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‘Super Rugby Aotearoa’ coming, with NZ to ease restrictions

Hurricanes' Gareth Evans makes a break during the round seven Super Rugby match versus the Chiefs at Waikato Stadium in Hamilton (by Michael Bradley/Getty Images)

New Zealand’s Super Rugby teams are to take part in a mini-series, among other sporting restarts, with the country preparing to ease its Covid-19 restrictions on Monday.

The New Zealand government has said professional sport can resume when the country’s alert level changes from three to two, and a decision on that is due Monday.

The BBC reported that New Zealand Rugby chief executive Mark Robinson said the planned series between the nation’s five Super Rugby teams – the Blues, Chiefs, Hurricanes, Crusaders and Highlanders – would involve them playing each other home and away over 10 weeks. There would be two matches per weekend, played behind closed doors.

Robinson said the players would need three to four weeks to prepare, with contact training, before the series could start.

Media reports have dubbed the series ‘Super League Aotearoa’, using the Māori name for New Zealand.

Robinson also said a decision would be made in the next two weeks whether New Zealand would go ahead with hosting scheduled tests in July against Wales and Scotland.

New Zealand’s professional netball league, the ANZ Premiership, is also set to resume.

Robinson said: “Both netball and rugby have been working closely with government agencies on what training and playing at level 2 could look like, and we are incredibly grateful for their support.”

The rugby restart cannot come quick enough for NZR, which has been battered financially by the Covid-19 shutdown. The organisation was yesterday reported by Stuff.co.nz to be making 50 per cent of its staff redundant, and requiring others to reapply for their roles. Staff had already taken a pay cut earlier in the lockdown period.

NZR reported a NZ$7.5m ($4.6m/€4.2m) loss for 2019, and has forecast a worst-case-scenario drop in revenues of NZ$120m for 2020.

Robinson said his organisation was “working through consultation with our people at the moment on that”, and it was “an incredibly challenging time with Covid, with what we’re dealing with right around the country. We’re seeing situations where businesses are in challenging positions and we’re no different with the significant reduction of revenue we’re seeing through the course of the year.”

Australian Associated Press reported that Andy Marinos, the chief executive of Sanzaar, welcomed the return of rugby in New Zealand, saying: “We have known for some time that once the green light is given to recommence playing (in any of our territories) that a revised Super Rugby competition format would have to be implemented.

“This will mean a strong domestic focus in each territory given the travel, border and government restrictions that we will have to adhere to.”

Sanzaar, the grouping of the Southern Hemisphere’s biggest rugby unions which runs Super Rugby, recently refuted reports that the Covid-19 shutdown would presage a break-up of the competition’s current format.

Across the water from New Zealand, Rugby Australia has submitted plans to the Australian government for players to resume training next month, and matches to resume in July.

RA is having a torrid time at the moment, in financial difficulties and experiencing turmoil at executive level. Chief executive Raelene Castle stepped down recently, and board chairman Peter Wiggs left this week after just over a month in his role. The organisation tried and failed to agree a critical new domestic media rights agreement late last year and at the start of this year.

Sky Sports reported that interim chief executive Rob Clarke said a £8.85m ($11m/€10m) rescue package from World Rugby was coming to ease the financial problems: “Clearly, the game is not in a great financial state. I’m confident the World Rugby money is secure and that goes a long way to relieving some immediate financial pressures.”