There’s no denying that the past few months have been a tough time for sports fans, thanks to the cancellation or postponement of almost all major sporting events. The Tokyo Olympics have been pushed back to 2021, an unprecedented move that sent shockwaves through the athletics community. National leagues and competitions around the world were halted and rugby championships, including the iconic Six Nations in Europe, were forced to call proceedings to an early close.
When sport events do return, it seems obvious that new rules will be in place. Industries have felt the pinch, including casinos, with many players opting for the safer option of playing online slots instead of visiting physical establishments (many of which have been forced to temporarily shut down). Naturally, this “new normal” is forcing many professional sporting bodies to rethink their business models too.
For New Zealand, at least, it appears that this drought may finally be coming to an end, with the announcement that the country’s five Super Rugby teams will again be taking to the field in June. This is important news for the country, which is scheduled to host the prestigious Rugby World Cup in 2021. It’s also a major relief to the teams and players, as well as fans, who look to the sport for fun, entertainment, and a diversion from many of the issues that the world is currently facing. For example, the 2019 edition became the most watched rugby event in history, with more than 850 million spectators tuning in around the world throughout the various matches. Almost 45 million fans tuned in to watch the Rugby World Cup final alone, to say nothing of those who watched on a catch-up channel or recorded the match.
Many are hoping that New Zealand’s triumphant return to the rugby pitch will be a much-needed morale boost for people and that it will also signal something of a return to the status quo, particularly for the world of sport. But how did New Zealand get to this point and what exactly does this potential return mean? Read on to find out.
New Zealand’s Record Response
One of the first things that must be noted about the current situation in New Zealand is its remarkable efficacy in containing and handling the pandemic that has afflicted the world in recent months. In fact, this small island nation has set the standard against which all other countries are measured, managing to all but eradicate the virus within its borders. Indeed, in recent days, it has not been uncommon for no new cases to be recorded at all, while the death rate has been contained in the low double figures through aggressive, but ultimately, effective measures.
You may wonder, what was different about New Zealand’s strategy? Considering its success, which has outpaced most other countries around the world, it must have done something right, after all. Well, the secret lies in the government’s decision to adopt an elimination model, that is, one that aims to completely wipe out all cases of the virus within national borders. Typically, the model adopted for such pandemics is based around the concept of mitigation, which means limiting the spread and effects of the virus, though cases still occur. It is this latter model that has been adopted the world over, with a handful of exceptions.
The elimination model involved a complete lockdown of the country, severe restrictions on travel and an almost total ban on social gatherings. While these measures have proven unpopular elsewhere, even when implemented in a much less strict manner, the New Zealand government aimed to also boost morale and foster a sense of solidarity amongst citizens, thus avoiding the protests and rule violations that have been seen in numerous other nations. A clear example of this came on the 15th of April, when the country’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, announced that she and other lawmakers would be taking a pay cut of 20%, in solidarity with people around the country whose income and livelihoods had been impacted by the lockdown measures. People taking to the streets in protest, or breaking stay-at-home orders, has led to spikes in infection rates, which New Zealand has wisely side-stepped.
Experts note that the elimination model also has an advantage for business, the economy and, by extension, sport. By bringing the total number of active cases in a geographical location down to zero, or, at the very least, close to zero, it makes re-opening the economy safer and allows people to return to work quicker, rather than the long, multi-phase approaches that must be adopted in nations that opt for the mitigation approach. This means that New Zealand’s Super Rugby franchises will be able to return to the pitch far quicker than their peers in other countries, while also minimising the risk of a future recurrence and the need to return to lockdown.
Back to Business – but Not Business as Usual
It’s plain to see that New Zealand’s approach to handling the pandemic has been a major success, but the country is not content to rest on its laurels. That means that, even though people are beginning to return to their regular lives, or something resembling regular, precautions are still in place and measures are being adopted to ensure that the outlook remains bright moving forward. These measures are affecting commercial endeavours, but also the world of sports. Then again, why wouldn’t they?
New Zealand’s five Super Rugby teams – the Blues, the Chiefs, the Hurricanes, the Crusaders, and the Highlanders – will take part in a ten-week competition that kicks off on the 13th of June. In preparation, the five teams are already returning to practice; however, it is only right that, given the circumstances, these will not be your average rugby games. In fact, it has already been noted that the players on the five teams will be expected to hold themselves to a higher standard than the rest of the country. The country is currently enacting a Level-2 pandemic response, which means that establishments like cinemas and restaurants are open, but players are being urged not to avail themselves of these services. It should also be noted that most rugby players – and sports players in general, barring the occasional exception – are young and in exceptional shape, which means that they do not fall into the demographics most likely to be impacted by the pandemic. Still, by strictly complying with, and even exceeding, the regulations in place, they will be serving as role models as to how to safely and effectively stay healthy as the island’s inhabitants return to work.
Furthermore, travel to and from games will only take place through the use of chartered planes, which will decrease the risk of community spread, and all players will be checked for the symptoms of the virus on a daily basis. All games will also be played in stadiums that are closed to the public, which means that spectators will have to enjoy the sport on the small screen for the immediate future. Of course, officials for the sport are hoping that fans will be able to return to the stadiums as soon as possible to cheer on their favourite teams.
All of these measures aim to ensure that the teams are complying with the standard social distancing and health recommendations in effect, while avoiding contracting or spreading the virus and serving as examples for the general public. They will also allow the sport to resume, which will help to boost the economy and bring entertainment to people across the country. Officials are also hoping that, should these measures prove successful for Super Rugby franchises, they may inspire other leagues to return to the field sooner rather than later.
What’s Next for Rugby in New Zealand?
With all of this progress, and a firm date set for the first step in rugby’s return, New Zealand seems to yet again be leading the pack. That said, there is still considerable work yet to do and the government are working slowly but steadily to ensure that this work is done correctly and healthily. The international rugby schedule is still in question, while international test matches are also currently up in the air. Moreover, the Rugby Championship, a league that encompasses countries from throughout the southern hemisphere, is due to start in August, but has yet to be given the go-ahead.
For now, the success of the Super Rugby franchises will serve as a bellwether for what comes next. Should things run smoothly, the government and rugby officials may have the confidence to expand the regulations to cover further events and to allow spectators to fill the stands once again. Until then, the world will be watching with bated breath and fans will be watching their favourite players once again hitting the grass in the nation’s number one past-time.
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