All Blacks selector Grant Fox chats exclusively to Sky Sports Rugby’s James Gemmell about what the coronavirus pandemic could mean for New Zealand rugby going forward…
The All Blacks are preparing for the possibility of a season lasting up to 18 months, when domestic and international rugby returns following the global coronavirus lock-down, according to former All Black – now national team selector – Fox.
As such, the All Black coaches and selectors have begun to look at the current break in play as a new ‘off season’, as alternative options are considered to support the financial health of the game in New Zealand.
Domestically, Super Rugby remains on hold, with international tours to the Southern Hemisphere in July increasingly in doubt, and the Rugby Championship, due to commence in August, the next in line.
“You could argue right now we’re in our off-season, because we’re not playing. We might consider this our summer, as we head into winter, and rugby gets played over next (Southern Hemisphere) summer,” Fox told Sky Sports.
“We could be impacted for the next 18 months, in terms of what a schedule would look like. We hope by 2021 there’s some form of normality, but it could mean that we’re playing rugby for a prolonged period of time.”
Plans are afoot in New Zealand, whose geographic isolation and early response to the coronavirus pandemic has seen encouraging results, to bring rugby back to the fans as soon as it is deemed safe to do so, including a paired-back, New Zealand only, Super Rugby competition.
“It would take just the five Super Rugby franchises, playing each other on a home and away basis, which means every week one team’s got a bye.
“Now the July international window is looking less and less likely, so there’s an argument you could just push into that and keep going.
“Hopefully that won’t affect our Mitre 10 Cup, which maybe becomes really beefed up with a whole lot of All Blacks playing.”
In recent years, the provincial Mitre 10 Cup has been seen largely as a development tool for young talent, with little or no front-line All Black involvement. It occupies roughly the same window of time as the Rugby Championship, but could potentially see the nation’s top players return to their provinces if international travel remained closed.
Elsewhere, discussions are ongoing to provide further meaningful rugby for all the game’s stakeholders.
A British and Irish Lions ‘decider’ (following the 2017 drawn series) has been mooted as a money-spinning warm-up for the 2021 tour by Chiefs’ Super Rugby coach Warren Gatland, who returns to coach the Lions to South Africa next year.
Within New Zealand, there have also been discussions to bring back the traditional ‘North vs South’ fixture.
“If the All Blacks don’t have the chance to play this year because there can be no international travel, then we’ve got to do something for the fans, the players, the sponsors, all the people that are intertwined in this,” Fox added.
“That’s just one of the ‘what if’ scenarios, and it might not be divided by the island where you play now, it might be where you went to school, or where you were born. Find a way to get the talent mixed up, and I think that game would create quite a bit of interest.
“A body as big as New Zealand Rugby is going to take a major haircut in income, and playing games is a big part of how they earn their money, like every rugby union around the world, so the sooner we can get back to some form of normality, the better.
“And if it means doing something completely different for 18 months, well, maybe that’s what we’ve got to do.”
Despite the disruption, the former All Black fly-half – a World Cup winner in 1987 – can see the opportunity for positive change forced upon the running of the global game.
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