinson confirming the indication of many of the Herald’s sources that forging alignment for the greater good of rugby within New Zealand won’t happen easily.
Each Kiwi Super Rugby team received a $250,000 bailout from NZR earlier this week as the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders struggle to make ends meet with no fixtures to be played in the foreseeable future.
A lack of revenue through ticket sales, club memberships and under-pressure sponsorships has led to those franchises to realise that they may not even survive the scenario of no rugby being played for the remainder of the year.
The Highlanders have already slashed its staff’s salaries by 30 percent across the board, and it won’t be long before the other four clubs begin to follow suit.
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Provincial rugby is in an even more precarious position, with the Herald reporting that only the likes of Canterbury and Auckland are cashed up enough to fight their way through this pandemic.
Others – such as Northland, Southland, North Harbour, Taranaki and Waikato – had stressed finances even before coronavirus took its toll on the game, and while NZR has guaranteed funding for April, reductions are imminent.
With that in mind, nobody knows where the Mitre 10 Cup provinces will be at in the coming months, which is concerning given the early cancellation of the second-tier Heartland Championship season earlier this week.
So, while the concept of All Blacks players going head-to-head with each other in New Zealand’s premier provincial competition has widespread appeal across the country, such a scenario coming to fruition appears challenging.
The Herald understands that player salaries are at the crux of the issue, with Super Rugby clubs looking for justification to their major sponsors as to why their $200,000 All Blacks would play in the Mitre 10 Cup, where they would instead earn $50,000.
Although the picture of what rugby in New Zealand will look like is still unclear, all available domestic rugby options remain viable and on the table.
The outcome that generates the most revenue, however, is likely to stand as the favoured option to be pursued.
“We want to come up with the best thing for New Zealand Rugby and we don’t know what exactly that is yet,” Robinson told the Herald. “If we can focus on what drives the most interest, value and excitement at the back end of the year that will filter down and provide benefits to our stakeholders in time.
“There’s an opportunity to reset and look at some things differently in terms of innovation that might happen in and around the game as well, be they law innovations, the way the game is presented on TV or in stadia. This is also exciting and that’s the benefit of having control of the domestic environment.
“The challenge in all this is we simply don’t know when we can get back on the field.”
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