NZ Rugby World
THE ONE THING EVERYONE IS MOST DESPERATE
FOR is certainty. And it is the one thing that can’t be given at the moment as no one is able to peer into that crystal ball and determine what the next two months look like yet alone the next two years.
It’s hardly ideal. It’s barely manageable even and hardly practical for professional rugby to find itself in this world of unknowns and ever-changing circumstances.
But it is the landscape we have and the landscape we are likely to have until there is some kind of material change in the world’s sense of how to manage Covid-19.
Uncertainty is the new normal and that has left the professional game here having to plan and prepare for multiple eventualities but essentially always remain focused and prepared for the worst case scenario.
Specifically that means that New Zealand is having to accept that however much they might want to see a 10-team Super Rugby competition next year featuring four Australian teams and one from the Pacific Islands, that may be too hard to pull off next year.
That might have to be the longer-term vision – the plan for 2022 and even then, that will no doubt evolve.
For 2021, New Zealand has to be prepared to accept that it still may not be possible to fly in and out of the country with the sort of ease required for Super Rugby to be a genuine cross-border competition.
While things have changed rapidly in the last eight months since Covid-19 hit, it is hard to envision that the border will be open and the flow of human traffic will be easy and without significant bureaucratic requirements.
In all likelihood, by the time Super Rugby is ready to kick off in early March next year, compulsory quarantine is still likely to be with us.
The prospect of a trans-Tasman travel bubble, which was within sight in July, has all but disappeared and right now everyone has to be thinking that the competition will once again have to be domestic-only.
Which throws up a few questions, such as whether more of the same is sustainable? And that doesn’t just mean financially, although that is obviously an important question in regard to Super Rugby Aotearoa.
If five New Zealand teams are all we have next year, will it engage fans to the same extent?
What was novel this year may feel a bit tired in 12 months. Crowds might drift off, SkyTV may have to review the reported $450m five-year deal it has made and sponsors will be wondering if they are getting the same bang for their buck.
The financial question is important but the bigger worry is the potential human cost.
The intensity of Super Rugby Aotearoa was what made it so compelling but it took a physical and mental toll on the players.
They were asked to constantly play games that weren’t far off test match ferocity and while the season was short, it still damaged plenty given the list of players who were unavailable for the North Island versus South Island clash.
The message delivered by the players was also consistent – that it would be a struggle to commit to this format again without there being more rest weeks.
There is a difficult balance to be struck next year where somehow the players are better protected yet there are more high intensity games to create more content, wealth and interest.
What we may end up seeing then is Super Rugby Aotearoa kick off in March with the same five teams, playing each other twice but with more rest weekends and also a final.
It’s possible that by the time Super Rugby Aotearoa has finished, travel restrictions may have eased and that could pave the way for a champions-league-style play-off, featuring the best from New Zealand,
Australia, South Africa and Japan.
It’s possible to imagine such a format holding great fan appeal, being lucrative and most importantly, being logistically possible.
It doesn’t need to be planned and mapped out in the next few weeks, but could be something that is worked on in the background, hoping that conditions prevail to make it possible.
And this is largely the case for test match planning next year as well. There’s no ability to plot it all out and commit to anything.
But there is time to sit back and see how things evolve at the border and around the world and adjust the thinking accordingly.
Hopefully by July next year it will be a case of rebuilding the programmes that were already in place – the All Blacks playing three tests at home in July, followed by the Rugby Championship then a tour to Europe.
By March next year it should be a little more certain as to whether that will work but that’s the problem at the moment, we are dealing with should and maybe and the uncertainty is a killer.