Safe return to play in New Zealand shows sport’s true value
We watch with hope – and a little envy – as NZ gets sporting life up and running again
Crusaders players practice during a training session at Rugby Park in Christchurch, New Zealand, on Wednesday. New Zealand’s Super Rugby Aotearoa will start on June 13th in a new five-team, 10-week competition. Photograph: Mark Baker/AP
In the strangest of times, notions of what makes nations first or third world seem strangely displaced. The economy alone just doesn’t seem to cut it when how to react to a virus becomes a barometer for how civilised a country behaves.
When the pandemic threat was made real, New Zealand closed its borders then turned to focus exclusively on protecting its citizens. It is now reaping the rewards of affirmative action. So much so that sport will break out all over the country this weekend.
From this side of the globe, moving into summer as New Zealand prepares for winter, the words sport and team appear to a socially distanced land strangely unbelievable. Add the word contact and it becomes quite fantastic.
It’s not just golf and tennis and any other recreational activity in which people can stay apart. This weekend New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, has told her 4.9 million citizens they can throw open their doors and begin playing again at community level as they press hard towards the final phase of opening up lockdown.
Team sports. That means rugby, soccer, hockey, netball.
From afar and given the creeping crisis professional sports are facing in Ireland, the very notion appears as novel as the virus itself. Professional sport and Super Rugby, involving just the New Zealand teams, are not yet on tap but are soon to be. Matches will initially be played without spectators, but are scheduled to start in mid-June as the country streaks ahead of the curve.
Over the opening period at least, while restrictions on the size of gatherings of no more than 100 remain in place, the Super Rugby competition will be contested over 10 weeks (two full rounds, home and away) in a league-style format (no finals) and will be played under strict health protocols with essential personnel only allowed at grounds.
The numbers have allowed New Zealand begin their normalisation process, while Irish contact sports can only guess when teams will be back competing on the pitch. Ireland, with confirmed infections of 24,735 and 1,624 deaths as of noon on Wednesday, compares poorly with New Zealand’s 1,154 confirmed cases with 21 deaths.
“I’m not sure if [New Zealand] people reflect outwardly their pride in that we are doing better than someone else. I think there is a sense of togetherness and that we have been through something tough and we have all contributed,” says Sport New Zealand chief executive Peter Miskimmin.
“Our prime minister, she’s very articulate, they way she has been able to speak to New Zealanders. The commitment and behaviours around it has meant we all have a sense of responsibility and duty. I think we also felt that through some of the sacrifices made with family and community and with job losses, we have done hard yards.”
Ardern announced earlier this month that level two, down from level four, would see the return of shopping, eating out, weddings, domestic travel, schools, sport and seeing friends, but all under strict rules. With that came close-contact sport, which can begin on Saturday provided records are kept of who is playing so contact tracing can take place.
“Moving from level three to level two is based on not having any new [Covid-19] cases for about a week,” says Miskimmin. “The last two weeks we have been only allowed to congregate in groups of 10. If you are a rugby team or football team and a squad of 20, you’d have to break that up into two squads practising and getting ready.
“The prime minister then just extended that as of the end of this week and now we can get 100 people in a gathering. That allows people to start playing competitive rugby, hockey, football, all the things we do in large numbers here in New Zealand.”
The professional sports have had to take a different route back to normality. Because the athletes are paid to play, they were put into the same category as other employees in the workplace. Consequently they were governed by WorkSafe New Zealand and a different set of regulations.
What was driven home by Sport New Zealand and understood by politicians was that not being able to play sport was much more than a first world issue of being denied the normal suite of pastimes, but more fundamental to the health of the country.
“Our rugby and netball teams, because they are professional athletes, were deemed to be in the workplace. As a result we could get them back into training again. But they haven’t started playing.
“Training allows them to come together outside of their normal bubbles into a wider squad environment and start as a group. That was something we pushed strongly for under level two and that’s what has been granted.
“Now we are likely to get our professional rugby and netball competitions up sometime in the middle of June. That is recognition from this government just how important the professional athletes are, the professional competitions are to the wellbeing, entertainment and passion of New Zealanders .
“When you get your prime minister standing up and in her weekly or daily message saying please get outside, please recreate, please be physically active because of all the benefits, it takes it away from sport for sport's sake. It actually provides a greater understanding of what it can do for individuals and communities.”
While Miskimmin agrees Sport New Zealand pressed hard for sport to open up quickly, the organisation did it without moral hazard. The country is one of the first in the world out of the blocks and the unlocking is being done with an abundance of care and responsibility.
As far back as the end of April, Ardern was promoting the idea that New Zealand had stopped the “widespread, undetected community transmission” of the virus and that tough lockdown restrictions were scheduled to ease, adding they had “avoided the worst” in the pandemic. By then health officials knew where all the new cases were coming from.
“What we have done is take a really responsible leadership across our sector and we worked very closely with our major codes, the basketball, rugby, netball, hockey, football, rugby league,” says Miskimmin.
“What they all agreed is even though we could come back into contact, we did need to take some time at community level to make sure that all the people coming out of the lockdown could train and get their bodies ready. These two or three weeks they are preparing to play. Don’t push the envelope just yet.
“Rugby and netball need to provide three or four weeks for their athletes to get back into playing condition. Community sport can start on Saturday, but for the vast majority of people we’ve said, ‘look take two or three weeks and lets come back in a sensible and right way.’
“I think most codes won’t rush. They’ll do it in an organised and responsible way. Part of it is they want to make sure that not only the players but the supporters, the parents, anyone coming to watch can feel they are doing it in a safe environment.
“It has to be seen as something that doesn’t put New Zealanders at risk after all the gains we have made after eight or nine weeks of lock down. We’ve done hard yards here. We want to make sure we are taking a responsible approach.”
On Wednesday Miskimmin was on a call with a number of CEOs and with Ardern, who was talking about the social connections to help New Zealand through the recovery. She has been front and centre of the pandemic campaign. Some days earlier while she was making announcements on what people could and couldn’t do in terms of sport, she suggested that they could go to the Sport New Zealand website to look at what they could do.
“It actually crashed our site,” he says. “There were 10,000 hits within about five minutes. That demonstrated to us the passion that New Zealanders have. That was a bit of a learning for us. It was a nice silver lining to a terrible situation.”
Relatively speaking, it has been a Kiwi sprint. Ireland in a marathon run are, for now, continuing to look for that silver lining.