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The lockdown and the shape of club rugby this year?

  • By Scott MacLean

Normally in this space every week during the season you’ll find my weekly preview. Today would be the third installment, with six of the 14 Premier sides about to run out on their home field for the first time this year and a picture starting to build of the pecking order. The Women’s and Colts competitions would be getting underway as well.

But as we know, these aren’t normal times. All rugby has been on hiatus since NZR hit pause back on March 17, and with a Government-ordered national lockdown in place to try and contain the global Covid-19 virus outbreak the immediate decision as to when rugby can even resume is out of the hands of NZR, much less the humble Wellington Union.

Already the Heartland Championship, Jock Hobbs U19 Tournament, and the representative regional and national 7’s tournaments – which combined cost NZR about $25m to run each year plus the individual contributions each union makes – have been cancelled for this cycle. The knock-on effect has already started as well, with the Hurricanes Youth Council also cancelling their provincial representative programme for 2020.

Rugby, in some shape, has been played in the capital for over 150 years dating back to before the formation of the Wellington club in 1870, and organised competition has existed since the union’s formation in 1879 with Athletic winning the first championship the following year. Bar 1881 when the championship wasn’t played, every season since has seen matches played and a champion crowned despite economic depressions, two World Wars, and – relevant to today – the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918-19 when Poneke were champions in both years.

The most common question I’ve been asked in the past two weeks has been what shape the season will take once the green light is given to resume. Currently the Premier season is programmed for a 19-week period – 10 weeks of the Swindale Shield, 7 for the Jubilee and Hardham round-robins, and two for the playoffs – ending on the last weekend of July, in order to give space ahead of the representative season headed by the Mitre 10 and Farah Palmer Cups. Some lower grades – chiefly the Under 85s and Reserve Grade competitions – finish after this date, and college rugby both starts and finishes later than club, but they also will be affected.

As things stand, the national 4-week lockdown combined with the initial decision to suspend rugby ahead of the opening round means that five weeks have already been wiped off the year. The earliest – as of today – that rugby activities could resume is April 23, but with the first Saturday following being Anzac Day and teams having been unable to train as a group during lockdown, some form of a reset preseason would be required. That would push a start date for competition into either the 9th or 16th of May, leaving a 12 or 11-week window for club rugby.

Potentially in that time you could run a competition with the Swindale in two pools moving into a seeded knockout format for the Jubilee and Hardham Cups.

However it goes without saying that the longer this goes on, the more that date gets pushed back.

The other unknown is the status at this time of both the Mitre 10 and Farah Palmer Cups, which remain on the schedule pending further decisions from NZR HQ. The national body would obviously prefer to run these given the much-needed TV revenue they bring in, but they too may be in an abbreviated form that could start later. That in turn would extend the window that club rugby could be played, possibly allowing the season to push later into August and even September. Such a possibility could allow for more games at club level, but it all comes back to the point at which the season starts.

Another strong possibility is that club and representative overlap. Such a scenario would obviously affect some clubs more than others, though that is counter-balanced by the fact that the bulk of the first-choice Lions side are already in Super Rugby environments and largely removed from the club game and All Blacks would presumably all be involved in the NPC too. It would though have a far greater impact on the Women’s game so avoiding an overlap there would likely be in the best interests of all parties.

The undeniable truth though is that we really don’t know when rugby will start in 2020, and we must also consider the possibility that the 2020 club season is wiped out entirely.

And the consequences of that are at last as uncharted as were we sit now.

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