Pandemic ruptures Bunnings NPC Level 3 bubble of Auckland-based Provinces

Pandemic ruptures Bunnings NPC Level 3 bubble

With all the best efforts to remove themselves from restrictions on sport and travel; caused by the Covid-19 pandemic domestically, three provinces within the Auckland region have seen their Bunnings NPC Level 3 bubbles burst.

Not through their own making that is, and now Auckland, North Harbour, and Counties-Manukau have all unceremoniously be removed from the 2021 Bunnings NPC (National Provincial Championship) with immediate effect.

Repeatedly denied an exemption by the New Zealand (NZ) Ministry of Health to leave the region to resume participation in the NPC, their combined plans involved shifting all training base and operations to Taupo, to join the majority of NZ in lower Level 2 restrictions. Such a plan was seen as the final ‘lifeline’ to the men’s and women’s sides’ future in the season yet, their applications were denied.

New Zealand Rugby (NZR) has confirmed the Bunnings Warehouse NPC will continue with the 11 Provincial Unions outside of the Auckland region competing as planned, and NZR will release a revised season draw in the coming days.

Major sport in NZ has been affected, with Netball tests and the Chatham Cup being either rescheduled at alternate venues or, postponed.

Pandemic ruptures Bunnings NPC Level 3 bubble

Public reaction has been mixed, with many upset at the consternation and frustration from the perceived lack of empathy afforded by the Covid response Minister, Chris Hipkins. And while individual cases have been considered, the volume of players and staff may have in itself, been seen as a risk that the community could not afford – the threat being to export the Delta variant outside of Auckland and the Waikato regions, into the greater areas of New Zealand.

Steve Lancaster, NZR general manager of Community Rugby said in a media release; “We believe we had a compelling case to safely move our teams out of the Auckland region without undue risk to the public, but we know Government is operating in a difficult and complex world due to COVID-19.

“We’re really disappointed for our Auckland-based teams. It is an extremely difficult time with a lot of uncertainty for everyone involved in those teams, but we’re grateful the competition can continue for the majority of our teams. We know we aren’t the only ones being affected by the current COVID-19 outbreak.”

Waikato Rugby too was in the path of impending border restrictions on Sunday; with the Government set to impose restrictions that might have caused the women’s Farah Palmer Cup squads to miss the Grand Final this weekend. Fortunately, staff and women’s and men’s players quickly reacted, to hurriedly relocate outside the boundaries and be free to participate in this weekend’s FPC final. So at least ‘some good news’ for rugby fans, under the horrid cloud of the Delta variant’s impact on the community.

Lancaster went on to explain that; “We are looking at the option of holding a Super City Series which would provide some meaningful rugby for Auckland, North Harbour, and Counties Manukau and some live rugby for fans and supporters in the region. NZR is working with the Auckland-based teams and key partners on the feasibility of making this happen.”

The grim reality is going to be a crippling financial loss for all three unions, as player wages and operating costs over the course of the NZ Lockdown period will not be rewarded by advertising and ongoing sponsorship revenue. NZR may, unfortunately, need to provide grants to all three, with Auckland Rugby looking at up to a million-dollar loss.

With no allowance for any Bunnings NPC Level 3 bubble permitting play – or even for groups of more than 10 players to train together – the likelihood of any competition for those provinces is all but gone (while those regions remain in strict Level 3 conditions). The pandemic has struck New Zealand harder in this third wave, as it has done in parts of Australia. Yet unlike their tran-Tasman neighbours in the NRL, the invalid sides could not so easily move to Queensland [or Taupo, as was the plan] and complete their season as some would have hoped.

Round 5 NPC fixtures to continue as scheduled

Over the last two weeks, even as Auckland, Harbour, and Counties sat out the competition, the Bunnings NPC continued as scheduled. Any match involving those teams, the opposition were awarded a bye, and points were to be shared (as in any postponed match scenario). Fixtures not involving those sides continued. And Round 5 is no different.

While sympathies are shared, the focus needs to be on providing fans with the same high standard of domestic rugby, that they have come to expect. And this week, it includes both the Ranfurly Shield, as well as the involvement of Sam Whitelock and Dane Coles for their respective provinces. This further adds to the magic created by Aaron Smith’s involvement in a revitalized Manawatu Turbos side.

NB: with only 11/14 sides competing, the theory is that there will be no Promotion/Relegation in the Premiership/Championship format, so it does not place any of the three removed sides at a disadvantage.


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