Two stories emerged on the same day of last week, to describe how New Zealand Super Rugby franchises were forced to make adjustments to their host stadium draw of this (already) re-arranged domestic draw. And then the 2022 National Provincial Championship (NPC) competition was announced as having a format redesign when the first-class title chase begins in August.
Both new directives are a combination of planning although each has been brought on mixed reactions. The most graphic of these changes is due entirely to the imposing threat of the Omicron variant. Its menacing presence forced organizers to create the isolated compound located in Queenstown, where all sides have now relocated to.
There, the six New Zealand-based Super Rugby Pacific squads will live and train in Queenstown, to mitigate against the risk of COVID-19 side-lining any of the teams. That is a matter whereby any player who tests positive, will therefore expose the whole squad and franchise staff. It would see matches postponed, and whole families having to isolate for 14 days.
The Bunnings NPC has seen change for different requirements, as the format and scheduling are defined in 2022 as an ‘odds and evens’ draw. That removes any separation designed by a Premiership/Championship split. Altered to see a new format for the playoffs, seeding the top four sides in each conference, to determine the National Provincial Champion.
Super Rugby franchises make adjustments/2022 NPC redesign
NZR General Manager Professional Rugby & Performance Chris Lendrum said the move would provide the best chance of the inaugural season of Super Rugby Pacific kicking off as scheduled on Friday 18 February. “Under current COVID-19 regulations, it would only take one positive case entering a squad environment to shut down an entire squad for 10 days. The knock-on effect for the rest of the competition would be the postponement or cancellation of matches,” Lendrum said.
Rugby fans within the country and those watching around the world will just be pleased the season can begin as planned. Nothing like it was supposed to be, with preseason games played this weekend with few or no fans in attendance. Wins for the Blues, Highlanders, and the Chiefs were good starts although, a mix of ‘rocks and diamonds’ for coaches to configure their squads for the February 18 season start now from their Queenstown bases.
We’ll feel your support from a far ❤️
Read more on the Queenstown bubble here 👉🏼 https://t.co/TveI2VTco8#CrusadersRugby pic.twitter.com/aFktA92umK
— Crusaders (@crusadersrugby) February 2, 2022
The squads will operate in separate bubbles with exclusive use of training facilities in the Queenstown area. Day matches will be played in Queenstown at the Wakatipu Rugby Club whereas teams will bus to and from *Rugby Park in Invercargill for any night matches.
*NOTE: after further conversations between the teams and NZR, it was agreed that the facilities at Forysth-Barr Stadium; including the closed-in roof, make it the franchise’s favoured option for night matches.
Settling in ⛰ pic.twitter.com/QdnbpNFCQc
— The Blues (@BluesRugbyTeam) February 7, 2022
So ongoing changes continue to be made to this year’s calendar though sadly, limited numbers of fans can attend any matches, so Super Rugby franchises will rely heavily on SkySport coverage and their social media activity to engage with their fanbase. But the hope of NZ Rugby is that after three weeks, the conditions and Omicron virus projections show that any peak has been reached, and that the medical advice agrees that teams can return to their home bases again.
Until then, Super Rugby franchises will do what is best for their players, and what is best for stakeholders to enjoy a continuous and uninterrupted 2022 season.
Bunnings NPC redesign sees amalgamated finals format
From the reviews of the last National Provincial Championship, there has been agreement that change was necessary. Driven by Taranaki, who had completed an unbeaten domestic season, felt unrewarded by only finishing with the Championship title. So, a redesign has been put in place where the Bunnings NPC will be played over 12 weeks from August 5.
Another revised element is the inclusion of a mid-week round for all teams. All competition matches carry full competition points and the full draw will be released in due course.
The quarterfinals include the top four teams within each conference playing for a spot in the semi-finals. With the top two teams across the conferences playing against each other in the semi-finals, to then see the top two qualifiers playoff in the NPC trophy final. All matches will be broadcast live and exclusive on Sky.
Head of Community rugby Steve Lancaster said; “NZR made the decision in consultation with the Provincial Unions to review the existing Bunnings NPC Premiership and Championship format following last season. The consultation process has been extensive, with a range of options considered and all key stakeholders included.”
“We are pleased with where the competition format has landed, shifting to a single national championship with seeded pools based on the previous year’s performance provides for evenly balanced conferences and strong competition to qualify for the play-offs. Any team can now be crowned national champion, which is exciting not only for teams but also our wider rugby community who support them.”
What is hoped is that the two-tier playoff system will see teams ranked 5-8 getting a genuine opportunity to reach the grand final. Aiming to be a fair representation of the overall performance, and without crystal ball gazing, the hope is that over winter the nation’s fight with COVID-19 sees the community in a strong position to be able to view matches in person; rather than watch all their rugby on television.
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