Rejoice Rugby Union fans, the return of Super Rugby is just around the corner, or, at least, the sides from New Zealand are, as they’re due to recommence play in the form of Super Rugby Aotearoa, a competition comprised of the 5 New Zealand based teams that feature in Super Rugby (The Blues, Hurricanes, Highlanders, Chiefs and Crusaders). The competition kicks off on June 13th with the Chiefs against the Highlanders, followed by the Blues Vs the Hurricanes on the 14th (a link to the full fixture list can be found at the bottom of this page). Two fixtures a week for ten weeks allows for a bye-week for each side, whilst also ensuring both teams play each other home and away. At the time of writing, fans won’t be present in the stadiums for Aotearoa competition, however, discussions are still ongoing as to when fans will be in attendance.
Like most sports currently returning, players will be health checked individually upon arrival at training facilities, with clubs splitting the players up to allow for the following of public health guidelines as much as possible. There will be several rule ‘innovations’ introduced to the round-robin tournament, to aide the players after a sizable break, whilst also trying to ease concerns regarding the transmission of Covid-19. In the event of a tie after 80 minutes, a golden point rule, much akin to the golden-goal glory days of football tournaments gone by, whereby a ten minute extra time period is played and first point, wether that’s a try, penalty or drop goal, the winner. If it’s still a tie after this ten minute period then two points are awarded to both sides. Teams will be awarded 4 points for a win in 80 minutes, with the losing team receiving one point. Teams will also be awarded one point for scoring 3 or more tries than their opponent. Also, in the event of a red card, teams are allowed to replace him after 20 minutes.
Another area of concern is the breakdown, with obvious emphasis being placed on reducing levels of contact as much as possible. The ball-carrier will only be permitted one dynamic movement post tackle, crawling or any other double movement other than placing or passing the ball will be penalised, tackliers will be expected to roll away immediately in the direction of the sideline post tackle and there will be an increased focus on the offside line, with defenders being expected to be “clearly” onside to allow the attacking side to have as much space as possible.
When it comes to the fixtures themselves, onlookers can expect nothing but top level rugby from the Aotearoa, with some of the top names in world rugby such as the Barrett brothers and other top New Zealand talents on show. With each team affectively playing 8 derby games over the course of ten-weeks, one can expect there to be many bruising encounters over the course of the tournament.
So, what do we make of all this, then? First things first, like pizza, any rugby is good rugby (especially if you’ve a touch of insomnia, in the UK/Ireland games will kick off at either 6 or 4 am, so make sure you’ve plenty of space for the inevitable recordings). There are several concerns, of course, with player fitness and disease transmission being the obvious big ones. The rule changes implemented by NZR do seem to address these concerns as much as possible, but rugby is a sport with a high emphasis on contact, so trying to find a happy medium was always going to be tricky, and players will definitely have a fine line to tread in order to allow the game to be played the way it should, whilst also keeping themselves safe. These rules seem to tread that line with the grace of a tightrope walker, but until a ball is kicked and received, no one can really be sure how these ‘innovations’ will really affect the game and, indeed, how they’ll actually be implemented. There’s bound to be a few teething problems, of course, but rest assured, the rest of the Rugby Union world will be paying very close attention to Super Rugby Aotearoa on the 13th, and how the game is played in the world of this ‘new normal’ could depend on how this ten-week tournament pans out.
Though, I very much doubt many of us in the northern hemisphere will be watching the games live, that is one certainty.
(link to full fixture list below)