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The South African flavour to the opening rounds of Super Rugby Pacific

By Tom Vinicombe
The Highlanders playing the Blues in Queenstown. (Photo by Michael Thomas/Photosport)

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This weekend, the six New Zealand-based Super Rugby squads will head to Queenstown as a means of ensuring the opening rounds of the inaugural Pacific season can go ahead as planned.

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It’s a disruption that’s become almost expected under the shadow of Covid-19, which coaches, players, fans and tournament organisers have become accustomed to over the last two years, it’s still an unwanted turn of events.

Instead of games being played in front of packed home stadiums, the bulk of the opening matches will take place with artificial noise pumped over the speakers to try and maintain the atmosphere of a proper live match.

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It also means players will again be required to operate at the height of their abilities despite not being able to see friends and family for a not inconsiderable period of time – a repeat of what the All Blacks had to endure last season (though hopefully not for anywhere near as long a period of time), as well as Waikato during the second half of the NPC.

That’s going to make the first few weeks hardgoing for some players – but it could also prove beneficial in the long run.

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“We’ve spoken a lot about it,” said Chiefs coach Clayton McMillan last week. “Everybody would prefer to be living in a world where we had crowds and we were able to play at home in front of our loyal fans but unfortunately that’s not how the world rolls at the moment. You’ve just got to be adaptable and you’ve just got to do what’s necessary to get rugby played.

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“Most of our guys are excited about the opportunity. A lot of them have talked about tours to South Africa in years gone by when you get away early and it’s a great bonding opportunity and that can potentially set you up for the rest of the season. That’s our sort of mindset.”

While trips to the Republic were once a rite of passage for youngsters, South Africa’s departure from Super Rugby means the closest things most players will get to any sort of tour moving forward is spending a couple of weeks in Australia in a row, but even that seems unlikely – the only instance of that originally scheduled for this year was when NZ teams played in Australia either side of the ‘Super Round’ in Melbourne, but there’s no guarantee that teams wouldn’t have returned home to NZ mid-week regardless.

As such, the trip to Queenstown will provide a similar sort of “bonding opportunity” for all involved – even if it doesn’t boast the same kind of excitement as overseas travel.

It’s something the Chiefs have already experienced after they were forced to spend their last three games of last season in Australia due to Covid.

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“It’s amazing what a little bit of travel across the ditch can do just to reinvirograte you, add a little injection of enthusiasm,” McMillan told RugbyPass at the end of the campaign. “When you travel away, it gives you the opportunity to do things a little bit different. You can’t often keep the same routines as what you do at home so just that change in itself was quite re-invigorating.

“To get away on tour, be living in each other’s pockets for a week or two – for me, that’s the beauty of rugby. Being able to travel, the people you meet, experiences, that’s what you remember. At the end of the day when the music’s over, money comes and goes but the friendships and the experiences are what you remember.”

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McMillan compared the situation to the All Blacks’ plight, with the team leaving NZ in September and not returning home until late November.

“Being away for three or four months, that’s tough, right? If you’re a single guy going over there and you get three square meals a day, gym, you’re living the dream, but a lot of those guys are family men and they’ll find that tough. And I’m sure they’ll have their moments where they really battle with that sort of level of isolation being away from family and friends for so long.

“But in the long run, what they’ll get out of that, the bonds they’ll make, the depth of the relationships that they’ll build, it’s really pretty unique. Not many teams are going to get that opportunity too many times … I reckon they’re going to get a hell of a lot of reward out of that in the long run, just from having that amount of time together and facing all of the challenges together, that’s gonna really bond and unify them to a whole new level, I reckon.”

While neither the Chiefs, nor any other Super Rugby side, will be spending months away from home at a time (touch wood), their time together on ‘tour’ to Queenstown should prove beneficial further down the track – even if it’s not the ideal situation.

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