New Zealand Rugby remains confident that a New Zealand-only Super Rugby competition is imminent, despite other governing bodies opting to cancel domestic competitions in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.
With the Super Rugby season suspended for the foreseeable future, NZ Rugby boss Mark Robinson confirmed plans for a local competition featuring the five Kiwi Super Rugby teams, which has been green-lighted by Sanzaar and will likely begin in April.
However, due to the ever-changing environment around the current pandemic – which saw NZR's headquarters in Wellington locked down after an employee presented with concerning symptoms – Robinson said the governing body is taking medical advice and that the proposed competition is still subject to developing events.
"We're taking medical advice on this," he told reporters on Wednesday. "We acknowledge that it's moving day by day, it's a very fluid situation and incredibly dynamic. At this stage, with all the information we have in front of us, we're working on the basis that we think it can be done and should be done."
The latest development around coronavirus has seen most members of the Crusaders and Chiefs self-isolate following Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's suggestion that anyone who has recently returned from overseas travel, even those who returned before the weekend's deadline, should enter self-isolation – likely pushing back any plans for the competition even further.
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Other sporting governing bodies like New Zealand Cricket have opted for a safety-first approach with domestic competitions, announcing on Monday that the last two rounds of the Plunket Shield would be cancelled as a precaution due to "expert medical advice".
While advice from its own medical officer and the Ministry of Health at the time was that the competition could continue, NZ Cricket CEO David White said the decision was made because of concerns about "the heightened risk of transmission in areas such as airports, planes, and hotels".
"The medical advice we're receiving is that we need to take a lead on this matter," White said.
"We're informed the risk is very real; the pace of change is great – and we have a duty of care to not only our staff and players but our communities as well."
NZ Rugby also announced on Tuesday that all club and community rugby would be postponed until April 18.
Robinson is adamant that safety would be the number one priority for the proposed rugby competition and is confident that those concerns were something that NZ Rugby could "work through".
"The reality is now we've got everyone home and now we've got everyone into environments where we can understand their movements and are working with them all closely, we can turn our mind to the future of the business of rugby."
NZ Rugby Players' Association boss Rob Nichol said they are working with NZ Rugby to ensure any proposed competition will address any welfare-related issues around the virus.
"We are working with NZR and the clubs on what is possible depending on various scenarios," Nichol said in a statement to the Herald. "One of those options is the idea of the five teams playing in some form of meaningful competition.
"Any option confirmed would be the result of us all working together, satisfactorily addressing any coronavirus and welfare-related issues that arise, and in consultation with government and Ministry of Health officials to ensure any approach is consistent with what they require to manage this pandemic."
The Kiwi-only Super Rugby competition would be a commercial life-saver for both NZ Rugby and its broadcast partners Sky Television, in which NZ Rugby have a five per cent stake in from their current broadcast deal. The competition would also be a welcome reprieve to sports-starved rugby fans.
For NZ Rugby, balancing that commercial imperative with safety concerns will be crucial in these uncertain times, especially in regards to the imminent announcement of the domestic competition.
"We're like everyone else in terms of running and leading a business at the moment and we're subject to what direction the coronavirus might take," Robinson said. "And we just have to be open and flexible in working through that. So the further directives come that may affect that, we'll have to take that and assess that feedback at the time and follow those protocols.
"Everyone is aligned – first thing first is the safety of people. And everyone that we talk to via commercial partners, the players' association, the players themselves, everyone is aligned that that is the key driver in everything that we do.
"And notwithstanding that, we're all interested in getting rugby back on – on the field and on the screens. Obviously Sky had an interest in that, but so do our players and so do the fans and so does everyone else around the country for that matter.
"But I'll stress again that won't happen if anyone is in harm's way – and everyone understands that."
Eight more cases of Covid-19 were confirmed yesterday, bringing the number of confirmed cases in New Zealand to 20.