New Zealand Rugby's plea to the government to allow three Auckland provincial teams to leave the Supercity and train in Taupō ahead of a return to the National Provincial Championship has been rejected.
The exemption case dismissal from the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment (MBIE) has also all but ended the participation of the three Auckland women's teams in the Farah Palmer Cup and comes only a day after four Silver Ferns players - captain Gina Crampton, vice-captain Sulu Fitzpatrick, Peta Toeava and Grace Nweke – were granted an exemption to leave the city in alert level 4 lockdown for Christchurch for the three-test series against England, starting on Monday.
Last week the Herald revealed NZR's proposal for Auckland, Counties Manukau and North Harbour to travel to Taupō's Wairakei Resort and train there in separate, secure bubbles for one week until alert levels are reduced enough for them to host games.
The request was for teams to travel only once Auckland moved down to alert level 3, which could happen as early as Tuesday.
As part of the proposal all players would be double-vaccinated; agree to return negative Covid-19 tests before leaving, and would be tested on days three and seven in Taupō.
As it stands, those teams have been unable to train since August 18, severely threatening their participation in the NPC which resumes outside Auckland tonight when Waikato host Canterbury in Hamilton.
In correspondence seen by the Herald, NZR's request was rejected by MBIE as it "either does not appear to meet the criteria for travel in the category you selected" or "required an exemption from the Director-General of Health, and he has declined it".
NZR are understood to be seeking further clarity on the reasons for their application being declined and assessing the options for the NPC.
The rejection brings major ramifications for the Auckland teams, and it is understood that it would end the participation of the three Auckland women's teams in the Farah Palmer Cup.
Before the cancellation of matches due to the latest lockdown, the Auckland Storm were third in the Premiership competition with three wins from four games while Counties Manukau are fourth. North Harbour sit third in the Championship.
The rescheduled final is set for October 10.
For the men's NPC, due to tight time constraints, Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau's participation may now be contingent on the competition featuring no semifinals or a final.
Under NZR's collective agreement, the NPC must be concluded by November 27 in order to give all players a four-week break before Super Rugby Pacific preseason games begin.
The Herald understands the following timeline has been drafted for Auckland, Counties and North Harbour to rejoin the NPC. If these deadlines are not met, the three teams may not feature in the competition which would leave questions around their $1 million wage bills.
With a lack of time to get back to match fitness once squads are allowed to train together again, it is no longer possible for Auckland, Counties or North Harbour to enter the NPC on the weekend of October 2. To re-enter the NPC on the weekend of October 9 those teams need:
* Auckland to move to alert level 3 by Wednesday, September 22
* To move to alert level 2 by Wednesday, September 29
Additionally, to potentially re-enter on October 16, Auckland would need to be at alert level 2 on October 6 and the competition may need to be round-robin only, with no semifinal or final.
Friday's rejection follows six players across five NPC squads being removed after NZR was alerted to errors in their applications for a travel exemption.
The six players travelled separately from Auckland to Wellington, Hawke's Bay, Manawatū, Bay of Plenty and Northland to join their NPC squads over the past six to 10 days after being granted a travel exemption via an online application process managed by their provincial unions.
The Herald understands NZ Rugby may attempt to launch another exemption that allows teams to train in Auckland under level 3 restrictions but, based on this rejection, there appears little hope that will be granted.