Uncertainty for Sunwolves, others as Super Rugby put on hold

STEVE McMORRAN

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Japan's Sunwolves epitomize the uncertainty hanging over Super Rugby following governing body SANZAAR's decision to suspend the tournament "for the foreseeable future" because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Sunwolves, who have already been most hard-hit by the virus outbreak having moved home matches from Tokyo, are due to leave the competition at the end of the season. When the end of the season will be, and whether the Sunwolves may already have played their last match is anyone's guess.

Because no-one can anticipate the extent, severity or duration of the coronavirus outbreak the “foreseeable future” is not foreseeable at this stage. It's possible that after seven rounds, the Super Rugby season is over. Mid-year test matches and even the Rugby Championship might also be affected.

SANZAAR's decision to suspend the season was largely forced on it when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced Saturday that all travelers entering the country from midnight Sunday would have to self-isolate for 14 days. That made the five-nation tournament untenable because it depends heavily on cross-border travel.

The New Zealand decision only served to crystallize a reality SANZAAR had been too slow to grasp, even as major sporting competitions in Europe and the United States shut down. As the fallout of the virus outbreak spread, SANZAAR's initial indecisiveness has left the tournament's 15 teams in limbo.

There have been suggestions Super Rugby might resume in a limited form with derby matches in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, if for no other reason than to provide broadcasters with content at a time when almost no live sport is being played.

More than likely those matches would have to be played in empty stadiums.

SANZAAR chairman Brent Impey, also the chairman of New Zealand Rugby, spoke Sunday to New Zealand's Radio Sport and was unable to offer any clear outline of the way forward.

"It's far too premature to talk about other options," Impey said. "There are 10 weeks to go. It's a priority but it would be unrealistic to expect answers to those questions in say 48 hours."

Impey said SANZAAR had to consider the economic ramifications, not just for Super Rugby but for other people — stadium cleaners and caterers for instance — who depend on the tournament for their livelihoods.

"People who depend on short-term contracts. It's their lifeblood," he told Radio Sport. "This goes to the heart of everything.

"Rugby is important, Super Rugby is important but health and safety is far more important. "The whole eco-system, if you like, needs to be managed fairly carefully.

"It's incumbent on all of us, the broadcasters included, to work through the ramifications and come up with potential alternatives. The primary responsibility is to mitigate the damage and that's what we will be trying to do."

As the season hiatus begins, and in what might become a piece of sporting trivia in future, the Sharks, Crusaders and Brumbies lead their conferences, with the Durban, South Africa-based Sharks atop the overall standings.

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