ANY GIVEN MONDAY
There's an awesome responsibility on the shoulders of New Zealand's Super Rugby teams as they prepare to return to action. Probably more than even they realise.
Part of it comes with the "privilege" of being one of the first professional leagues to resurface as Covid-19 continues to wreak havoc across the globe.
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Korean baseball is off and running, as is the football championship in the Faroe Islands, but the NRL and Super Rugby Aotearoa will be the first contact-sport professional leagues to restart.
Many remain sceptical that this can be done safely and sensibly. It goes without saying they have to get the health and safety aspect of it spot on. Should a cluster of positive coronavirus tests emerge among the players, it will prove damning for the sports' administrations. They will be accused of putting greed ahead of principle. Lawsuits will inevitably follow.
Safety has to be the first priority. But then there's this not insignificant point…
It has to be really good.
"Good" doesn't really cover it. It has to be entertaining.
There's no doubt that week one of Super Rugby Aotearoa will be massively popular if for no other reason than the novelty value.
If the rugby is bad, however, it could prove to be counter-productive. It's more damaging if people start switching off on their own accord, rather than being forced to. They're much harder to get back.
As much as sport has been missed by the fanatic, there is a fear that casual fans have become used to its absence. They'll need some cajoling to engage in the sort of ways that administrators like, which is opening their wallets to buy replica jerseys, cable-TV subscriptions and, when the government allows, tickets to the ground.
It's up to the Blues, Chiefs, Crusaders, Hurricanes and even the Highlanders to convince them to come back.
It won't be easy. In many ways, the odds are stacked against them.
The players will be rusty. The circadian rhythms of their season have been knocked about.
It's also a slightly surreal competition. What are they playing for exactly – a title that comes with a grapefruit-sized asterisk? You imagine that competitive instinct will kick in they will play with the usual ferocity but you couldn't blame them if they wondered what exactly they were breaking themselves in two for.
The biggest barrier to it becoming a compelling product, however, will be the lack of a crowd. Sure, you can insert your own joke here about the Blues and Hurricanes being used to playing in big stadiums with no people, but even a smattering of folk elevates the drama.
Watching the Black Caps play Australia in front of no people at the Sydney Cricket Ground was a great example of how crowds are more than spectators – they are a very real part of the spectacle of live sport. There are other reasons why that particular match sucked pus, but the lack of the crowd was the most obvious one.
The players were unanimous in chalking the experience down as one they did not want to repeat.
The Super Rugby players won't have that luxury. They'll have to reach deep into the well of intrinsic motivation, week after week.
Their sport needs them. Rugby needs them to be healthy… and brilliant.
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