Auckland's 1A First XV competition is, once again, hanging in the balance. Can it continue in the face of the new Covid-19 outbreak and should it? Reuben Mama talks to some of the league's key players.
Many of Auckland's top high school rugby players and coaches were last week stunned to hear, on short notice, that their seasons were set to immediately stall.
The government announcement that Auckland would move into Covid-19 alert level 3 restrictions for 12 days brought with it a familiar feeling of dread.
When the virus first disrupted New Zealand's day-to-day cycle earlier in the year there were fears Auckland's 1A First XV competition might not eventuate amid so much uncertainty.
But there have now been five completed rounds, in what's developed into one of the closest 1A campaigns in history.
The competition will be eagerly awaiting any government updates on the ability to restart the season, which has already lost a further two weeks of play.
Auckland Grammar School hold a two point lead atop the competition ladder, while there are just three points separating first and fifth.
Auckland Grammar assistant coach Dave Askew says everyone involved was caught by surprise when the level 3 announcement was made, but through internal meetings they've continued to take heart from the value of gratefulness which was instilled during the first lockdown the team had to endure.
"Our first XV players looked around the likes of our rowers and other sports who were unable to go to their pinnacle event and we thought how lucky are we that we've actually still been able to get into a season, all be it a truncated one, but we can still look forward to having that in front of us," said Askew.
"Then, of course, we get the alert to go back to level 3 and the reality of did we just play our last games comes to the forefront of your thinking. We certainly hope not, but that's the reality and thankfully we had the approach that we have to make the most of each game as you don't know whether the next one's going to be there for you or not.
Auckland Grammar are being forced to improvise with individual training methods while players are away from the team environment, but Askew understands the need to be flexible as every student's situation is different.
"We've tried to be really understanding with different approaches for different boys. Some will have 100 metres of flat road they can go and use and go up and down and others won't as they'll be in apartment-style living.
"We've essentially said something's better than nothing, here are some ideas, be creative and collaborate with each other and borrow ideas from those people that seem to be coping better or doing it a different way. Hopefully that helps them navigate through the time period they're in."
Askew says as they continue to play the waiting game, the old cliché of controlling the controllables is an important one to adhere to.
"When the discussions start to take place around what the remaining weeks look like from a competition point of view all you want is a fair approach for all, regardless of where you're sitting on the table. You want it to be fair and you don't want to have lost the five games that you have committed to because when you talk to young people about why they play sport, a lot of them talk about meaningful competition and that's what we've had this year.
"We've had a tightly contested five rounds which I think has been fantastic and I think it's a great example of what can be achieved when we've got the competition to the place we have now so we want the work done so far to be part of the discussion and then whatever happens from there is going to be a difficult complicated process because I don't think there's any straight forward answer," Askew said.
For defending champions King's College, another season suspension has come as a big shock, but they're trying to remain positive.
King's are sitting second on the ladder, after losing to Auckland Grammar the weekend before the season was paused.
Head of rugby Scott Palmer says, in terms of a rugby and the physical side, it's about providing students with a means to continue training whatever the environment they're in.
"We're just trying to keep them in tune around a time frame with this and just keeping them in a positive mindset that we think we will be getting more rugby and it's about keeping a good mind-set and staying in good condition physically so when we come out of it we're not too far away from where we need to be if we've only got a week until we're going to be back into another game," Palmer said.
Palmer would love to see someone be able to call themselves champions and for as many games to be played as possible.
"There's going to be lots to take into account in order to finish the season, obviously there'll be restrictions when we do head to level 2 around crowd capacity and contact tracing, but the biggest thing is based on the draw we'll probably have six games played over four weeks which is going to be a tough ask so it might be about looking at what alternatives are available to get a finish to the season and try and have a worthy winner because nobody wants to see it just end as it is," Palmer said.
If the powers that be can't come up with a worthy solution for the competition, Palmer's got his own idea.
"The holders can just keep the title and we'll see it tick over to 2021. Nah, I'm just kidding." Palmer laughs.
St Peter's College
St Peter's College are title contenders and sit fourth, two points behind Grammar.
St Peter's coach Dave Thomas says there was a mixture of shock and disappointment around the camp, especially as they'd begun preparations for one of their biggest games of the season.
"We were starting to find our feet as a team and we had a massive week ahead of us last week with a clash on Sky TV against St Kentigern College, so it's quite gut wrenching for the boys as it was something they'd been building towards and looking forward to, and then you add the TV factor as well and it always lifts the environment and the week," Thomas said.
When the team returned to training after the first lockdown they spoke widely about appreciating the chance to play and how quickly it can be taken away from them.
Thomas admits it's a bit ironic they're in the exact same position again after five rounds of play, but this time they've learnt from an individual training perspective.
"The previous lockdown there were some teething issues around our training plan and keeping the boys motivated and working hard, so this second one has been a lot smoother and easier and we're using the same resources and avenues to communicate with the boys and keep them physically active, but the uncertainty around the competition is quite mentally draining for the boys.
"They literally don't know where they stand and especially for those Year 13s who have been working towards this year or for some it's their only opportunity in the first XV so to have that hanging over your head that the season's potentially done or heavily impacted isn't a nice feeling. Trying to keep them motivated isn't easy that's for sure." Thomas added.
Thomas is encouraging his players to prepare as if they will take the field again soon, even though the decision's out of their hands.
"The competition's extremely tight, as it should be, and that's an exciting thing in itself, so it would be a shame to not let that play out and see what happens there. Rugby's a big part of the young boys' lives and for a lot of them it provides a sense of belonging and is something they thrive off, so to potentially take that away from them too there could be knock on affects around school work in a negative way.
While the top schools are all hoping they'll still get to challenge for the title, Aorere College just want a chance to continue fighting for 1A survival.
Aorere are ninth on the competition ladder with nine points, while Tangaroa College and Dilworth School are 10th and 11th place respectively, with four points, and Liston College are bottom on two.
For the teams near the bottom, every competition point is vital and Aorere coach David Osofua says his quest to reinstill pride into the jersey and belief within his players had taken a massive leap forward during their 47-30 loss to St Peter's College before the level 3 announcement.
"We pushed them right to the end with 14 players for the majority of the game. Normally they would drop their heads after a loss, but they sensed a bit of belief that they can match it with these schools, so heading into last week's scheduled Dilworth School game we were feeling really confident and now we're back to lockdown. It's a frustrating time for everyone as it stops a lot of momentum and it's pretty difficult," Osofua said.
Individual skills and fitness are the main focal points for Aorere's players, however, Osofua says a lack of resources is making some lockdown goals incredibly difficult to achieve.
"The boys are messaging for me to distribute some rugby balls out to them, but there's no more because I've distributed all the rugby balls we have available. It's just really challenging to try to get out there and see what I can offer them or see what the school can offer, but the lack of resources makes it difficult," Osofua explains.
If a lack of rugby balls didn't make things challenging enough, Osofua expects delicious temptations while the students are pounding the pavement could be the biggest conditioning barrier.
It's really tough, in south Auckland there's a takeaway and a bakery every corner you go to so that doesn't really help," Osofua laughs.
As the wait for direction over the future of the season continues, Osofua would just be grateful to be able to coach and for his players to play rugby again in 2020.
"It would be a shame to see the season not go ahead, but I don't see that happening unless everyone does their job and stays in their bubble. I wouldn't know how to explain it if the season didn't resume, the boys have worked too hard for it to finish now and we want to build into next year and I need the season to progress so we can build on the belief instilled this year."