Super Rugby Aotearoa ends on high though COVID-19 upsets future direction
New Zealand's Super Rugby Aotearoa season ended on Saturday when the Otago Highlanders beat the Wellington Hurricanes 38-21 in Dunedin, although there is the distinct possibility the domestic-only competition could return next year.
The match was supposed to be the penultimate encounter of the tournament organised after the broader Super Rugby tournament, also involving teams from Australia, South Africa, Argentina and Japan, was halted in March.
A fresh outbreak of the novel coronavirus in Auckland earlier this week, however, forced the government to impose a lockdown on New Zealand's largest city and the cancellation of Sunday's Auckland Blues match with the Canterbury Crusaders.
The Crusaders had already won the title before this weekend's fixtures anyway, although the cancellation put a dampener on the competition that had reinvigorated crowd and fan interest in New Zealand.
The Blues said earlier this week they had sold out the game, the second time in their four home matches they had reached the capacity of available tickets.
All of the other teams also reported marked increases on their average crowd size as the competition produced near-test match intensity rugby every week and helped alleviate some of the game's financial pressures.
"It has been awesome and probably relit the passion for footy in New Zealand," Hurricanes captain Dane Coles said after Saturday's game.
"We have been really stoked with the crowds and ... I am pretty proud to have been part of this rugby competition."
All the same, the fresh outbreak of cases after New Zealand had been free of community transmission for more than 100 days, highlighted that any return to a cross-border Super Rugby competition next year was far from certain.
New Zealand Rugby's head of professional rugby Chris Lendrum said on Saturday while their desire was to play other teams next year, the coronavirus was a major impediment.
"COVID as always is a hurdle," Lendrum told Radio New Zealand. "The last 72 hours have just demonstrated again what a challenge that is for everybody here, with no end in sight."
The coronavirus is not the only factor causing uncertainty, with NZR and Rugby Australia (RA) at loggerheads over a proposed joint trans-Tasman competition from next year.
RA have also submitted bid documents to broadcasters for their future competitions and told NZR they have until Sept. 4 to agree to a new Super Rugby format or they would organise their own domestic competition.
Lendrum, however, said if NZR had to go it alone next year, then they were comfortable with that.
"What we've seen over the last 10 weeks shows it's very much (commercially) viable," Lendrum said.
"The crowd and broadcast interest and engagement through media and social media it has been enormous.
"It has been a huge boost for rugby."