Both of Northland's premier women's rugby semifinals were abandoned over the weekend, with one being cancelled only hours before kick-off.
The first semifinal, between City and Kaikohe, was supposed to be played on Friday at 7pm in Kaikohe. At 3.30pm, three and a half hours before kick-off was scheduled, City decided to default the game.
This comes after the Northern Advocate reported on Saturday the other semifinal set for Sunday between Te Rarawa and Hora Hora had been defaulted because the two teams who played the preliminary semifinal (Hora Hora and Kamo Hawks) had broken rule 4.7 of section four in the Northland Rugby Union's (NRU) senior women's rugby competition rulebook.
Rule 4.7 states a player must be seen as a regular member of a team within that club and must have played three games for that team in the 2019 season before the semifinals, with exceptions being made for teams who are defaulted on and injured players (provided they supply a medical certificate).
On Friday at 9.19am, Northland Rugby's community rugby manager Clark Lewis sent an email to City and Kaikohe coaches asking for their team-sheets to ensure Friday night's game featured no players who violated the three-game rule.
As a result, City premier women's coach Marcelle Kaipo said he engaged in talks with the Northland Rugby Union (NRU) as City only had 16 fit and eligible players for the semifinal, including two injured players (one of who had had surgery nine days prior).
Kaipo said he had not wanted to play his two injured players for their own safety and asked the NRU if he would be able to play with 14 players. NRU women's competition rule 11.5 states, "where a team is unable to provide 15 players (including three trained front rowers) to start the match, this team shall forfeit the match and the competition points".
Having to decide between risking the health of his players or spending $200 on vans to travel to and from Kaikohe for a friendly game, Kaipo decided to pull out of the fixture.
"It's probably one the hardest calls I've ever had to make, pulling the plug on the game," Kaipo said.
"I am just as competitive as anyone and to lose off the field instead of on it is a bitter pill to take and that goes for all our women."
Kaipo questioned the NRU's decision to enforce the "15-players to start" rule when he had seen multiple teams play with less than 15 throughout the season.
He also queried the timing of these discussions which took place just hours before the game was meant to be played.
"Rules are rules and they are there to keep everyone safe but in a situation like this, they want to grow the game and the best way forward would have been to pull together 14 [players] in the semifinal," Kaipo said.
"Our women trained on Thursday night to put our best foot forward for the semifinal and to have [rule 11.5] enforced on us on Friday afternoon, three to four hours before we kick off, didn't give us any time to adjust."
Kaipo said he would have been open to forming an alternative arrangement with members of other clubs to ensure the game went ahead, had the discussion with the NRU happened sooner.
One reason City's squad was so thin was due to the three-game rule (4.7), which made a number of players ineligible for the semifinal. The same rule applies to the senior men's rugby competition, where 10 teams play 14 regular season games. In the women's competition, teams played just six rounds with one team playing as few as four games.
Kaipo said the three-game rule wasn't helpful and showed the difference between the men's and women's competitions.
"If you don't play three [games], then that's you for the season, so rules are made to keep everyone safe but I feel with the way the draw is set up, the rule shouldn't really apply.
"If I have to chose between a trophy and these women, who are providing for their family, I will choose them."
Despite his concerns, Kaipo added that he was appreciative of all the NRU had done for the women's rugby competition and hoped it could grow in the coming years.
With the default, this was Kaikohe's fourth weekend without a game after a bye and three defaults, one from Marist OB and two from City. Kaipo said he understood any frustration on Kaikohe's part but reasoned he was making a decision which kept his players safe.
Kaikohe coach Cheryl Smith said City's decision left a sour taste in her mouth after her team's recent lack of games.
"For me, with all the defaults we've had, I wasn't impressed with City, that they could front up a team for [the preliminary semifinal] and not semifinals," she said.
Smith said even though she understood City's reasoning, it was a bad result for her squad of about 30 who turned up to training every week.
"The girls just want to play and now we are at the business end, it's very frustrating."
However, Smith also queried NRU's decision to email clubs on the morning of the game as opposed to earlier in the week.
"NRU should have sent that out on Monday, not in the eleventh hour.
"I think that was pretty rough, even if it is stated in the rules, why wait until Friday?"
Smith, who is set to coach Northland in its maiden Farah Palmer Cup campaign this year, said it was disappointing to see teams default as it reduced the number of opportunities to showcase the region's rugby talent.
NRU's community rugby manager Clark Lewis preferred not to comment. NRU women's rugby development manager Scott Collins was not available for comment before deadline.
In the NRU competitions rule 11.1, it states, "defaults in these competitions are not acceptable... Any club defaulting two games in a season (excluding extenuating circumstances) will be excluded from the remainder of the competition and automatically relegated".
Te Rarawa and Kaikohe are scheduled to play the final at 12.30pm on Saturday at the Te Rarawa Rugby Club.