New Zealand's Omicron outbreak has left New Zealand Rugby considering alternative plans in an attempt to have their Super Rugby Pacific tournament progress with as few risks as possible. Liam Napier reports.
Discussions are advancing to move the six New Zealand-based Super Rugby teams to Queenstown in an effort to mitigate the risks of having to postpone or cancel games amid the latest Covid outbreak.
The Herald can reveal talks are positive between New Zealand Rugby, the Players' Association and the six teams to establish a temporary base in Queenstown that would, in theory at least, give Super Rugby the best chance of minimising Covid disruption.
As it stands, the government's strict close Covid contact stipulations could wreak havoc on all New Zealand-based sporting competitions. Should one player within a team test positive, every member of that side is deemed a close contact. Each player, coach and support staff member would then be required to isolate for 10 days, as well as returning multiple negative tests, before that team could resume playing.
NZ Rugby's head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum confirmed this problematic scenario.
"The expectation we're working to is if one player in a team gets Covid then the rest of the team will be close contacts in which case the isolation rules are such that would take a whole team out for games," Lendrum told the Herald. "Clearly that's a major issue for us and any other sport.
"We've got a range of options on the table to see how we can best mitigate that risk.
"We'd do everything we could to reschedule fixtures but the reality is that may not be possible – it depends on the magnitude of the interruption."
Under the red light Covid settings gatherings are restricted to 100 people which essentially translates to no crowds at venues.
"We're committed to trying to play the schedule out as it stands. We're working on the basis we won't have crowds in our stadia so it's important our fans can still be part of the competition by viewing it on television."
NZ Rugby is, therefore, considering two options. One is chartering flights for away games – to avoid exposing teams to airports and plane outbreaks – alongside protocols that instruct players to avoid supermarkets, restaurants, cafes and gatherings.
The preference, though, is to instead base the six New Zealand-based teams in Queenstown where they are considered less likely to be exposed to potential close contacts in their households.
"We're talking about all six New Zealand-based clubs moving into one location," Lendrum said. "If we were to do that we think it would give ourselves a better chance to play those games without interruption. Nothing is foolproof but that is one thing under discussion.
"The reality is the protocols demand a lot of our players and management. We're really empathic to the challenges that will arise for people around being able to visit family, especially when you think of our All Blacks. It wasn't that long ago they got out of MIQ after being away for 15 weeks.
"No one is looking at the options lightly but potentially drawing people into one location removes some of those challenges with compliance and mitigates the risk around close contacts."
At this point teams could be asked to transfer to Queenstown within the next fortnight, before the season starts on February 19, and potentially be based there for five to six weeks.
The Herald understands Queenstown is considered the best location to provide up to 300 personnel with accommodation, gyms, training and playing venues. Teams would be housed separately to mitigate a potential mass spread.
While moving teams to one location would be costly, it is considered a better alternative than having entire teams ruled out at short notice – a scenario that could affect the broadcast bottom line.
"We're still working through the detail of what it could look like. Anything we did would be on a temporary or fixed basis – we're not talking about bringing everyone into a bubble for five months to complete the competition.
"It would be designed to get us through the expected spike that the Covid modelling is showing at the moment. We would need to move quickly because of what we're told is coming down the pipeline in terms of infection rates. It could be as early as the preseason and through the first few weeks of the season.
"The longer you leave it the less point there is if the inflection rates are rising around the country. The scenario we've got is it effectively takes one infection to knock out a whole team in all likelihood."
Asking players to relocate is a big ask, particularly for those All Blacks with young families, but initial feedback is believed to be understanding of the complex landscape.
These plans come after Super Rugby Pacific's inaugural season was already forced to be completely remodelled by front-loading local derbies after transtasman travel became impossible.
"It's an imperfect scenario. There's no doubt we'd be asking a lot of our players but they've been great partners during Covid. They want to play the competition so they understand why this is under discussion and why it's an option. The indications are they're supportive."
Former Blues captain turned Players' Association services lead James Parsons indicated all parties had come together with a calm and measured approach to finding the best possible solution.
"We're mindful of potential personal or family disruption moving teams can cause but we feel it is balanced out these days because there's no border so players can leave at any stage if their family needs them and they can rejoin the bubble through certain protocols," Parsons said.
"It's also not forever. We're waiting for the government's phase three to come into contention and that changes the close contact definition. The current situation is a reality of the government guidelines we're living in.
"We need to get games played. In a rugby calendar there's not many free weeks. Looking at all angles, we feel this is the best opportunity to cover our bases and make sure all parties are happy and we can get some quality footy played early in the season."
Super Rugby Aupiki – the debut season for the women's teams from the Blues, Hurricanes, Chiefs and a joint Crusaders-Highlanders side – faces similar problems ahead of its March 5 start date.
With women's players paid on a part-time basis, and many holding down jobs during the front end of their weeks, NZ Rugby may opt to push back the start of their four-week season.
"We're committed to finding a solution for Super Rugby Aupiki," Lendrum said. "We'll go through a process with the clubs and players. We just have to look at what options are available."