New Zealand Rugby will consider stepping in to bail out three Auckland unions after their latest request for a government travel exemption was rejected, forcing them to pull out of the NPC in a decision that is set to cost the provinces millions on lost player wages.
Earlier this week Auckland, Counties Manukau and North Harbour lodged their third request to relocate outside the Super City in secure bubbles in order to compete in the remainder of the NPC.
Despite all players being fully vaccinated and agreeing to regular testing that exemption was rejected on Wednesday night, leaving the three teams with no option but to pull the pin on their respective NPC campaigns on Thursday morning.
The three teams last played on the weekend of August 14 and under Auckland's alert level 3 restrictions have only recently been permitted to train in bubbles of 10.
General manager of community rugby Steve Lancaster said NZ Rugby had received no feedback from the government over why the latest request was rejected, other than not meeting criteria to justify an apparent risk to public health.
"Clearly we have a different view based on the applications we made but we accept their decision and understand they're dealing with a lot of complex situations at the moment," Lancaster said.
Attention will swiftly turn to the compromised integrity of this year's NPC, and whether promotion-relegation should take place between the Premiership and Championship competitions, with NZ Rugby set to release those details and the draw for the 11 remaining teams in the coming days.
NZR will attempt to stand up a separate Super City series for Auckland, North Harbour and Counties Manukau once restrictions allow, but with no certainty around timeframes; at least 10 days contact training required before games can resume and many players only contracted until October 30, time is fast running out.
If the three Auckland teams can't play again this year questions arise around who foots the bill for player contracts.
The Herald understands Auckland is staring down the barrel of a $1 million loss, while Counties Manukau and North Harbour are contemplating losses of up to $500,000, which threatens to tip those unions over the edge.
Lancaster admitted NZ Rugby may need to step in to save the unions.
"We're certainly going to engage in conversations about that. The first thing we need to establish is the exact extent of the financial impact for ourselves and the provincial unions. I can tell you it's really significant. There are peoples' livelihoods at stake here. This is a business. We're doing everything we can to keep people employed and give them future prospects."
North Harbour chairman Gerard van Tilborg confirmed the financially grim picture.
"It's a decent six-figure negative outcome," van Tilborg said. "We're paying people wages and they can't play. We can't generate revenue. All the gaming venues which we rely on for a lot of our community game are trying hard to help but their venues are shut. Sponsors are very loyal but they don't do it for no return either, so that's another difficult part to manage.
"The whole cascading effect is in excess of probably two-and-a-half million across the three Auckland provincial unions. The rubber band is stretched pretty thin and that continues to be the case.
"It's extremely disappointing when our proposals to shift are based around fully vaccinated players managed in a secure fashion with its own medical team. We are very much aware of the need to be careful.
"We were disappointed the first two were turned down but this one we had a lot more optimism based around the fact we understood there was a lot more feedback and consideration given to the proposal.
"The guys are a little bit shellshocked. Frankly the Super City competition isn't inspiring but it does give players the opportunity to continue to push their cases for Super Rugby. We need something that gives our spectators and sponsors the chance to participate but it's certainly the sub optimal solution."
Counties Manukau chief executive Aaron Lawton is devastated his side's NPC campaign is over but remains determined to preserve the union's fraught future.
"There's no question it's going to be very tough financially. The players have contracts, they are employees of the union. As we've gone through the last couple of months we've continued to pay everyone in full," Lawton said.
"Now the NPC is out of the equation it's going to be very difficult. There's a lot of challenges to navigate.
"We'll be having discussions with NZ Rugby, as we have throughout this process. They've done everything they can to try get us out of Auckland. A lot depends on where the next two weeks goes.
"If we don't get back on the field that's when we'll really feel the bite. It's a really precarious position right now. We have a responsibility to our community to not run this place into the ground."
If Auckland cannot take the field this year it would rob former Warriors captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck of the chance to begin his transition to rugby union.
Tuivasa-Sheck left the Warriors early to give himself a full NPC season to start his reintegration to union, but may now be forced to jump straight into Super Rugby Pacific with the Blues next year.