The Wanganui Rugby Union has backed the decision to cancel the 2020 Heartland Championship amid the uncertainty surround the Covid-19 pandemic and its "unprecedented" impact on the sport.
The Wanganui Rugby Union, along with the 11 other Heartland unions, collectively made the decision to pull the pin on the competition which usually begins in August when club rugby has ended.
The cancellation includes the Meads Cup and Lochore Cup (Heartland Championship), Jock Hobbs Memorial National Under 19 Tournament, TECT National Sevens Tournament and all provincial union representative rugby tournaments below the Mitre 10 Cup and Farah Palmer Cup.
WRFU chief executive Bridget Belsham said it was sad and a massive decision to make, but one that all 12 unions had arrived at unanimously.
It was especially sad for Wanganui given it had the best record of any team since the Heartland competition began in 2006.
Wanganui has won the Meads Cup six times and been runner-up on five occasions.
It had also won the Lochore Cup for the bottom four teams once.
"All 12 Heartland Unions have been in constant communication over the past two weeks to assess the Covid-19 situation as best we can amid all the uncertainty," Belsham said.
"We all agreed clearly that the impacts of Covid-19, across our game are unprecedented, and realised all unions needed to make compromises to see that the future of 'Rugby Inc' is a priority."
Belsham said as a collective the unions decided their priorities were their people – looking after staff, but also understanding sponsors will be struggling, and the desire to relieve pressure from them by not calling on them for support during this already stressful financial time.
Clubs were also a priority.
"We are all committed to continuing club development/support throughout, and prioritise club and school competitions," Belsham said.
Wanganui Heartland coach Jason Caskey said he supported the decision but was disappointed and hoped the decision had not been made in haste.
"I hope it's not a panic decision. I can see why, but if one competition goes then they all should, including Mitre 10," Caskey said.
"There are some guys aiming to reach playing milestones for Wanganui and now they won't have a chance of that."
Caskey was also concerned that Heartland appeared to be the whipping boy in New Zealand rugby.
"Whenever NZR wants to save money it's always Heartland that suffers. They treat us like s***. We take the hit and everything else continues on. It will be interesting to see what happens with the other competitions."
WRFU chairman Jeff Phillips said the cancellation was not money-driven and praised the unions involved.
"It was a magnificent gesture from our Heartland union CEOs to make this decision given the situation," Phillips said.
"It costs around $2.5 million to run the Heartland competition and the biggest cost for each union is the campaign itself – accommodation and flights for the away games which would need to be organised now.
"We won't have those costs now, so I'd say it will be cost-neutral for clubs this year.
"We (Wanganui) also hope to play the annual match against King Country for the Pinetree Log and the tri series between Wairarapa-Bush, Horowhenua-Kapiti and Wanganui for the Bruce Steel Memorial.
"And if the lockdown is lifted early enough there is a chance we could even look at a reduced Heartland-style competition. We could perhaps look at bringing in Hawkes Bay Saracens and Taranaki B to make a six-team competition along with us, Horowhenua-Kapiti, Wairarapa-Bush and King Country," Phillips said.
Caskey said it was a wait-and-see situation, but if these games were to go ahead he would be available to coach.
"It's better than nothing, I guess. Otherwise I guess I'll be getting a bit more done at home."
Belsham said the decision had been made to ensure the future of club and school rugby in the provinces.
With only six teams in the premier division this year it had already been decided to have a three round competition followed by semifinals and finals.
However, depending on the length of the lockdown, the format may have to be reduced to a two rounds or even just one round with semifinals and finals.
NZR Chief Executive Mark Robinson said rugby had worked together to make these difficult decisions for the best interests of the game.