Photo / Michael Cunningham
The logistics of organising two games under strict government protocol means Northland rugby fans cannot cheer on their team at the ground in its opening Mitre 10 game at Semenoff Stadium this weekend.
Level 2 restrictions have forced the Northland Rugby Union to create six separate bubbles at the stadium to be filled by 600 spectators— a maximum of 100 in each bubble— consisting of life members, donors, and a limited number of season pass holders.
The same groups of people will watch both the Farah Palmer Cup clash between Northland and Auckland as well as the Northland v Manawatu Mitre 10 Cup match tomorrow.
There will be four bubbles in the main grandstand and two in the terraces.
Those not invited will have to rely on Sky Sports which will televise all the Mitre 10 Cup games live throughout the country as it did pre-Covid.
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All Black Jack Goodhue pulls on the Taniwha jersey for the first time since 2016 and forms a lethal combination with Northland's prodigal son, Rene Ranger, in midfield.
After playing against each other in Super Rugby, Goodhue siblings Jack and Josh are in the starting XV while first-five Dan Hawkins and loose forward Kara Pryor are other players making a comeback after plying their trade overseas.
NRU chief executive Cam Bell said he felt for loyal fans who couldn't attend the match but the situation demanded that protocols set by the Government around Covid minimisation be adhered to.
"We were hopeful that just as the Blues saw a massive crowd at their games, we'd be able to hopefully pack Semenoff Stadium but under level 2 protocol, we are limited to creating a bubble of 100 people or less," Bell said.
"Each bubble will have a separate entry and exit points. Entry must be staggered and there must be security so there's no cross contamination. Each bubble must have separate toilet facility and food stalls so logistically, it's a heck of a big task."
Bell said the union has forged a strong partnership with the Whangarei District Council in terms of putting the protocols in place.
In comparison, he said the match between Otago and Auckland in Dunedin last night was played in an empty stadium.
NRU has about 700 season ticket holders who could either request a full refund or use their passes next season, Bell said.
"If we can open the games, we'll absolutely do that. Yes, we'll take a hit financially and hopefully it's just for one game. The connection with our community is our No 1 priority yet here we are in a position where we have to tell them 'Sorry but you are not allowed to come'.
"We are in the hands of our supporters and hope they vote with their feet and come to the next home game in October when we are hopefully in level 1."
The Taniwha mascot will be at the game and fits within the players' bubble.
Northland head coach George Konia said his side has prepared well and is raring to go despite being unable to play any pre-season games due to the lockdown.
This year's squad is a mixture of old and new and the luxury of picking All Black Jack Goodhue — the element of seasoning that has been missing from the Northland dish since 2016 — is as good as it gets.
Likewise, the potential selection of dynamic Aaron Smith and equally talented Jamie Booth of the Hurricanes as halfbacks for the Turbos isn't lost on Konia.
"It's obviously a huge bonus Jack is available and all excited that he's potentially going to be a part of the start of our season but I am also just really excited with the rest of the players that we have in our squad.
"It's going to be a team effort and the boys have been working really hard, are fit, are organised so it's going to be a good gauge for us on Sunday to see where we are.
"Manawatu love playing with the ball. They've got some realistic threats throughout their squad. They are also a young team so we're expecting them to throw the ball around. Also just being mindful of those threats and making sure defensively we're ready to combat them."
Majority of the team is back from last year, including hooker Jordan Olsen who will wear the captain's armband.
Props Luatangi Li and Tyler Kearns and hooker Ben Tou are the debutants.
Combative Tom Robinson and Pryor are the twin flankers, Sam MacNamara will be at the boot of the scrum at No 8, veteran Sam Nock and Hawkins, who'll play his 50th match for Northland, form the halves pair, with Jordan Hyland and Pisi Leilua the twin wingers.
Scott Gregory will man the fullback's berth.
"There's a good balance to our squad this year. There's a lot of experienced players but also some youth and youth brings excitement and energy and we've had a lot of that this year but also need to lean on those experienced players," Konia said.
"We are at a very good level of fitness at the moment and, as you know, if you are fitter you can make better decisions and you can start doing tasks accurately and on a more consistent basis. We also have a big emphasis on the team culture."
He likes this year's Mitre 10 Cup draw and, as in the past few seasons, reaching the playoffs again was the Taniwha's goal this season.
"The saving grace for us at the moment is we don't have many injuries so pretty much everybody is available."