Super Rugby Aotearoa: New Zealand first to enter rugby's uncertain new era

They may not be the first sporting cab of the COVID-19 return rank, but New Zealand's new Super Rugby Aotearoa tournament is blazing a trail nonetheless.

Firstly, the new competition will be among the world's first to welcome fans, without any restrictions, when it kicks off on Saturday night [NZT]. Dunedin's Forsyth Barr Stadium will throw open its doors to supporters, including those university students who will flock to "The Zoo", safe in the knowledge that the country has all but eradicated the coronavirus pandemic.

But the present situation - New Zealand hasn't had a positive test for more than a fortnight and there are no active cases under treatment - is a far cry from mid-March when the New Zealand Government placed its people into one of the world's strictest lockdowns.

And rugby was cast aside as a result.

"If we go back to mid-March, there was a tremendous amount of uncertainty, we didn't know whether we would be going into lockdown; how long for; what that meant; and like the rest of the country, we were very much hanging on every word from the [New Zealand] Government," Chris Lendrum, New Zealand Rugby's Head of Professional Rugby, told ESPN.

"But within a few days, we started thinking about what might be possible and when, in terms of a return to training and a return to playing, and we tried to look at it as an opportunity rather than necessarily a problem."

While New Zealand quickly got on top of the virus through its strict lockdown measures, it became apparent that success wouldn't be replicated in too many other nations around the world.

That was an immediate reality for New Zealand Rugby, given the organisation's place in the SANZAAR alliance [South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina] and the Super Rugby competition in which its five professional franchises are involved.

Suspended on March 14, Super Rugby will not return in its original form in 2020. And it may not run as a 14-team competition as is planned for 2021 either. But that reality gave New Zealand Rugby the chance to innovate, Lendrum says, and thus the domestic-only Super Rugby Aotearoa was born, albeit with many moving pieces in its early planning process.

"It was a tremendously busy time and very fluid," Lendrum said. "One of the key dynamics of this period is that you start to plan for a baseline set of circumstances you expect to come to pass and then within a day, or a few days, or a week, all those circumstances have changed. It is stressful and challenging, and we have a vast array of stakeholders working with us.  

"Obviously we've been carefully guided by the Government here and have been in lock-step with them the whole way. The New Zealand Ministry of Health, Sport New Zealand, WorkSafe authorities; they're very busy people at the moment and rugby's not their top priority, but they've been incredibly accommodating and collaborative with us. And the No. 1 goal for us the whole way through has been not to compromise health and safety.

"But once you've got a handle on that and you realise what you've got is domestic [competition] and you watch your whole country go into lockdown with no sport to participate, you know what's coming at the end, if you can get to a position where you can get it all up, will be incredibly special."

When talk of a New Zealand-only Super Rugby competition started to spread, the immediate public feedback was hugely positive and that has been solidified by the demand for tickets for the competition's opening games this weekend.

Suddenly New Zealand Rugby could control its own immediate destiny and that newfound autonomy has resulted in some trial laws - and the strict reinforcement of others - for Super Rugby Aotearoa that went against World Rugby's own optional law trials that were released a few days prior.

That decision, while largely supported at home, left New Zealand Rugby open to criticism abroad.

The decision to implement a red card replacement trial - where a team will be able to replace a player sent from the field after 20 minutes - was not well received in some parts of the rugby world, including some pundits in the northern hemisphere that saw it as an affront to the game's crackdown on foul play.

Lendrum says that's not the case.

"Those that have criticised are criticising on the basis that it is soft, it's soft on major indiscretions and foul play, but I completely disagree," he told ESPN. "The sanctions for perpetrators of foul play are no different under this trial from what they are in rugby traditionally; the perpetrator is going to be sent from the field; they can't come back; they'll face the judicial process; we're not soft on foul play at all.

"But what we are interested in trialing is whether we can mitigate the impacts on the game as a whole of reducing a team to 14 men, because there are countless games that you can look back on that the outcome of the game has been, some people might say ruined, others might say heavily impacted by the removal of one player.

