Picture: 123RF/WAVEBREAK MEDIA
Picture: 123RF/WAVEBREAK MEDIA

Wellington — New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams will play each other in a 10-week domestic competition from June 13, bringing comfort to “Kiwis doing it tough” and inspiring a sports world brought to a standstill by the Covid-19 pandemic.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) made the announcement on Monday after the government confirmed it would take its alert level down a notch from Thursday, with the rate of new coronavirus infections having slowed to a trickle.

New Zealand is the first major rugby nation to announce a restart to competition since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus shredded the global sports calendar in March.

“It’s obviously fantastic news for the game right across the country,” the CEO of NZR, Mark Robinson, told reporters in a video call on Monday. “It’s been a challenging time right around the country, so if this acts in any way to provide leadership and hope and some inspiration to Kiwis that are doing it tough, it will be fantastic.

“I think a lot of people around the world are obviously watching us and being in touch around how we’re approaching it … not only for New Zealand but right around the sporting world. So it’s critical we do it well.”

“Doing it well” will mean teams flying in and out on chartered planes on match days and playing at closed stadiums until authorities are willing to allow spectators back into venues.

Players will be checked daily for symptoms and asked to be even stricter on themselves than the country’s level 2 alert regime that permits people to travel, eat at cafes and go to cinemas from Thursday.

“So we are holding them to a slightly higher standard than the general public,” NZR acting medical adviser Deb Robinson told reporters. “Because we really, really want this competition to go well and they really want to play.”

The competition has been endorsed by Super Rugby’s governing body Sanzaar but will have no bearing on the wider tournament that also includes teams from Australia, SA, Argentina and Japan.

Super Rugby was suspended in March after seven rounds and may not resume in 2020 due to travel curbs and border controls.

The New Zealand competition will be broadcast live by Sky Sport, with two matches held on Saturdays at 5.05pm local time (7.07am SA time) and two more on Sundays at 3.05pm (5.05am SA time).

In the opening weekend, the Highlanders will host the Chiefs in Dunedin, with the Blues at home to the Hurricanes on the Sunday.

Defending Super Rugby champions the Crusaders will have a bye in the first week. Players will have a month to get fit for the hastily arranged tournament, with Robinson not even sure if it would have a winner’s trophy.

NZR said the country’s annual provincial competition, the Mitre 10 Cup, would start with a full 14-team championship from September 11.

However, the international schedule remains up in the air. The All Blacks’ July Tests against Wales and Scotland are in doubt, along with the southern hemisphere’s annual Rugby Championship, which starts in August.

Robinson said NZR was still working out scheduling for resuming women’s competition, including internationals.

Reuters