New Zealand Rugby to completely remodel Super Rugby Pacific's draw. Liam Napier reports.
Super Rugby Pacific's inaugural season has been overhauled in the wake of ongoing Covid challenges and border changes, with local derbies in New Zealand and Australia set to feature through to April.
New Zealand Rugby had little choice but to completely remodel Super Rugby Pacific's draw by frontloading local derbies, with the five Australian teams and new entrants the Fijian Drua unable to enter the country without undergoing MIQ.
The only other alternative was to base all 12 teams in Australia but as cases of the Covid-19 Omicron variant soar in Sydney (over 3000 on Wednesday) in particular, that was an increasingly risky prospect for New Zealand players who would have little assurance about when they could return home.
The Herald understands the rejigged draw – set to be revealed in full on Thursday – will see Moana Pasifika host the Blues in the opening match at Mt Smart Stadium on Friday, February 18.
Moana Pasifika, in their debut season, were originally scheduled to play the Brumbies at Mt Smart, while the Blues were to host the Drua in their opening game at Eden Park.
A series of derbies against New Zealand teams promises to provide an immediately brutal examination for Moana Pasifika, who will have five weeks to prepare their inaugural squad.
The start of Super Rugby Pacific will effectively mirror this year's Aotearoa and Australian domestic competitions, with Moana Pasifika joining the five established New Zealand teams and the Drua linking with the Australian sides.
Local derbies will feature through to the weekend of April 22, at which point organisers remain hopeful the Covid landscape improves enough to allow transtasman travel.
New Zealand's border is slated to open to vaccinated non-Kiwis at the end of April, but as Omicron cases rise in Australia the goalposts on travel constantly shift.
The latest change arrived on Tuesday when the Government announced plans to allow fully vaccinated Kiwis and residents to enter the country from Australia, without requiring managed isolation, had been pushed back from mid-January until at least the end of February.
Despite the increasingly uncertain landscape, April 22-24 is scheduled to kickstart the transtasman component of the Super Rugby Pacific draw with the 'super round' where the 12 teams will play all matches in Melbourne over one weekend. That was originally supposed to be played in round two, at the end of February.
Five rounds of transtasman matches are scheduled to follow the weekend in Melbourne, culminating in quarter-finals, semifinals and the finale on June 18.
At this point, though, there are no guarantees Super Rugby Pacific's maiden season will contain any transtasman element - such is the havoc Covid continues to wreak on all sporting codes.
The Wellington Phoenix and New Zealand Breakers are also likely resigned to playing the rest of their seasons in Australia.
The Phoenix said Tuesday's decision from the government doesn't really affect the big picture for the club next year.
"In effect, while yesterday's announcement doesn't sound promising, it doesn't actually on the face of it change too much because we still require an exemption from the Government to play games here," said a club spokesperson.
The Phoenix, along with the Warriors, New Zealand Rugby and the Breakers, continue to work with Sport New Zealand to try and facilitate exemptions from the quarantine system, to allow the possibility of A-League games being staged in New Zealand, as even the seven-day home isolation is unworkable, given the tight turnaround.
Phoenix coach Ufuk Talay isn't getting his hopes up.
"I know that the group would love to be back home and playing at home in front of our own fans, but at this stage, I can't see that really happening," said Talay yesterday.
The Phoenix are also facing a fixture log jam, after their FFA Cup quarter-final match with Melbourne City was postponed today, just nine hours before the scheduled kickoff at 9:30pm.
The game was called off due to positive Covid cases within the Melbourne City team, as well as some suspected close contacts among the Victorian team.
Melbourne Victory's FFA Cup last eight clash with the Gold Coast Knights was also postponed, in the wake of the Melbourne derby last Saturday.
The Breakers meanwhile had been hoping for a return from Australia at the end of January to finish the bulk of their season at home, but now the 0-5 squad look set to be stuck playing another season away from home, with the regular season set to finish in April.
- Additional reporting Michael Burgess