The inaugural Super Rugby Pacific season and its historic "Super Round" have been thrust back into uncertainty, after the New Zealand Government on Wednesday unveiled its plan for the staged reopening of its international border.
From mid-January, New Zealand citizens will be able to return home from Australia and not endure managed hotel isolation, instead serving a one-week period of home isolation as well as significant pre-departure and arrival testing.
That will then extend to New Zealanders returning home from other countries from Feb. 14, before all fully vaccinated individuals will be able to travel to New Zealand from Apr. 30 onwards, with the re-opening staged over time.
While that is good news for New Zealanders, the requirement of one week's home quarantine presents an untenable situation for Super Rugby Pacific organisers, New Zealand Rugby [NZR] and Rugby Australia [RA], with cross-border play originally set to open from Round 1 on Feb. 18.
"Like many other national sports organisations and businesses, we have been waiting for some direction around what the plan is for the re-opening of New Zealand's borders," Chris Lendrum, NZR's general manager of professional rugby and high performance, said. "We are now digesting today's Government announcement and what it means for New Zealand Rugby and our competitions in 2022.
"Today's news has the potential to specifically affect the Super Rugby Pacific competition given it is scheduled to kick off on 18 February. We now need to see more detail from Government and continue working on our existing contingency planning with key partners including Rugby Australia, SANZAAR and our teams."
No New Zealand team could ever sit out an entire week's training after returning from Australia, and then be expected to front up the following weekend.
It also means "Super Round", which saw all 12 teams playing in Melbourne over the second weekend of the competition, is in significant jeopardy.
However, if all New Zealand teams were prepared to relocate to Australia until the home isolation was no longer required, then Super Round may yet be able to proceed as planned. But after long periods on the road in 2021, both NZR and RA would likely be reticent to ask their players to undertake another extended stint away from home.
A more likely scenario might be that inter-country games are frontloaded through the first half of the competition, allowing those fixtures that require cross-border play to then take place when the New Zealand Government has eased its protocols for entering the country.
Such a reconstruction of the draw may also allow for the "Super Round" to be staged later in the season.
Given the uncertainty of the past two years, NZR had been prepared for further delays on quarantine-free travel with Australia, with Lendrum acknowledging the need to be flexible when the draw was originally unveiled at the start of last week.
"Well the draw was obviously done on the basis that we can play all the way through, and we know there's a possibility that may not happen," Lendrum said after the Super Rugby Pacific draw was unveiled last week.
"We've got some contingency thinking in our back pocket already, but as everyone knows COVID's a fluid beast and I think we've learned by now that we just need to react and respond as circumstances arise."
Lendrum also said he hoped that things had been trending in the right direction for the competition to proceed has planned, but that clearly did not eventuate with the unveiling of the Government's plan on Wednesday.
Furthermore, NZ Sports Minister Grant Richardson confirmed he would not be seeking exemptions for any teams, unlike those that were secured for the likes of the Wallabies before Bledisloe Cup Tests over the past two years.
ESPN has also reached out to RA for comment.