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Snowballing list of postponed fixtures might force Super Rugby Pacific rethink

By Tom Vinicombe
Samuel Slade. (Original photo by Joe Allison/Getty Images)

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For the third time this season, Moana Pasifika have had a match called off due to Covid – and it’s starting to become increasingly difficult to envisage a situation where the ever-increasing number of postponed games can all be rescheduled to later in the year.

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Moana Pasifika, the competition’s newest entrant, have managed just one fixture over the opening four weeks of the competition. With each team assigned just one solitary bye week throughout the season, the Pacific Islands side would need to play at least two mid-week matches to make up for the lost rounds of action.

The addition of a sixth franchise based in New Zealand has already had an impact on the five existing franchises’ depth.

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“It is an issue. I think it’s an issue. It’s definitely tougher,” Blues coach Leon MacDonald told media regarding filling out wider squads for the 2022 season.

“The depth of our players is just getting less and less and less. Moana’s obviously come in and, ultimately, there’s a lot of players from the New Zealand system that have ended up with them.

“We’ve got an American league that’s started up and they’re pulling a lot of players [from] the NPC, and obviously we’ve got the traditional rivals with Japan and Europe, who have been taking players for a long time.”

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Teams have always had to dig deep into their player stocks throughout Super Rugby seasons of the past, with the Chiefs calling up 46 players last season. With the addition of Moana Pasifika, those players on the edges of professional rugby, who have already cut their teeth in provincial competitions but missed out on full-time contracts with Super Rugby sides, are now few and bar between and if any team had to use as many players as the Chiefs did last year, they’d be utilising men much further down the totem pole.

While Moana Pasifika’s opening two games were called off due to Covid within their squad, the latest postponement is due to an outbreak at the Hurricanes. Even with New Zealand’s rule changes regarding Covid, which require only households contacts of confirmed cases to isolate, not simply ‘close contacts’, the Hurricanes reportedly still have upwards of 20 players available for the fixture.

If that’s enough players ruled out of a matchday selection to justify the postponement of a fixture then it will be difficult for New Zealand Rugby to justify playing three matches over the space of 14 days later in the season when Moana Pasifika’s uncompleted games fall due. Even top sides like the Chiefs and Blues will struggle with such an occasion but given the relative thrashing the Chiefs handed out to Moana during the pre-season, it’s impossible to envisage anything other than a bloodbath.

Given the high numbers of cases within the Hurricanes squad – and given what happened to Moana Pasifika earlier in the season – there’s a very good chance that the Hurricanes won’t be able to play next weekend either, when they’re scheduled to face the Chiefs in Wellington, further adding to the list of matches that need to be fitted into the calendar.

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Following the postponement of this weekend’s fixture, New Zealand Rugby’s Chris Lendrum suggested that a solution could be shortly forthcoming.

“We are very close to confirming the rescheduling of Moana Pasifika’s previous two postponed matches against the Blues and Chiefs and are confident we can also reschedule the Hurricanes match later in the season,” he said.

Despite that, it’s difficult to picture a solution that suits all and sundry.

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Super Rugby Pacific has a hard end date set for early June – there’s little chance the competition can be extended. As such, with little chance that the various called-off games can all be completed in time for the tournament finals, there’s a very real chance that postponed matches will be retroactively cancelled altogether and points dished out accordingly – likely based on which team was afflicted by Covid at the time of the match. That’s the fairest way of deciding matches – even if teams aren’t in any way at fault for Covid outbreaks. It would be considerably less fair to postpone some early matches and cancel others that occur later in the season if the root cause remains the same.

From here on, New Zealand Rugby should be looking for the best method to ensure the competition can be carried out with as much integrity as possible, and that might mean biting the bullet and sending the NZ sides over to Australia to play out the rest of the season.

It’s a move that might not prove popular with the players, who are probably well and truly sick and tired of living out of suitcases, but it’s likely the only way of ensuring Super Rugby Pacific can continue as scheduled.

The decision to relocate the six franchises to Queenstown for the early part of the season is now starting to look like a stroke of genius, but the decision to leave the bubble has undone any of the benefits that came from keeping the teams all in one environment.

With Covid considerably less prevalent in Australia at present (as a percentage of the population), that appears to be the safest place to carry out the rest of the tournament – at least until the outbreak in New Zealand slows.

Either way, it’s looking unlikely that any significant number of fans will be able to attend matches in the next month or two, further justifying a move across the Tasman Sea.

One way or another, the current Super Rugby Pacific season is going to be compromised. It’s now time for NZR to make a call on how that impacts the competition’s integrity as a whole.

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