"So this is an opportunity to explore [a law trial] a significant impact on a team, down to 14 men for 20 minutes, losing the player of choice who likely started the game, but seeing if for fans and players we can still have a game of it for 80 minutes and the scales aren't tipped too greatly to the side that has got more players.

"Look it's a trial, we've got 20 games, it might not even be required inside that 20 games, but it's started a debate, which is really good, and if it does happen we'll be watching and reviewing with real interest."

As for the players' involvement, Lendrum could not be more complimentary. While there was an incident where some Crusaders players were spotted breaking lockdown restrictions by training in a group in Christchurch, the country's professionals have otherwise negotiated the tricky time as well as could be hoped.

They agreed to pay cuts; were prepared to work with broadcast partners and the media on new methods of content production and delivery, and were all pushing in the same direction, namely a return to play as soon as possible.

"The players have been fantastic partners for rugby through all of this process, we've had a really strong working relationship with the New Zealand Rugby Players Association over a long period of time," Lendrum said. "Of course we don't see eye to eye on every issue, and of course there has been a lot of discussion around the finer detail of how things work, but it's always been done under an umbrella in partnership where we've effectively got the same goals; we're locked together in what's been a very successful revenue-sharing partnership.

"And the players put their hand up early and said 'we get it, we know everbody's going to take some pain here, but we want to be part of the solution'. They've worked with us to get some different and new commercial content going in that no-rugby period; they're partnering with us around thinking about new competitions."

Despite the momentum the competition has ahead of its debut this weekend, Lendrum doesn't see it as being a long-term answer to some of rugby's bigger issues.

Rugby Australia has been pushing a trans-Tasman model, potentially including teams from the Pacific or Japan as well, as the answer to Super Rugby's problems, but the interest in New Zealand to that idea has been lukewarm at best.

On the flipside, Lendrum isn't convinced a domestic model is the answer either, suggesting there is plenty more to play out this year in terms of the SANZAAR alliance, Super Rugby, and the game's global calendar, too.

"It's too early probably to say that, there's a huge amount of work going on across the globe in terms of what rugby looks like going forward; there's going to be change, we know that," Lendrum replied when asked if the potential success of Super Rugby Aotearoa could lead to it becoming a permanent fixture.

"We still really don't know whether Super Rugby as we planned it for 2021 can even occur, with the situation with travel and so forth. So at the moment this is really just an exciting opportunity to focus on ourselves; we've got what looks like two fantastic crowds lining up to pour in over the weekend and that brings excitement. Hopefully next week at different venues that's the same.

"So we'll just take stock, but it's a lesson about an organisation's ability to be agile and nimble when it has the ability to control its own destiny. And this is just a little sample of 10 weeks of running a competition for ourselves, but it's exciting that we've been able to move quickly. And sometimes in rugby the criticism has been that it hasn't been able to move quickly. So even that in itself is of interest.

"But we're pretty committed to working with partners outside of New Zealand on the future; I don't see us going internal for much longer. It's great for this year but it's probably not sustainable in the long run."

For the next few days, at least, New Zealand Rugby and, more importantly, the nation's people as a collective unit, can bask in the glory of what they have been able to achieve in effectively stopping COVID-19 in its tracks.

The fast-tracked return of their national sport is the reward, and people look set to enjoy it en masse this weekend.

It is a victory for New Zealand Rugby, too. They have the sport's global return-to-play bragging rights, a chance to thrust the game and their brand to potential new sports-starved markets, and innovate and experiment in the process, all the while remembering that more challenges lie ahead.

"In rugby we're just incredibly proud to be the first rugby playing nation back, incredibly proud to reward our fans and the communities who've all been patient and diligent in lockdown in battling the virus," Lendrum said.

"But it's a fantastic feeling, you can smell and taste the excitement, everybody's buzzing about rugby and we haven't had that buzz around Super Rugby to this level here for a while. So it's massively exciting.

"There's still a lot of work to do to make sure this competition goes off without a hitch; a lot of focus to maintain on our pandemic response and to make sure we don't flip backwards as a country, and that's going to be critical for rugby.

"But we're in the best place possible and I would say a far better place on the 11th of June than I ever thought we could be, so it's fantastic."